Albéniz’s Aragón

Portrait of composer Isaac Albeniz with pipe sitting at piano

Aragon Jota

Isaac Albéniz, a composer from Camprodón in Catalonia, wrote multiple compositions dedicated to the jota. The first piece, Fantasia sobre motivos de la jota (Fantasy of Jota’s Themes) was composed in 1883. Unfortunately this composition has been lost to history. The second piece, entitled Aragón (Fantasia), was composed in 1886 as part of the Suite Española op. 97, completed in 1889. The last piece is Zaragoza, referring to the main city in Aragon, which can also be found in the Suite Española op. 97.

The use of the 3/8 meter and the constant movement in these three compositions truly represents the jota dance. The dance is typically full of jumps. The dancers have their arms open and play castanets while they dance. Castañuelas, or castanets, are a handheld percussion instrument made of wood with a concave form. The two parts are joined by a rope to create one instrument. Dancers commonly use a pair of castanets, holding one in each hand as they dance.

Albéniz reflects the characteristics of the dance with the written annotation con brio as well as the use of constant staccatos, hand crossings, and jumps. The castanets are part of this: they are played by the dancers, so it is important that they have a crisp and clear rhythm. In order to maintain the character of the dance that Albéniz required, students must imitate the choreography on the piano. Piano students might find this style challenging to play as teachers need to make sure that the tempo is not affected by technical challenges.

First Part: Instrumentals

Click here to view the score for Aragón.

Another part of the jota that Albéniz imitated was the percussion instruments. Apart from the castanets, the Spanish guitar and the bandurria are the other instruments used for performances. A bandurria is a plucked string instrument related to the Spanish laud that is commonly used in Spanish folklore. It has 12 strings grouped in six orders, and musicians play it with a plectrum. The sound of this instrument is difficult to define. The double strings offer a fuller sound that is more melodic and higher pitched than the Spanish guitar.

The right hand uses thirds and fourths to emulate the sound of the guitar and the bandurria. In order be able to play the thirds equally and with legato it is important to have a comfortable fingering. This sequence is repeated later an octave higher, similar to the bandurria tone. Before changing to the first vocal section, the instrumental section finishes with a repeated C note, mimicking the rapid note repetition that is so idiomatic to the bandurria and guitar.

mm. 25-36
Music score composed by Albéniz: jota mm. 82-88
mm. 82-88

Second Part: Voice

The copla refers to the poem that is generally sung in the jota. It has eight verses with rhyme in some verses. The topics for these verses can be very different. Some are about love, others are religious and are generally dedicated to the Virgin of El Pilar, a symbol in Aragon, and some are about society.

While playing these pieces it is critical emphasize the upper voice of the right hand in order to imitate the singing voice. Albéniz continues to use techniques, including staccatos, to reproduce the sounds of the guitar and bandurrias in the left hand. It is essential to have freedom with the tempo in order to capture the sound of singing, then recover the tempo when the accompaniment is the only one in the score. The third part goes back to instrumental music, but with both hands in unison and with a more mysterious tone.

Music score composed by Albéniz: jota mm. 89-93
mm. 89-93
Music score composed by Albéniz: jota mm. 116-121
mm. 116-121

After some time developing this instrumental part the tempo changes again to recreate another vocal section with some jumps. This time the right hand imitates the chords’ arpeggiation in a bandurria and guitar while the left hand imitates the tenor voice. The left hand must have a ringing tone, making sure that the arpeggiated chords are played very softly. The harmony in this section is very simple, which is characteristic of the jota. The key is A Major, and it is constantly changing between the tonic and the dominant. Students may find it helpful to listen to traditional jota being sung to gain an aural idea of the music, making it easier to translate this sound into the piano.

Music score composed by Albéniz: jota mm. 164-175 part 1
mm. 164-169
Music score composed by Albéniz: jota mm. 164-175 part 2
mm. 170-175

Third Part: Instrumentals

The last section is instrumental and the piece again returns to F major; a reprise of the beginning of the composition. In order to do this, there is a subito change in the tempo. Albéniz uses the jumps in the different registers of the keyboard to facilitate the modulation. I recommend using a little bit of pedal in the accented notes as well as in the octaves following the transition to help with the marked rhythm of the dance.

Music score composed by Albéniz: jota mm. 222-227
mm. 222-227

The piece finishes with a coda in F Major, with a thematic material that did not appear earlier. Only the last two measures of the eight have reminiscences of the previous jumps. This part has an improvisatory character suggestive of salon music. The use of the chorda is necessary to help with the subito change of color.

Music score composed by Albéniz: jota mm. 206-215 part 1
mm. 206-210
Music score composed by Albéniz: jota mm. 206-215 part 2
mm. 211-215

The ending of the piece abandons the dance and singing qualities, finishing by repeating the same sequence all over the piano until playing the last four chords at the end. The jumps can be challenging, so it is important to help students become comfortable with finding each hand position quickly.

Music score composed by Albéniz: jota mm. 233-239
mm. 233-239

Integrating an understanding of folklore into the approach to this piece opens a new world of possibilities and imagination to teachers and students. This piece is only a small example of the rich variety of Spanish folklore present in Albéniz’s piano music.