Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
La vida breve
Manuel de Falla is universally acknowledged as the centralpersonality of twentieth-century Spanish musical culture. Born in 1876 inCadiz, Andalusia, he aspired as a young boy to be a writer but by the mid-1890shad decided to concentrate on music. To further his ambition of becoming acomposer he studied in Madrid, his first works being for the piano. Between1900 and 1904, seeking to earn a living, he wrote six zarzuelas, the lightoperas popular in Spain. These were financially unrewarding but in Madrid,Falla came under what he described as the 'complex revitalizing influence' ofFelipe Pedrell (1841-1922), the great Catalan musicologist and composer.Pedrell inspired his students (among them Albeniz and Granados), to appreciatethe historic traditions of Spanish music, with emphasis on folk elements andrelevance to contemporary composition.
In 1905 Falla won first prize with La vida breve (Life isShort) in a competition for Spanish opera awarded by the Royal Academy of FineArts of San Fernando, but, as no public performance for the work was offered inSpain, he decided to seek better prospects in Paris. In the bracing culturalatmosphere of the French capital, he became friends with various leadingcomposers of the era, such as Albeniz, Debussy, Dukas, Ravel and Stravinsky. Aswell as receiving performances of several of his piano works and songs, La vidabreve was eventually produced at the Casino Municipal, Nice, in 1913, andrepeated at the Opera-Comique in Paris the following year.
After returning to Spain at the outbreak of World War I,Falla's reputation was rapidly in the ascendant in his native land.Performances of La vida breve (14th November 1914, at the Teatro de laZarzuela, Madrid), and Siete canciones populares espanolas (Seven SpanishFolksongs), a few weeks later, confirmed his status among critics and public asthe foremost contemporary Spanish composer. In April 1915, at the Teatro Larain Madrid, came the premi?¿re of one of his finest masterpieces, the ballet withsongs, El amor brujo (Love the Magician). This was followed by the firstperformance (1916) of Noches en los jardines de Espana (Nights in the Gardensof Spain), for piano and orchestra, and the illustrious success of anotherballet, El sombrero de tres picos(The Three-Cornered Hat), first given in Madrid in 1917.
In 1920 Falla moved to Granada. Here, with the poet,Federico Garcia Lorca, he organized the renowned Cante jondo flamencocompetition of 1922, an attempt, regrettably not repeated, to conserve andrevive the ancient art of Andalusian song. In Granada, Falla composed Elretablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter's Puppet Show, an adaptation of variousepisodes from Cervantes's Don Quixote), Psyche, the Concerto for harpsichord orpianoforte, Soneto a Cordoba (for voice and harp) and other works. His lastcompleted composition was a set of four Homenajes (Homages) for orchestra,first performed in Buenos Aires in 1939, conducted by Falla himself. From 1927until the end of his life, Falla worked on the cantata, Atlantida, a massivelyambitious undertaking left unfinished but eventually concluded by his eminentdisciple, Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989), for its belated premi?¿re in 1961.
Following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and devastatedby the tragic murder of his friend Lorca, Falla left Spain in 1939 forArgentina. He died there in 1946 a few days before his seventieth birthday. Hehad suffered from severe ill health for many years, and this certainly limitedhis output. Yet though not a prolific composer, his works are models of musicalperfection in expressive content and technical mastery.
La vida breve, in two acts, based on a libretto by CarlosFernandez Shaw, is the story of Salud, the gypsy heroine, a victim of passionand betrayal. The curtain rises, after a short introduction, on a gypsyhabitation. From one side comes the singing of men working in a forge, Get onwith your job, for man was born to work! (Street vendors can be heard sellingoranges, strawberries and figs.) Meanwhile Salud's grandmother feeds her petbirds. Salud enters, anxious that Paco may not come, and is reassured by hergrandmother. Eventually Paco arrives, vowing eternal love. Salud and Paco singa moving duet, Grandmother returns to watch the couple, joined by Uncle Sarvaor('an old gypsy, dark, violent and ill-tempered') who wants to kill Paco,knowing that he is marrying another girl the next day.
Act II is set in a narrow street in Granada. Behind therailings of a patio a wedding party is in full swing, the scene opening with flamencosinging to the bride and bridegroom, Carmela and Paco. A dance follows andSalud appears. She is aware of what is happening and questions whether toconfront Paco. The arrival of grandmother and uncle brings embraces for Saludand curses against Paco, who grows pale. Salud thinks she hears Paco's voiceamong the gathering and decides to enter the patio, repeating the words of thelabourers at the forge, It is hard to be born an anvil instead of a hammer.
After a brilliant orchestral interlude, the scene changes tothe courtyard in the house of Carmela and her brother, Manuel, where the partyis held. While Manuel rejoices at the day's happiness, Paco remains anxious.Uncle Sarvaor's entry, followed by Salud, causes the guests to wonder if theseare more gypsy entertainers, but Salud reveals she has come not to sing ordance but to confront Paco and remind him of his vows to her. When Paco accusesher of lying, Salud falls dead at his feet, overcome with grief. Grandmotherand uncle conclude the opera with cries of 'Traitor' and 'Judas'.
La vida breve, written when Falla was in his late twenties,is a powerful, spontaneous work, brimming with passion, variety of moods, andthe vividness of Andalusia. The focus remains throughout on Salud herself, theother characters serving to accentuate the heroine's tragic movement fromyouthful optimism to betrayal and death. Paco, however, is both sophisticatedand disingenuous, offering specious pledges of love but selecting a wealthiergirl from a higher social class as his bride. But he also deceives Carmela andManuel as his callousness transforms the wedding day, which should be joyful,to shades of deepest tragedy.
The grandmother offers protective family love and maturewisdom, though both attributes are inadequate to protect Salud from thepitfalls of love. Uncle Sarvaor, from the darker side of gypsy experience, isthe product of a hard existence resulting in a tendency to violence as well asa ready repertoire of fearsome curses. Overall the opera is set against thegrim atmosphere at the forge where workers endure harsh daily labour. Theircommentary on life, heard from the outset, becomes through Salud's destructionthe inescapable verdict, It's hard for the man unlucky from birth. Salud'smisfortune is that, despite her beauty, she too is destined to discover thetruth of this, and thus she sings her own version of the workers' song beforethe final confrontation.
La vida breve is a dramatic parable about life's tragicpredicaments expressed through the beauty of Falla's sublime music. But withinthis framework of tragedy a sense of utter vitality is always present, evokingthe splendours of passionate love and life reflected in song and dance, even ifinevitably matched against the frailties of human nature. Most of all Fallaunfolds a vision of the undeniable ebullience of Andalusian life, depictedthrough the brilliant colours of the quintessential Spanish imagination.