PRO-5162: Federico Mompou: Music for Piano
Born into an old Catalan family with rich musical antecedents (for centuries one of the leading makers of church bells in medieval Europe) the composer Federico Mompou Dencausse can be regarded as the leading composer of his native Cataluña. He himself described his musical style as primitivista and critics knew him as a "poet of the pianoforte" an appelation also bestowed on Chopin and Schumann. In truth, if indeed his music does incorporate primitive elements, at the same time it achieves a subtle sophistication and modernity that retains its freshness and originality and in the end reveals an immortal composer.
Federico Mompou, born on April 16, 1893 in Barcelona, was to receive his first musical contact with the piano imitating his brother José who was taking piano lessons. This same brother was to become a painter; it was he who drew the simple farmhouse sketch which was to grace the title pages of all of Federico's compositions (here reproduced above). Virtually self-taught at the piano, Mompou's compositional gifts grew naturally out of the inherently self-effacing introspection of his personality. By the time he was ready to enter the Paris Conservatory as a piano student he had already begun composing fragments which were later to be developed into some of his most well-known works.
In the fall of 1911, at the age of 18, Mompou, having readied himself for serious study in Paris, went about gathering contacts and letters of introduction to prominent teachers and musicians in the French capital. Among the more interesting of these was a letter from Enrique Granados, the great Spanish virtuoso pianist and composer who was head of a conservatory in Barcelona, to Gabriel Fauré, then director of the Paris Conservatory. According to Mompou's recollections of his interview with the great Spanish pianist and between the lines of the still-extant letter can be inferred that Granados was under no illusions concerning the virtuosic potentialities of the young pianist. But he did speak highly of his talent, especially with regards to his sensitive touch and already apparent individuality, traits which were soon to manifest themselves in Mompou's compositions. Curiously, the letter was never recieved by Fauré; although admitted to the Paris conservatory (with another Spaniard, José Iturbi) Mompou's natural shyness and reserve coupled with Fauré's absence from Paris at the time ultimately prevented the letter from arriving at its intended destination. In later years, Mompou would relish the irony of this non-contact as almost symbolic in character, quite in accordance with the reticence of his own personality.
Two years of study in Paris were enough to convince Mompou that, rather than a piano virtuoso, his greatest gifts lay in composition. Since childhood his personality had reflected a powerful introspection and playing even his own compositions in public was a torture that remained unconquered until much later in life. Composition on the other hand, which in his own view consisted more in the discovery of harmonies and melodies than in their invention, allowed his musical imagination free rein. Indeed, many of his most well-loved compositions, the Canciones y Danzas, are free renditions of traditional Catalan folk tunes. Nevertheless, the difficult economic circumstances of the life of a composer were not to be completely surmounted until much later.
Mompou's first success came in 1921. After two years of study in the French capital he had returned to his beloved Barcelona where he had already written a number of his more important compositions. When his piano teacher, Ferdinand Motte-Lacroix, former student and disciple of the founder of the French school of piano playing, Isidore Philipp, began including compositions by Mompou in his programs in France, the critical response was instantaneous. Mompou found himself the idol of artistic and musical Paris. Although initially surprising even to the artist himself, this success is easier to understand viewed in the context of the times. Debussy had only been dead for three years and the forces reacting against impressionism were already at work. Cubism (1909) and the Dadaists (1918) had made their appearances; Schönberg had written his "Treatise on Harmony" (1911) and Stravinsky had turned the musical world upside down with his "Rite of Spring" (1913). The instinctive values pervading Mompou's music resonated profoundly in this environ. Based in Catalan and Spanish traditional music, the piquant harmonies "discovered" by their composer, delicately pulsating rhythms, introspective themes; Mompou himself would write "I make music like this because art has reached its limits...my art is a return to the primitive...no, not even a return, it is to begin again (recomenzar)."
This recomenzar helps us understand one of Mompou's primary objectives; simplicity. As he himself would never tire of saying to students, "the maximum expression with the minimum of means". Like Satie, Mompou searched within himself seeking nothing less than the very origens of music: the clear and pure expression of human instinct faced with absolute solitude, in the process touching within himself the mysterious, the incomprehensible. After all, had not music, in its origens been a principal instrument of magic and religion?
Always a solitary figure (he did not marry until age 64) Mompou found his artistic life disrupted for the ten years beginning in 1931. During this time no single completed work found its way from his pen. These were chaotic years in Spain: the Republic, civil war and the first dark years of World War II. Non-political, nevertheless Mompou could only have agreed with Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno: "It is not a matter of ideology, there is none of that; and not even barbarity, boorishness, or evil instincts. Rather only what, at least for me, is worse...stupidity, stupidity, stupidity." In addition to the horrors swirling around him on the world stage, Mompou experienced during this time the death of his father and the serious illness of his brother, with whom he had always been close. His own personal economic situation, exacerbated by the desperate economic conditions following the civil war, led him from art into various business ventures including an attempt to revive the traditional family bell foundry.
Blessed with long life (he lived to the age of 94), Mompou in his later years was showered with honors and recognition. The National Prize for Composition as well as the prize "City of Barcelona", honorary doctorates, gold medals and countless concerts organized in his honor bear witness to the high esteem in which the man and his music came to be regarded.
Like Chopin, Mompou the composer never ceased to think in terms of the piano. Even his compositions for voice and piano, guitar and several large works for orchestra, are thoroughly pianistic in concept and inspiration. None more than so than his Variations on a Theme by Chopin. Dedicated to Mompou's "great friend Pedro Masaveu", the banker who generously offered his house in which to compose, the work had been initiated in 1938 together with cellist Gaspar Casadó who wanted to collaborate with Mompou on a work for violoncello and piano. The joint project got no further than the sketching out of the first three variations. But in 1957, when asked to write another ballet to capitalize on the success of his first ballet, La Casa de los Pájaros, which had been premiered at the IV Festival de Música y Danza at Granada, Mompou offered to complete the Variations. Although the ballet was never produced, the music, including an orchestration by the composer, was eventually completed at this time.
Consisting of twelve variations (and an epilog) based on the Chopin"s Prelude No. 7, the work draws on themes and forms used by that earlier "poet of the piano". Thus, variation No. V is a Mazurka, No. IX a Valse and No. VI a Recitative, while at the heart of the work, the Evocation (Variation No. X) quotes directly from the slow section of the Fantasy Impromptu and Variation No. VIII paraphrases the Prelude No. 4 in e minor. The third variation is for the left hand alone (although the listener might never be aware of it) and the concluding gallop is pure Mompou, sparkling with audacious harmonic disonances (and consonances) and providing the perfect setting for the concluding epilog marked Lento.
The Quatro Quejas (Four Complaints) which form the first movements of Mompou's Impresiones Intimas (Intimate Impressions) date from 1911 and thus represent one of the composer's earliest completed compositions. The exact nature of each complaint is best left to the listener, although it is known that No. 4 (Agitato) was entitled El miedo (Fear) in an early version. Pájaro Triste, (Sorrowful Bird) written in 1914, can almost be seen as a premonition anticipating his ballet score of 1956, La Casa de los Pájaros (The House of the Birds) based on one of Grimm's Fairy Tales. Four more movements La Barca (The Boat), Cuna (Cradle), Secreto (Secret) and Gitano (Gypsy) date from 1912 and 1914. The work as a whole aptly illustrates his self-denominated style of "primitivism".
The first two movements of Paisajes (Landscapes) date from 1942 and are dedicated to Carmen Bravo, the young pianist whom Mompou had met in the fall of the previous year and who, 16 years later would become his wife. La Fuente y la Campana (The Fountain and the Bell) and El Lago (The Lake) are descriptive pieces drawn from Mompou's beloved Cataluña. The third piece of the set Carros de Galicia (Oxcarts of Galicia) dates from 1962.
Mompou's Canciones y Danzas were written at various times throughout his life and represent among the most charactaristic of his compositions. For the most part they are based directly on traditional Catalan melodies and dances, some of which are believed to have been in existence at least three centuries before Christ. Although faithful to the original versions, they are transformed and elevated by Mompou's treatment. Never intended as a single opus, each one stands alone.
Interestingly, the song which forms the basis for the introduction of Canción y Danza Nº. VIII, (El Testament d'Amèlia) is one which has been found not only in Cataluña, Valencia and Mallorca but in the folkmusic of countries as far away as Sweden. It describes the tragic drama of death from a broken heart of a young woman who sees her husband stolen from her by her own mother. The sadness and pathos of this theme is strongly contrasted by the dance which follows. The lighthearted La Filadora (the knife sharpener) has been sung to countless children by countless mothers. Its protagonist is the nightingale, eternal delight of maidens, lovers and heroes since the middle ages and before.
For Canción y Danza Nº. VII Mompou uses the song Muntanyes Regalades. It is said that this song is so well-known in Cataluña that there is no single person who has not sung the melody; if in fact he does not also recall the words. The dance which follows, L'hereu Riera is found in various regions of Cataluña. In walz tempo, it is traditionally danced over and around a wooden cross placed on the ground. One of only two original Canciones y Danzas fully-composed by Mompou, Number VI is probably one of his most widely-known compositions. (PH)
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