Sketches of Joaquin Rodrigo

Was Joaquín Rodrigo, who died on 6 July, 1999, a composer out of step with his time? His most famous work, the tonal, tuneful and cheerful Concerto de Aranjuez, was completed in the spring of 1939 in Paris. While Rodrigo was composing German troops were approaching the Czech frontier and Moravia and Bohemia became 'protectorates' of the Third Reich. During that spring the Nazis annexed Lithuania, Arnold Schoenberg's Violin Concerto was published and Michael Tippett started work on his protest oratorio A Child Of Our Time. As Rodrigo's evocation of the glories of Spain took shape in March 1939 the Civil War in the composer's native Spain ended when Madrid surrendered after a siege lasting two and a half years and the remaining Republican territories capitulated to Franco's Nationalist forces. The total death toll in Spain was estimated to be around half a million.

The rise of fascism and the spread of anti-semitism were hardly events that Rodrigo could ignore. In 1933 he had married Victoria Kamhi, a Turkish-born pianist from an affluent Jewish family. But even allowing for the difficulties caused by his visual disability we have to conclude that, like many other musicians, Rodrigo was politically naive. Although opposed to violence he was, apparently, more concerned about physical attacks on the Catholic Church in Spain than the threat posed by fascism. In 1936, three years after the Nazis came to power and the year after the 'Nuremberg Laws' started stripping Jews of citizenship and equality, Rodrigo and his Jewish wife and her parents travelled to Germany to spend the non-exportable proceeds from the sale of family property in Berlin.

Despite Victoria Rodrigo's classic understatement that the "atmosphere in Germany was not pleasant" the composer and his wife, who had Turkish nationality by birth, decided to remain in Germany, and they started looking for property to rent in Freiburg near the Swiss border. The town had an active musical life and visiting artists who performed during Rodrigo's stay included German resident Claudio Arrau, who was married to Jewish soprano Ruth Schneider, and Alfred Cortot who went on to support the Nazis and hold a position in the Vichy government.

On 18 November 1936, General Franco was formally installed as head of government of the self-proclaimed Spanish State, and Germany and Italy immediately recognised Franco's rebel Nationalists as the official Spanish government. Following this development the German authorities issued an expulsion order on all Spanish nationals in the country with passports issued by the beleagured Republican government, and this applied to Rodrigo who was resident in Freiburg. The choice was for Rodrigo to retain his Republican passport and return to Paris, or to apply for Nationalist papers.

Obtaining a Nationalist passport involved providing proof and swearing an Oath of Allegiance that the recipient was afecto al Movimiento Nacional ('sympathetic to the National Movement') and not guilty in any way of supporting the opposition to Franco's fascist forces. Rodrigo duly travelled to the Spanish Embassy in Berlin to swear the oath, after which he stayed, with his wife, in Germany for another fourteen months. In this time his output included the Plegaria de la Infanta de Castilla which the composer wrote as a prayer for peace in Spain.

In January 1938 Rodrigo and his wife returned to Paris to escape the physical rather than political hardships in Germany, and in July 1938 made a visit to Spain in an attempt find employment and settle there permanently. But despite support from Manuel de Falla, who himself left Spain for exile in Argentina in 1939, Rodrigo was forced to return to Paris where he composed that quintessentially Spanish work, his Concierto de Aranjuez. But as France and her allies prepared for war with Germany Rodrigo and his wife decided to return to Spain, and they crossed the French/Spanish border on 1 September, 1939, the very day that German forces invaded Poland.

Rodrigo lived in Spain for the rest of his ninety-eight years and outlived Franco whose death in 1975 allowed Spain to begin the transition to democracy. In 1991 the composer was raised to the Spanish nobility by King Juan Carlos and given the title Marqués de los Jardines de Aranjuez (Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez). Rodrigo's life almost spanned the century, and he outlived John Cage, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Olivier Messiaen to die just one year short of the millenium. He is buried alongside his beloved wife Victoria in the cemetery at Aranjuez.

Joaquin Rodrigo may have been out of step with his time, but his homage to the city where he is buried remains one of the most popular and enduring works in the classical repertoire. At a time when finding audiences for classical music is the hot topic that must be food for thought.

Rodrigo's music needs no recommendation from me. But to complete these sketches here are three related CDs that are worth exploring, and which supply my graphics:

* My header image is the sleeve for Miles Davis' classic 1959 take on the Concierto de Aranjuez. I sympathise with those who prefer Miles' version to the Rodrigo original, and a lot of credit for that must go to arranger and conductor Gil Evans.

* Rodrigo's 1954 Fantasia para un gentilhombre is his best known work after the Aranguez concerto. The full title is Fantasia para un gentilhombre : inspirada en Gaspar Sanz but I had not realised until I listened to Sanz's original Instrucción de música sobre la guitarra española from 1697 how 'inspired' Rodrigo was by Gaspar Sanz. Xabier Díaz-Latorre's new recording with percussionist and sometime Jordi Savall sideman Pedro Estevan, for Zig-Zag Territoires is highly recommended. Listen to the first few bars of Canario, quince diferencias ecogidas and you could be listening to Rodrigo.

* Very well worth exploring are the three arrangements of Rodrigo's works on the highly recommended but difficult to find Quatre siècles d'orgue et guitare from the French label Art & Musique. The arrangement of three extracts from the Fantasia para un gentilhombre for organ guitar is worth the price (and search) for the CD alone. Beautifully recorded using the organ dating from 1637 in the beautiful church of Malaucène in the South of France this CD not only includes fascinating sketches of Rodrigo but also music ranging from the 16th century to contemporary French composer Tristan-Patrice Challulau.

* I am indebted to Graham Wade's comprehensive and sympathetic 'Joaquín Rodrigo - A Life In Music' (GRM Publications ISBN 1901148084) as a primary souce for biographical material. Also thanks to the Norfolk Library Service for supplying the volume. Although only published in 2006 this excellent first volume of biography appears to be out of print.

* Vist the Victoria and Joaquín Rodrigo Foundation here. Graham Wade's biography is offered in their online shop.

Read about the music of the exiled Spanish Jews here.
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Pliable said…
Rodrigo trivia.

The composer shares his birthday (22 Nov) with Benjamin Britten, Jacob Obrecht, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach - and me.
Unknown said…
Great article on Rodrigo, and nice touch ending with Sanz. :-)

Drew80 said…
Saint Cecilia's Day!

November 22 is my birthday as well.
Pliable said…
Nice to see this article featuring on a website in Brazil -
Anonymous said…
Interesting. Surely any real musician can have only admiration for Rodrigo. I did a post on him and other blind musicians here:
Anonymous said…
And, yes, it's fun knowing what composers share your birthday. In my case (November 14), 5: Copland, Hummel, Spontini, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Leopold Mozart. November 14 was also the day of Bernstein's conducting debut with the NYP in 1943. Because of the coincidence with Copland, it was a sacred day for him.

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