Falla's cante jondo - Four female flamenco dancers in traditional dresses performing flamenco dance on stage with band.

Falla’s Cante Jondo

Portrait of composer Manuel de Falla seated in front of books

Falla and Flamenco

Falla and Cante Jondo

The origin of the cante jondo, or “deep voice,” is a vocal style of flamenco often associated with Moorish chants. Andalusia was part of the Moorish caliphate in the 10th century. Later, the style became a symbol of ethnic identity for the Roma people in Spain.

Manuel de Falla was exposed to this music during his childhood in Andalusia. Despite his fascination with this style, he did not properly study it until many years later when he read “L’acoustique nouvelleby Louis Lucas. This book provided new ideas of harmony, especially in relation to enharmonization. Lucas’s theory argued that dissonances are capricious divisions that tend to move to consonant tones due to law of attractions which can be modified by the performer. Falla thought of the guitar as the perfect instrument to encapsulate the reflection of the this style. The Spanish guitarist uses the technique spontaneously while using the rasgueado, or strumming, technique. Lucas’s theory on the superposition of major chords over minor excited Falla. He was interested in creating dissonances that resolved to consonances by semitones, most of the time in contrary motion, emphasizing the effect.

Falla referred to this idea in an interview:

How stimulating to think of the future! For music is just starting out on her way. Harmony is on the threshold. For instance, the folk-songs of my native Andalusia derive from a much subtler scale that can be found in an octave of twelve notes. All I can do in my day is to give an illusion of these quarter-tones by superimposing chords of one key on another. But the day is fast coming when our present notation will have to be abandoned for one able to come with our demands.

Development of Cante Jondo in the Early 20th Century

During the 1922 cante jondo competition, Federico García Lorca stated that Manuel de Falla believed that “cante jondo had its roots in Indian music, comparing the inarmonismo [lack of harmony between parts] as a way of modulating, a very small range for melody that barely moved beyond a sixth, and the constant repetition of a note that could be even obsessive sometimes.” The ornamentations were used often but only on certain moments of emotion, following the text. Lucas believed that the “inarmonismo” was the first thing that appeared in natural order, due to the “imitation of the singing of birds, animal sounds, and the infinitive noise of matters.”

In 1919 Falla composed the Fantasia Baetica. The piece demonstrates his interest in and research on the elements of cante jondo, an essential element in the Fantasía Baetica. 

Cante jondo became very popular around the world, inspiring many French and Russian composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. Interestingly, the style was not appreciated in Spain by the general audience. They preferred the cuplé, a bawdy theater song style, which was popular during that time. Falla worried about the possibility of losing flamenquismo and the purity of the rudimentary singing of Andalusia. This fear was one of the reasons why, after the suggestion of his friend Miguel Cerón, he decided to create the competition for cante jondo. His goal was to promote this art and to ensure that it would not disappear.

1922 Competition

Falla wrote a letter in 1922 asking the government of Granada for institutional support for the cante jondo competition. This letter was signed by some of the most prominent cultural personalities of Spain, including the composer Joaquín Turina and the Nobel Prize laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez. Falla wanted to invite the composers Stravinsky and Ravel to attend to listen to the competition, but he did not get the funding.

Federico García Lorca was one of Falla’s closest friends in Granada and was a major promoter of the competition. On many occasions Lorca praised the sound of the Spanish guitar, the cante jondo, and the Andalusian musical style in his poetry. Falla explained his research on the origin of cante jondo with Lorca, as well as Pedrell’s works and the musical theories by Louis Lucas that Falla associated with this art. Lorca reflected on all these conversations in a conference presentation he gave before the competition. The presentation was a great success and was published in seven parts by El Noticiero Granadin.

Lorca made a distinction between cante jondo and cante flamenco:

It is given the name of cante jondo to a group of Andalusian songs, which their genuine and perfect type is the siguiriya gitana, from which many other songs still are conserved by people, as polos, martinetes, carceleras and soleares. The coplas called malagueñas, granadinas, rondeñas and peteneras, etc., cannot be considered more than a consequence of the previous cited, so their architecture and rhythm are different from the others. These ones are flamencas. […] The main differences between cante jondo with flamenco, are that the origin of the first one we have to look it for in the early musical systems of India, in other words, in the first appearance of singing, while the second one, that is a consequence of the first one, it takes the definitive form in the 18th century.

Lorca also mentioned that Falla believed that the seguiriya gitana was the model song of cante jondo, and the only one that still had all the purity due to the composition and because of the style. Falla believed that the style of cante jondo was unique due to three main reasons:

  • The adoption of the Spanish church of liturgical chant.
  • The arrival of the Saracens.
  • The influence from many groups of Roma people.

For these reasons the Spanish Roma people were able to create a type of song unique for Europe, making the segiriya gitana a symbol of cante jondo and Andalusian music.

Falla created the competition for amateur singers. Professional singers were allowed but they were not allowed to compete. The competition’s main objective was to promote the old way of singing to a new audience. With this idea in mind, Falla created an academy of cante jondo and professional singers were encouraged to send their students. The competition took place on June 13th and 14th in 1922 in Granada with great success.