Isaac Albéniz

Isaac Albéniz


• 1860 1909

Editor's Choice

A child prodigy, Catalan composer Isaac Albéniz had met the requirements for entry to the Paris Conservatoire's piano class by the age of seven. His young age, however, meant that he didn't attend. We could speculate forever about whether or not this was the best decision for the youthful virtuoso, but by nine he was touring internationally in the care of his father. Before hitting his teenage years, he had made many attempts to abscond and legend has it that he arrived in Cuba as a stowaway, before heading to New York, San Francisco and beyond. The truth is that Albéniz did indeed frequently travel long distances to perform, but always accompanied by his father, whose job required him to travel regularly. Albéniz later studied in Leipzig and Brussels, and having once had high hopes of studying with Liszt in Budapest, he contented himself with composing in a style inspired by the flamboyant Hungarian. Albéniz was also influenced by Bach, Rameau and Chopin, but his musical legacy represents a distinctly Spanish take on the Impressionist movement taking Europe by storm in the later years of his life. Alicia de Larrocha's 1972 recording of the impressionistic 'Iberia' is considered definitive. In a glowing review, the New York Times declared that "there is really nothing in Isaac Albeniz's 'Iberia' that a good three-handed pianist could not master, given unlimited years of practice and permission to play at half tempo. But there are few pianists thus endowed." His fellow Catalonian de Larrocha also performs the 'Suite Española' and 'Navarra' on this release. The former was composed for the Queen Maria Christina of Spain in 1886, and paints evocative images of the diverse regions and musical traditions of Spain. The latter was begun by Albéniz and completed in 1912 by his assistant and former pupil, Déodat de Séverac.


Born in 1860, Isaac Albéniz is best known for piano music that brilliantly evokes the spirit of Spain. As a composer-virtuoso, Albéniz successfully melded together composition and performance to create a bravura style reminiscent of the music of Liszt, seasoned with Spanish folk idioms. The work that most convincingly represents this synthesis of virtuosity and tradition is the enchantingly colorful and atmospheric Iberia, a suite of 12 pieces recalling Spanish (particularly Andalusian) places and dances. Albéniz used folklore as his inspiration, but created a singular melodic style, which eventually influenced Debussy and Ravel. Believing that artistic originality and an interest in one's national musical tradition do not exclude each other, Albéniz likewise was largely the creator of the Spanish musical idiom that would be adopted and developed by Granados and de Falla.

A child prodigy, Albéniz was accepted, at the age of seven, as a private pupil by Antoine-François Marmontel, the celebrated piano pedagogue whose students included Bizet and Debussy. Back in Spain within a year, he gave a concert tour and eventually entered the Madrid Conservatory. He soon ran away, concertized around Spain, and in 1872 stowed away on a ship sailing for Latin America. Upon his return to Europe the following year, he entered the Leipzig Conservatory, where he briefly studied with Carl Reinecke. Soon thereafter, a patron enabled him to enter Brussels Conservatory to study piano and composition. Albéniz won the conservatory's first prize in 1879; the following year, he obtained an audience with Franz Liszt in Budapest; for a while he joined the master's entourage and continued to work on his technique as a pianist. After more wandering through Europe and South America, he settled in Barcelona in 1883, married, and began a family.

By that time, Albéniz already had a reputation as a composer of brilliant salon music for the piano. Around 1890, he met Felipe Pedrell, a prominent musicologist, composer, and collector of folk songs. Following the encounter with Pedrell, Albéniz re-examined his work as a composer, deciding to seek new inspiration in the rich musical traditions of Spain. Not yet satisfied with his craftsmanship, Albéniz moved to Paris to study with Paul Dukas and Vincent d'Indy. The restless Albéniz somehow hung on to a job teaching piano at Paris' Schola Cantorum from 1893 to 1900; then he undertook further peregrinations, all the while working on his masterpiece, Iberia. An immensely popular work, Iberia has also been transcribed for orchestra; successful orchestral versions include Leopold Stokowski's orchestration of "Fête-Dieu à Seville." Another work which gained wide popularity as an orchestral transcription is the Tango for piano in D major. Albéniz also wrote for the stage; his lyric comedy Pepita Jiménez and several other works were produced in the 1890s. He died in 1909.