Isaac Albéniz

Portrait of composer Isaac Albeniz with pipe sitting at piano

Biography of Isaac Albéniz

Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual was born on May 29th, 1860, in Camprodón, Gerona, Spain. He was considered a child prodigy, playing his first concert a just four years old. At the age of seven he passed the entrance exam for Paris Conservatory but was rejected because he was too young. In 1869 Albéniz moved with his father to Madrid in order to study at the Madrid Royal Conservatory. He ran away several times by the age of twelve, first to El Escorial, then to America where he traveled around Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil,Puerto Rico, and Cuba. After a performance in Santiago, he was arrested and taken to Havana where he was reunited with his father. Albéniz was allowed to play concerts across the United States before returning to Europe.

In 1876Albéniz received a scholarship from King Alfonso XII to study piano in Brussels. He returned to Madrid in 1879 with a prize in piano for his diligent studies. He began composing for zarzuelas, a Spanish genre similar to operettas, and is rumored to have continued his musical education with Franz Liszt. In 1883 he moved to Barcelona where he married Rosina Jordana y Lagarriga and started studying with Felipe Pedrell. His music was later featured at the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition.

During his life Albéniz moved around Europe, living in France and England, and worked for musical theatre companies. In 1906 he settled in Nice, France, where he composed his masterpiece Iberia, premiered by the French pianist Blanche Selva. The four volumes were published in 1906, 1907, 1908, and 1909. Isaac Albéniz died in 1909 after a long fight with kidney disease.

Albéniz’s Influences

Isaac Albéniz was a self-taught composer. He studied composition briefly when he was in Leipzig in the mid-1870s. His first formal teacher of composition was Felip Pedrell, with whom he studied in Barcelona in 1883. Albéniz said that he owed Pedrell his initiation in composition. After Albéniz’s death, Pedrell wrote a eulogy stating that he taught his student through conversations rather than formal lessons. The Spanish cellist Pau Casals said:

I am sure that his conversations with Pedrell were of relatively little use to him as a composer. Pedrell was not the man to teach musical structure, and, on the other hand, Albeniz was essentially an improviser and was much more sensitive to the colour and atmosphere of Spanish scenery than anxious to follow didactic rules.

Josep M. Corredor and Pau Casals, Conversations with Casals (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958), 162-163.

Albéniz preferred salon music from a young age, and his technique had many reminiscences of Franz Liszt. Based on writings in Albéniz’s personal diary, many biographies agree that he had the opportunity to study with the Hungarian composer in Prague in 1880. However, Liszt was not in the city at the time. Albéniz barely mentioned his lesson with Liszt and mainly wrote about Prague’s monuments and activities. The author Aaron Clark believes that the Spanish composer invented this encounter to justify his travel and expenses to his family.

Albéniz’s first Zarzuelas were composed by imitation and, if translated to piano, the influence of Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole becomes recognizable. The Hungarian composer was already using tunes related to flamenco and jota in 1863.

Other important influences include French composers, namely Claude Debussy. His composition La Soirée dans Grenade, inspired by an image of Granada in Andalusia, uses rhythms and harmonies characteristic of flamenco, imitating the guitar sound in the piano. In the words of Falla:

Debussy has taken to new lengths our knowledge of the modal possibilities in our music already revealed by our teacher Felip Pedrell. But while the Spanish composer […] uses authentic popular material, the French master avoids them and creates music of his own, borrowing only the essence of its fundamental elements.

Manuel de Falla et al., On Music and Musicians (London: Boyars, 1979), 45.

This style is reflected in Albéniz’s late work Iberia, which is very impressionistic and translates the essence of many different Spanish regions. The pieces Aragon, composed in 1886, and Zortzico, composed in 1887, are more related to the Spanish nationalism in the Romantic period.