Manuel De Falla is regarded as one of Spain’s most important musical figures of the twentieth century. His works were often inspired by the Impressionist movement however he was also quite influenced by the Baroque style, particularly the music of Domenico Scarlatti. His career has earned him respect and admiration across the globe as one of Spain’s most creative and diverse composers.
Falla was born in Cádiz to José María Falla and María Jesús Matheu. As a child, he received piano lessons from his mother and he developed an interest in attending local concerts and recitals. In his adolescence, however, he became more inclined towards a career in writing and he became an author for a period of time, often writing articles on music and librettos for his own works.
His career path changed during the1890s, when he attended the Madrid Conservatory to study piano. He also studied composition with Felipe Pedrell between 1901 and 1904, (whomIsaac Albeniz had also studied with in the 1880s) who became a strong influence on his later work. Falla soon developed an interest in the zarzuela and made an effort to establish himself in this particular style. However, out of the five that he composed, only one,Los Amores de la Inés, made it to the production stage in 1902 and was unsuccessful. He did receive success, however, with his short operaLa vida breve, which was written a few years later, between 1904 and 1905. The opera was written to a libretto by Carlos Fernández and its creative scoring and rhythms emulate a Spanish-influenced style. The opera was not produced until 1913; however it was very well received in both Spain and France.
In 1907, the composer moved to France, where he made ties with important musical figures including,Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Paul Dukas . During his time in Paris, he was largely influenced by the French Impressionist movement and this is clearly evident in his work. In particular, his fourPièces Espagnoles for piano solo is said to be completely influenced by the Impressionist composers he associated with in Paris. He also wrote his well-known piano concerto,Noches en los jardines de España between 1911 and 1915.
After the outbreak of the First World War, Falla returned to Spain. Once again, he attempted to establish himself as a composer in his native country, however he received mixed and often negative reviews from Spanish critics. He completed the music for the ballet,El amor brujo in 1915 in an effort to combine art and gypsy music. The music was filled with energetic rhythms and poignant orchestration, however this did not appeal to the critics at the time, who felt there was too much of a French element emulated in the work. He also composed the ballet, El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) between 1917 and 1919, which received more success. Its set and costumes were designed by Pablo Picasso which added an attractive and interesting element to the production. It was performed in London in 1919, where it received positive reviews and reactions from the public. Its production in Spain was not as successful, receiving mixed reviews from critics.
In 1920, Falla returned to Spain, settling in Granada. Up until his return and during his time in Spain, the composer had spent much time working on purifying his compositional style and technique. His work often emulated that of Baroque composer, Domenico Scarlatti and it is thought that he used Scarlatti’s style of writing as a model for his own work. An example of his piano music in this clear and precise style isFantasia baetica from 1919. It incorporates strong and poignant rhythms, however did not receive much popularity.
His move back to Spain marked the beginning of his ‘Spanish neo-classical’ period and during this time he produced some of his greatest works. His well-knownEl retablo de Maese Pedro (‘Master Peter’s Puppet Show’) was composed in 1919 and performed for the first time in 1923. The sparse textures and harmonies portray a clear Spanish Baroque style. He also composed his Concerto for harpsichord and five instruments between 1923 and 1926 which contains clear influences of Scarlatti. He began to work onAtlántida, based on the Catalan text L’Atlántidaby Jacint Verdaguer. The work is regarded by Falla himself as one of his best and most important creations, despite the fact that it was rarely performed and was unfinished at the time of his death. By the time Falla moved to Argentina in 1939, he was still working onAtlántida. He also published several works including his last orchestral score,Homenajes, which is said to be a tribute to E.F. Arbós, Debussy, Dukas and Pedrell.
Among Falla’s most well-known compositions is Noches en los jardines España, which was completed in 1915. The work is written for piano and orchestra although it was initially intended to be a collection of nocturnes for solo piano. The first performance of the work was on 9 April 1916 in the Teatro Real in Madrid and was conducted by Arbós. Falla describes this work as ‘symphonic impressions’ and its score represents a clear style of Impressionism with its lush and rich orchestral textures and intricate and bright piano writing.
During the final years of Falla’s life he contributed much of his time to teaching, the composer Rosa García Ascot becoming among his most accomplished students. A short number of years after his move to Argentina he fell ill and died on 14 November 1946 in Alta Gracia. Although Falla did not produce a huge number of works throughout his career, he has still earned a lot of popularity and respect as a composer. He is undoubtedly one of Spain’s most creative and individual composers and today his work continues to attract admiration and interest from scholars, performers and music-lovers worldwide.