Federico Mompou

1893 1987

Federico Mompou

Composer • Piano


Mompou was a 20th century Catalan composer. His output is quite small and consists mostly of miniature piano pieces and songs.

Federico Mompou was born in Barcelona in 1893 and soon became interested in music, especially the piano. He gave his first public recital at the age of 15 and studied at the Barcelona Conservatory. Mompou was a particularly shy boy and understood that he would not become a virtuoso pianist. Inspired by the work ofFauré he decided to pursue composition. With the recommendation of the Spanish composerGranados, Mompou went to Paris to study piano and harmony with Ferdinand Motte-Lacroix and Marcel Samuel-Rousseau, respectively.

While in Paris he wrote his first piano pieces, Impresiones intimas (1911-14). These pieces were inspired by the music of Fauré, though they share more characteristics with the music ofDebussy, Ravel and other Catalan composers.

Despite his extreme shyness and quiet nature, Mompou was able to become acquainted with important people such asFrancis Poulenc and the painter Mirò. He shared many ideals with Mirò, such as simplicity and the use of Catalonian and folkloric symbols and gestures.

The music of the modern French composers greatly influenced Mompou, especially the music of Claude Debussy andErik Satie. From Satie, he took the idea of simplicity and sparseness. Mompou believed that this quality represented a new beginning (recomençament), and a return to the basic state of being. Mompou adopted Satie’s method of notation, which is characterized by a lack of bar lines and key signatures. Following in the footsteps of composers such asBartók <>, Mompou placed accidentals before the notes to which they should be applied.

Through Satie, he also was inspired to insert odd and humourous comments and directions into his music, sometimes even images. The goal of these is to suggest an emotion, which he believed to work better with this method than with traditional instructions and articulations. Some of his instructions include ‘Chantez avec le fraîcheur de l'herbe humide’ (‘Singing along with the freshness of the wet grass’) and ‘Donnez des excuses’ (‘Giving excuses’).

Throughout his career as a composer his style changed very little and he had very little in common with Les Six. Mompou used many components of Catalonian folk music in his compositions, including the structural and modal elements. Sometimes Andalusian influences are also heard. In general, a combination of diatonic melodies and chromatic harmony defines Mompou’s music. He believed harmony had the ability to set a mood, thus giving it a ‘magical’ power.

The outbreak of World War I led Mompou to return to Barcelona, where he continued to compose. Works from his period in Barcelona include the songL’hora gria(1915) based on a text by Blancafort and a number of piano works including Pessebres(1914-17), Suburbis (1916-17), Scènes d'enfants (1915-1918), Cants mágìcs (1917-1919), Fêtes lointaines (1920) and Charmes (1920-1921).

Of these piano sets, the Suburbis is particularly interesting as each piece is a portrait of a person he encountered on his many long walks. One of the portraits is titledEl carrer, er guitarrista I el cavall (‘The road, the guitarist and the old horse) and depicts a stone laden cart that is pulled by an old, tired horse. Other movements are more upbeat and depict gypsy girls through childish dance music.L’home de l’Aristó (‘The ariston player’) is also quite cheery as it contains the music played by the street musician. A blind girl is represented inLa cegueta through slow, mirrored patterns. The titles of the works are indicative of the original place of publishing. InScènes d’enfants , Catalan melodies are often present, notably ‘La filla del Marxant’ in the final movement.

After returning to Paris in 1921, Mompou continued to compose for 20 more years before finally settling in Barcelona. In Barcelona he married the Catalan pianist Carmen Bravo. Piano sets from these later years include12 Cançons i dansas (1921-8, 1942-62), 10 Préludes (1927-1930, 1943-1), Variaciones sobre un tema di Chopin (1938-57), Paisajes (1942-60) and Música callada (1959-67).

Many of the movements of the Cançons i dansas are based on traditional Catalonian songs and use quite complex harmonies. One of the movements is also for guitar.

He also composed a significant number of songs, many after his return to Barcelona. These include theComptines I-VI (1931, 1943), Combat del somni (1942-8) andLlueve sobre el rio, Pastoral (1945). For the chorus he composed Cantar del alma(1951) based on the text from St. John of the Cross and for chorus with orchestra he composedImproperios (1963).

While the sets of Comptines are settings of counting-game rhymes, his Combat de Somniis intensely haunting. A preoccupation with childhood persists throughout his music.

Mompou’s output includes no large-scale works such as operas or symphonies, nor did he compose any concertos. Although his output is quite limited, his songs and piano miniatures are captivating in their ability to create the sounds and images relevant to his home of Catalonia. His style is deeply rooted in Romanticism though he frequently uses impressionistic and minimalist techniques. Also notable in his music are the sounds of bells, which are attributed to the fact that Mompou worked in a bell factory as a young man. His works have been arranged and orchestrated many times by others.

Mompou received various honours, including being made a ‘Chevaier de Arts et des Lettres’ by the French government, being elected to the Royal Academy of San Jorge in Barcelona and of San Fernando in Madrid, and receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Barcelona. He gave annual lectures on his music at Música en Compostela, a meeting of international students in Santiago de Compostela.

Images courtesy of Piano Society, zefirrecords.nl, Music Sales Classical and kazu-classicalguitar.co.uk