Manuel de Falla

Portrait of composer Manuel de Falla seated in front of books

Biography of Manuel de Falla

Young Falla

Manuel María de los Dolores de Falla y Matheu was born in Cádiz, Andalusia in 1876. Falla’s family was not originally from the south of Spain. His father, José, was a Valencian and his mother, María, was from Catalonia. José, a businessman, decided to move to Cádiz prior to Manuel’s birth. As one of the most important ports in Europe, the city was a good location to conduct business.

Growing up in Cádiz had a significant musical impact on Falla. Many people in the city were business-focused but were also music lovers and amateurs. They created a strong and engaging musical environment. María, a pianist, taught Falla traditional piano repertoire and introduced him to operas, playing the adaptations they received in artistic magazines. Due to his talent and contacts, Falla began playing concerts in salons at a young age. He also attended numerous concerts, operas, and zarzuelas with his mother. These outings were a big inspiration for the young Falla.

In addition to his deep love for music, Manuel de Falla was also very religious. One musical piece that was critical to Falla’s development was Joseph Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” This work was especially important in Cádiz. The piece was commissioned in 1786 by La Orden de la Santa Cueva, a religious community, to commemorate the Good Friday.

Falla was an introverted child and had various teachers throughout his childhood. He moved to Madrid in the late 1890s and continued studying piano with José Tragó, a friend from previous family trips to Madrid. Falla started studies at the Madrid Royal Conservatory at the age of 22, which was considered an advanced age for a new student. He completed the conservatory in two years instead of the seven that was generally required.

Falla the Composer

During the late 1890s and early 1900s Falla continued studying with Tragó. While in Cádiz, Falla had successful concerts and premiered some of his first compositions, including Serenata Andaluza and Nocturno, among pieces from other composers. He tried to earn money in Madrid by composing music for zarzuela but was unsuccessful. Zarzuela, a play containing musical acts and dancing, was a popular genre in Spain at the time, which frustrated Falla. He preferred symphonic music and was deeply interested in composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Scarlatti, and Wagner. In 1901 Felipe Pedrell, one of the most important composers in Spain and the mentor of pianists Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados, moved to Madrid. Falla contacted him asking for lessons, deciding to give up performing to focus more on composition.

In 1904, the conservatory awarded Falla for his composition Allegro de concierto. He also won a prestigious piano award from Real Academia de Bella Artes for his opera composition La vida breve. He competed against pianists such as Frank Marshall, a famous student of Enrique Granados. 

Falla moved to Paris several years later. He tried to earn money performing concerts but was, once again, unsuccessful. Fortunately, many French composers were creating Spanish music and supported Spanish musicians who struggled to find success in Spain. Falla presented La vida breve to French composer Paul Dukas who became his mentor and introduced Falla to Isaac Albéniz. Falla also developed relationships with other important musicians including Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré. Durand helped him publish his Cuatro piezas españolas, or Four Spanish Pieces, in 1909 and he premiered his opera La vida breve in Nice in 1913.

Falla planned to continue living in Paris where he felt supported and happy. However, with the start of World War I, most of his friends volunteered as soldiers. He decided to return to Madrid, where he continued composing. In 1915 he premiered Siete canciones españolas for voice and piano.

He was introduced to and developed a friendship with the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, which resulted in the creation of the ballets “El sombrero de tres picos” and “El amor brujo.” In the second piece, set in Granada, Falla explores Romani culture. During this time the bailaora Pastora Imperio, a Romani dancer from Seville, was very popular and inspired Falla’s work. Unfortunately, the ballet was not well received by the critics nor by the audience. Falla later transcribed this work for piano and orchestra.

In 1919 Falla attended a performance by Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Falla asked him to support Igor Stravinsky, who was experiencing economic difficulties due to the war. Rubinstein agreed to fund Stravinsky after this petition and commissioned work from both Stravinsky and Falla. Stravinsky composed Piano-Rag-Music and Falla created Fantasía Baetica.

Falla’s Collaborations and Late Life

Falla lived in Granada from 1920 to 1939, where he had a prolific composing career. After the death of his parents in 1920, Falla and his sister María del Carmen decided to move to the city. Falla fell in love with Granada, which was becoming an important point of encounter for artists. Falla’s fame allowed him to create connections with different people, including poet Federico García Lorca. Lorca, like Falla, was interested in the flamenco, and together they created a competition for cante jondo in 1922. He collaborated with the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, a close friend, to whom he dedicated his harpsichord concerto. Falla also mentored couple of musicians, among them the pianist and composer Rosa García Ascot (recommended by Felipe Pedrell) and the composer and conductor Ernesto Halffter.

Falla established himself as a symphonist who promoted Spanish nationalism with his composition Noches en Los Jardines de España. The piece was originally intended as set of three nocturns for solo piano but was expanded to include orchestra. This composition was inspired by Andalusian’s diverse culture and folk music. It premiered in Madrid in 1916, six years after Falla finished the composition.

Falla left Spain after Francisco Franco won the Spanish civil war and rose to power in 1939. This event, coupled with his sorrow after the murder of his close friend Federico García Lorca by Franco’s army, contributed to Falla’s decision to emigrate to Argentina. Manuel de Falla died in 1946 due to cardiac arrest. He always lived with his sister and never married or had children.

Falla and Pedagogy

Manuel de Falla changed the approach to Spanish music in the classical world. He turned Spanish music into an art form, providing flamenco and Spain a place in history and in prestigious concert halls.

Falla inspired many contemporaries and other composers who followed them. He was not only interested in the history of Spanish music, but also committed to creating a path for composers to explore with the utilization of the guitar and flamenco as the main point of reference for Spanish music.

Manuel de Falla didn’t have many students. From December 1903 until November 1905, Falla primarily taught people of the highest society including the Marquese of Alta Villa. These students were not interested in becoming professional musicians. After returning to Spain from Paris during WWI, Falla briefly instructed conductor Ernesto Halffter. Without a doubt, however, his main student was the pianist and Spanish composer Rosa García Ascot, also known as Rosita. 

During her early years, Ascot studied under Felipe Pedrell. Pedrell wrote letters to Manuel de Falla asking him to take Rosita as his student, considering her a prodigy with a natural talent. Ascot initially planned to study with Enrique Granados, but Granados died unexpectedly in 1916. Falla stated in his response that he did not have time to teach but would make an exception considering Pedrell’s high praise of Ascot. During her studies with Falla, Rosa developed a neo-classical style. She composed a piano work inspired by the guitar called La de guitarra.