Joaquín Rodrigo: A Life

The loss of his sight heightened Rodrigo’s remaining senses and helped him compose a body of captivating works that made him a Spanish hero.

Had it not been for Joaquín Rodrigo, Spain could well have found itself in the musical doldrums. It was Rodrigo who discovered a way of bringing Spanish music fully into the 20th century without resorting to Modernist techniques.

His solution was to channel his remarkable facility for melody and piquant orchestral timbres into traditional musical forms – in particular the concerto.

As the musicologist Tomás Marco pointed out: “In form, harmony, melody and rhythm, Rodrigo’s work might be broadly classified as neoclassical.” The remarkable thing is that despite being a traditionalist at heart, Rodrigo managed to develop a style so individual and distinctive that his music could be by no one else.

Spain had been one of the last countries to climb aboard the Nationalist bandwagon. By the time Isaac Albéniz emerged on the scene in the 1890s, the Russians were in full swing and the musical flags of Chopin (Poland), Liszt (Hungary), Grieg (Norway), Smetana (Bohemia) and Elgar (England) had been proudly flying for many years.

Better late than never, Albéniz was the first major composer to make the natural rhythms and colours of Spanish music essential to his musical style. Alongside Manuel de Falla and Enrique Granados, Albéniz helped establish Spain’s own Nationalist school.

Their job was made all the more difficult because foreign composers (particularly the French) had an annoying habit of composing in the Spanish style rather well – as witness Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, Chabrier’s España, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and Bizet’s opera Carmen.

Incredibly, the one instrument with which Spain is indelibly associated – the guitar – barely figured in Spanish Nationalist music at all to begin with. Modern interest in the instrument can be said to date from as late as 1920, when Falla wrote his Homenaje, Le Tombeau De Claude Debussy, for solo guitar.

This piece opened the floodgates, and more often than not inspired by the guitar’s principal ambassador, the Spanish musician Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), composers began to take up the challenge of writing for it.

However, due to the guitar’s relative lack of projection and sustaining power, it had to wait until 1939 for its first 20th century concerto. Remarkably, not one but two masterly guitar concertos were completed that same year, within a few weeks of one another, by two composers blissfully unaware of each other: the Italian-American Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) and the rising star of Spanish music, Joaquín Rodrigo, whose Concierto De Aranjuez shot him to international stardom.

Born in 1901, Rodrigo fell victim to a diphtheria epidemic when he was just three-and-a-half years old. He was left almost totally blind, and despite many attempts to restore his vision he lost his sight completely in 1948. Yet his disability became the determining factor in his unwavering commitment to music.

With the aid of his devoted helper and companion Rafael Ibáñez, Rodrigo coped with life’s day-to-day routines and had someone on hand who could take musical dictation and make copies of his work.

“Rafael lent me the eyes I did not have,” the composer movingly reflected.

Rodrigo’s first real break came in 1924 when the Valencia Symphony Orchestra premiered his Juglares (Minstrels). However, it wasn’t until three years later, when he went to study with Paul Dukas at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, that his musical training can be said to have begun in earnest.

There he met many influential people, including Falla, Ravel, Stravinsky, Ibert, Milhaud and Segovia, yet Rodrigo composed nothing of major importance for nearly a decade. He spent the years of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) in Paris and Germany, studying and refining the easily assimilated, unashamedly melodious style that became his watchword for the next half century.

Meanwhile, the single most important event in Rodrigo’s personal life occurred in 1933 when he married a gifted young Turkish pianist named Victoria Kamhi. She became his constant companion and inspiration, as well as taking on a wide range of musical responsibilities, including managing his career. There can be little doubt that without Victoria’s loving support over the years, Rodrigo’s creative spirit might well have floundered.

The Rodrigos’ return to Madrid in 1939 was marked by Joaquín’s first major composition, the Concierto De Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra, whose runaway success was ironically to cast a shadow over much of his later work. No matter how hard he tried, Rodrigo never quite managed to recapture the divine spark of inspiration that illuminates the Concierto De Aranjuez.

As one critic put it at the time: “It is impossible to find another Spanish work with such exciting picturesque qualities and formal perfection.”

Most remarkable is the way Rodrigo manages to incorporate the rhythmic flourishes and delight in strumming figurations that are such a strong feature of Spanish guitar music, yet avoid the picture-postcard associations of his immediate predecessors.

The concerto quickly established itself as Rodrigo’s favourite form. Indeed, his only major works of the war years were the Concierto Heróico for piano and orchestra (1942), and the Concierto De Estío for violin (1943).

Rodrigo’s daughter, Cecilia, was born in 1941, and it is fitting that the man she went on to marry in 1963 – virtuoso violinist and teacher Agustín León Ara – made the first important recording of Rodrigo’s Concierto De Estío, during the early 1990s.

Shortly after the war Rodrigo was appointed Professor of Music at Madrid University. This official recognition of his achievements paved the way for a series of compositions over the following two decades that consolidated his position as Spain’s greatest living composer.

The Fantasía Para Un Gentilhombre (1954) for guitar and orchestra is by far the most popular of these, yet the delightful Concierto Serenata (1952) for harp and orchestra is arguably the finer work. So spectacularly does Rodrigo solve the problems inherent in balancing a small-voiced harp against an entire orchestra that it is difficult to imagine why more composers haven’t followed suit.

It is typical of Britain’s icy, post-war musical culture that while Rodrigo was receiving honours from around the world – even Turkey held a Rodrigo Festival as early as 1953 – he remained a virtual unknown on this side of the Channel.

Indeed, despite the persuasive advocacy of guitarists such as Narciso Yepes, John Williams and Julian Bream, it wasn’t until Manuel and his Music Of The Mountains (the stage name for the musician Geoff Love) enjoyed a top three chart success during the 1970s with a popular adaptation of the Concierto De Aranjuez that Rodrigo became a household name.

In the meantime, Rodrigo continued to produce a string of inspired and captivating concertos, including the esteemed Concierto Andaluz for four guitars and orchestra, written for the three Romero brothers, Pepe, Angel and Celín, and their father Celedonio.

The double-guitar Concierto Madrigal followed two years later and, in 1977, the Concierto Pastoral was written specially for the acclaimed Irish flautist James Galway.

By now Rodrigo was a septuagenarian and entering what can be fairly described as his “Indian summer”, travelling widely and receiving countless prizes, medals and honorary degrees; he was raised to the nobility by King Juan Carlos and given the title “Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez”.

It’s almost unbelievable that scores with the rhythmic vitality and melodic freshness of the Concierto Como Un Divertimento for cello and orchestra (1981), commissioned by Julian Lloyd Webber, and the Concierto Para Una Fiesta for guitar and orchestra (1982) are the products of a composer in his early eighties.

In 1997, Rodrigo’s beloved wife Victoria died, and, totally bereft, Rodrigo himself passed away two years later at his Madrid home, surrounded by his devoted family. Rodrigo’s only daughter, Cecilia, has since created the Victoria and Joaquín Rodrigo Foundation in their memories.

Viewed in retrospect, Rodrigo was not a composer in the mould of Beethoven. In his 200-plus scores you will have to search long and hard to find any agonised searching after musical truths.

Nor was Rodrigo a particularly fluent composer. He often found himself frustrated, waiting for inspiration to strike: “I have to be touched by a magic wand,” he once admitted.

But in his home country he is viewed as a national hero, and has several streets and squares named after him. He was one of the longest-lived of all contemporary composers – and without doubt the most popular.

Yet he remained forever modest, as he once put it: “In life you can never be first in anything. I only aspire to be an improved Joaquín Rodrigo.”