1867 — 1916
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Enrique Granados was a vital contributor to Spanish music. Along with fellow SpaniardIsaac Albéniz he was one of a new wave of composers around the turn of the twentieth century whose works were taking on increasingly nationalistic overtones. Also a virtuoso pianist, he is most famous for his piano suite Goyescas.
Granados was born near Barcelona, in the Catalan region of Spain, into a military family. He began his musical education with Captain José Junceda, an army bandmaster, and in 1879 he was enrolled in the Escolonia de la Merce in Barcelona, where he studied piano under Francisco Jurnet and Joan Baptista Pujol. Amazingly his compositional skills were largely self-taught, although he did study with acclaimed musicologist Felipe Pedrell, who instilled in him and many of his contemporaries a love and appreciation for Spanish folk music.
After two years in Paris studying piano, Granados returned to Barcelona in 1889 and quickly established himself as one of the region’s preeminent soloists. He formed a trio with Belgian violinist Mathieu Crickboom and cellist Pablo Casals, a Catalan national hero and one of the greatest cellists of all time best known for singlehandedly elevating theBach Cello Suites from obscure exercises to one of the most important pieces of concert music on any instrument.
At the time of his death, surprisingly few of Granados’s 140 works had been published or performed, and in the long term only three of his pieces:Danzas españolas, María del Carmen, and the original piano version of Goyescas proved to have enduring popularity. Many of Granados’s other works have been criticized heavily. Although he is much admired for his strong melodicism – perhaps the strongest attribute of both his composing and his piano playing – he was disparaged for his weakness of form and structure, particularly in his larger works, and his rather superficial use of compositional techniques, although all of these can be attributed to his lack of formal training. However this does not detract from the importance and beauty of his handful of most inspired works, several of which are considered masterpieces.
Like the music of Isaac Albéniz, much of Granados’s music has been transcribed for guitar, including the fifth dance in E minor from hisDanzas españolas and all ofGoyescas. Although these have become staples of the classical guitar repertoire, the true voice and genius of Granados lay undeniably with the piano. After the death of Granados, English music critic Ernest Newman declared his suiteGoyescas to be “the finest piano music of our day,” continuing, “It is difficult, but so beautifully laid out that it is always playable: one has the voluptuous sense of passing the fingers through masses of richly colored jewels…. It is pianoforte music of the purest kind.”
Header image courtesy of Music Web International Other images courtesy of Paladino Music and public domain
Despite his accomplishments on the piano, it was as a composer that his most lasting mark would be made. During the 1890s Granados wrote a series of twelve pieces based on Spanish folk dances that he ultimately combined and titled Danzas españolas. Many of his contemporaries including Massenet and Saint-Saëns were influenced by these pieces. In 1898 he premiered his first of seven operas,María del Carmen, which was a major milestone in his career, earning him enthusiastic reviews and the Order of Carlos III, the Spanish equivalent of a knighthood, from King Alfonso XIII. Like all of his operas, María del Carmenwas heavily influenced by the Zarzuela, a traditional Spanish art-form which includes elements of both spoken and sung dialogue, along with dance. Inspired by his successes, Granados sought to use his influence to improve the classical music opportunities in his native Catalonia, founding the Sociedad de Conciertos Clásicos in 1900 and his own piano school, Academia Granados, the following year.
Granados began work on what would become his most successful composition in 1902, although it would not be finished until 1911. This piece, entitledGoyescas , consisted of a suite of six works for solo piano inspired by the Spanish late-Romantic painter Francisco de Goya, whom Granados idolized enough to even become an accomplished amateur painter in Goya’s style.Goyescas became so popular that it came to refer to the entire later period of Granados’s career, and the term is nowadays largely synonymous with his name.
At the suggestion of American pianist Ernest Schelling, Granados began adapting Goyescas into an opera, finishing in 1914. He worked together with librettist Fernando Periquet, although in a twist from the usual formula he had already completed nearly the entire score before applying Periquet’s libretto to the music, rather than the other way around. Although they’d hoped to premiere the piece in Paris, the outbreak of World War I prevented this. Instead, Granados began looking into a premiere in the United States, eventually securing a date in early 2016 at the New York Metropolitan Opera. The opera received mixed reviews in the States, with many criticizing Granados’s vague orchestration and the pace of Periquet’s plot.
Despite these potential flaws, the opera received a passionate and enthusiastic reception from the audience, which consisted of a large number of Spanish and South American immigrants in addition to many of New York’s political elites, which was surprising even to Granados. Many were brought to tears in the midst of their applause, and the theatre was standing room only. Immediately afterwards, Granados received an invitation from American President Woodrow Wilson to attend and perform a solo recital at the White House, a great honor for which he and his wife delayed their scheduled trip back to Spain by several months.
Unfortunately for Granados, his visit to the States had a tragic ending. While travelling back to Spain on theS.S. Sussex, the ship was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat. Although Granados made it onto a life raft, he jumped overboard and drowned in a desperate attempt to save his wife, who was struggling in the water. Granados had a fear of water his whole life and, ironically, this was his first voyage by sea.