Harpsichord Concerto

Manuel de Falla

Harpsichord Concerto

G. 71

About this work

This spiky neo-Classical Concerto for Harpsichord defies everyone's expectations. Most listeners anticipate the Impressionism of Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain or the Romantic Spanish color of The Three-Cornered Hat. Harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who commissioned the piece, expected a full-blown concerto with the harpsichord having the dominant role. What Falla gave her was, in effect, a sextet in which the harpsichord was only one of six equal partners. Landowska duly gave the first performance in 1926, but bothered to play it only a couple of more times before entirely abandoning it. Knowing that new music for harpsichord would enjoy few hearings in the 1920s, Falla authorized performance of this work on the piano, but only if the pianist tried hard to emulate the harpsichord's sound. Inspired by the harpsichord's antique nature, Falla incorporated old popular, religious, and courtly Spanish melodies into the concerto and took as his stylistic inspiration the busy, clattering little sonatas of eighteenth century Spanish-based composers Domenico Scarlatti and Antonio Soler. But to position this as music of the twentieth century, Falla employed piquant, wrong-note harmonies in the manner of Stravinsky. Indeed, Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat echoes through the snotty first-movement violin part. The harpsichord races into that compact opening Allegro, ignoring the dissonant, cautionary chordal cries of the other instruments. Soon, the flute and oboe try to wrest control of the music away from the hyperactive harpsichord, playing a fifteenth century Castilian folk song in octaves. The various instruments toss this tune around, sometimes spitting it out in staccato bursts and sometimes stretching it out as if to mock the harpsichord's difficulty playing legato melodies. The Lento (giubiloso ed energico) begins with rolled chords from the harpsichord -- a lush sound by this instrument's standards -- over which the winds, again playing in octaves, offer an austere melody that initially seems to be little more than a cautious scale. It soon evolves into a motif subjected to a canonic imitation so close that the instruments always seem at harmonic odds. Falla apparently intended to evoke Medieval religious ecstasy with this music; inscribed in the score is a reference to the feast of Corpus Christi. Finally comes the Vivace (flessibile, scherzando), a toybox of Baroque effects -- trills and swoops -- piled into a witty, high-spirited, and largely bitonal dance.