1912 — 2002
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Xavier Montsalvatge i Bassols was a 20th century Catalan composer, one of the most celebrated and influential of a somewhat lost generation of Spanish composers.
Montsalvatge was born in Gerona in 1912, where he lived until the death of his father in 1921. While in Gerona he began violin lessons, which he continued at the Barcelona Conservatory after he was taken in by his grandmother. There he studied violin with Francesc Costa, solfege with Lluís Millet and composition with Enric Morera and Jaume Pahissa. Early in his studies he decided that his musical destiny was in composition and not in a performance career.
Montsalvatge found the ideals of the French school of composition best, and greatly opposed the school’s teachings, which were heavily influenced by the German composers such asRichard Wagner and Richard Strauss. He felt, instead, a connection toLes Six and Stravinsky, in addition to Spanish and Catalan nationalists. In 1936 he travelled to Paris and became familiar with the style of many leading composers from Europe, notablyAlban Berg, Ernst Krenek and Albert Roussel. He also became acquainted with the music of many other Spanish composers.
During his studies he received numerous composition prizes including the Rabell Prize in 1934 for hisTres Impromtus (1933) for piano and the Pedrell Prize in 1936 forSuite burlesca. His works have many theatrical and dance features, leading him to work on the balletEl ángel de la guarda (1936-7), which has never been published. In the 1940s he also contributed 19 ballet scores to the Goubé-Alexander company of Monte Carlo. Among the scores areLa muerte enamorada (1943), Manfred (1945) and La Venus de Elna (1946).
In the early 1940s polytonality crept into Montsalvatge’s works, as can be heard in his two piano worksTres Divertimentos (Sobre temas de autores olvidados) (1941) and Ritmos (1942). These two works represent the beginning of a very productive compositional period for him.
During the 1940s Montsalvatge also began working as a music critic, first at the newspaperEl Matí, then the weekly magazine Destino and later for the Vanguardia Española.
In addition to his work as a composer and music critic, Montsalvatge also joined the faculty of the Acadèmia Marshall in Barcelona as a theory teacher.
The Cinco Canciones Negras (1945) from this period marks one of Montsalvatge’s most successful works. It was first performed by soprano Mercè Plantada and the pianist Pere Vallribera in Barcelona. An orchestral version of the work followed, also very successful. This piece is representative of what can be called his “Antilles style” or “Spanish Colonial Nationalism”, a style which references the Spanish colonies lost in the Spanish-American War in 1898 in South America and has influenced Catalan folk music ever since. Montsalvatge became familiar with this style during his travels around the Costa Brava, during which he collected many songs with West Indian and Cuban roots. TheAlbum de habaneras (1948) is a great example of the music he collected at this time. Other works representative of his travels include the second of hisdivertimenti (1941) and theCuarteto indiano (1952) and his most widely performed, 5 canciones negras(1945-6), which he orchestrated in 1949.
By the end of the 1940s, Montsalvatge’s first opera El gato con botas (Puss in Boots) (1946) had been premiered and he had won a prize for his Sinfonía Mediterránea (1948).
Montsalvatge’s success continued throughout the 1950s with the completion of hisPoema concertante for violin (1951) and the Concerto breve for piano (1953), both of which are also of the West-Indian style. In 1958, he won the Premio Oscar Esplà for his Partita (1958) and also a prize for hisCant Espiritual (1958) for mixed choir and orchestra. These works lean towards a Neo-Classicism that was not present in his earlier works. Though his music shifted to a more Neo-Classical style, the works were still filled with simple melodic material and sophisticated harmony. This can be observed in hisSonatina para Yvette for piano (1962), which combines a chromatic and rhythmic accompaniment with simple melodies reminiscent of nursery rhymes. It is considered to be one of the most brilliant contemporary works for piano.
By the late 1960s however, Montsalvatge’s style had changed and matured, most notably through a partial abandonment of tonality in exchange for serial techniques and free chromaticism. Despite his change in approach, his music still retains a clear Spanish character. Works which encompass this new style include theCinco invocaciones al Crucificado (1969), Laberinto (1970), Homenaje a Manolo Hugué (1970), the Cello Sonata (1971), Serenata a Lydia de Cadaqués for flute and piano (1970, orch 1972) and the overture Reflexus (1973).
Montsalvatge’s second opera Una voce in off (1961) was premiered in 1962 at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. The work is much more dramatic and expressive than his earlier opera. Other premieres included his orchestral workDesintegración Morfológica de la Chacona de Bach (1962), his third opera Babel 46 (1967) and Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado (1969). Remarkably, for the opera, he even wrote the libretto himself.
In 1969, Montsalvatge received more honours, this time from the French Government, which designated him a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
In 1970, Montsalvatge joined the faculty of the Conservatory in Barcelona, where he had once studied. By 1978 he had been appointed professor. In addition to theLaberinto (1970) for orchestra and the Serenata a Lídia de Cadaqués (1970), he also composed theConcerto-Capriccio for harp (1975). Premieres during this time include theConcierto del Albaycín for harpsichord and orchestra (1977) and theMetamorfosis de Concierto for guitar and orchestra (1980).
Montsalvatge remained active in composition until the final year of his life. His final composition is theTres reflexos sobre una pastoral d'hivern (2002).
The majority of Montsalvatge’s work has been recorded and published. He also published a set of memoirs,Papers autobiogràfics.
Xavier Montsalvatge died on 7 May, 2002 in Barcelona, Spain.
Images courtesy of Busca Biographies, Expedition Audio and Fes ta Festa