Thursday, June 30, 2005

No Rain in Spain

Spain is suffering from the worst drought in a hundred years. Perhaps the Sahara desert is pushing its way north, thanks to global warming. Other than that, the Spaniards have been busy since the horrendous terrorist strikes on their trains. They promptly removed their troops from the occupation forces in Iraq, after the surprise leftist win in the last election. There is a house near ours that proudly was flying the U.S., U.K. and Spanish flags to support the coalition. The Spanish one came down quickly. Today, Spain became one of the most progressive countries, by approving gay marriage. It is amazing when one remembers how much of a Pope’s country they were just a while ago. I remember walking around Barcelona in the early 1970’s and on one of the busiest Paseos there was a polished bronze plaque for Dr. Condom, Gynecologist. As birth control was illegal, people were not even supposed to know the meaning of that word. Spain’s culture seems to go in cycles: During the Muslim, Moorish era the country was famous for its tolerance. In Córdoba, then the largest city west of Constantinople, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together for a long time in peace and harmony. But then you had the Inquisition and the terrible invasions of Latin America and other areas, which painted a very different picture. The Spanish Civil War was one of the most horrendous wars ever. I went to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, his home town, and they mainly had his early works on display, before he had become a cubist. He had left the country, swearing never to return.

Many people have a misconception of Spanish music. Most of the pieces that pretend to be Spanish were composed by others than natives, such as Lalo, Bizet, Saint-Saëns and Rimsky-Korsakov. They often ooze of schmaltz and sound effects. The habanera came from Cuba and probably has African roots. I think everyone ought to become acquainted with
Manuel de Falla’s playing of his own piano pieces, or Pablo de Sarasate’s early recordings, few of which survive. The music is simple, sometimes almost mechanical, but incredibly beautiful in its purity. We shouldn’t for a moment accept something as authentic that is fake. Mozart wrote a lot of “Turkish” music which it isn’t any more original than Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is Japanese or Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois Chinese. Alhough Brahms lived close to Budapest, his Hungarian Dances with Western European orchestration are a far cry from musical essence of Kodály and Bartók.

Sarasate was an interesting man. He supposedly had a small tone and belonged to the old guard which didn’t believe in omnipresent vibrato. His most famous piece is not Spanish but “Gipsy Airs”, which, at least to this listener’s ear, was meant to sound more like the music of Hungarian Gypsies, not the ones in Spain that developed flamenco. Sarasate is said to have put his violin away for three months every year: he believed a long rest from it was essential to his artistic well-being.