Musical nationalism can be deeply inspiring. The expansive spirit of Copland’s American West, Gershwin’s sophisticated and urbane New York — they’re like a comfortable chair, a home-cooked meal. They suggest “home” unlike any other music.

However, there is also great virtue in wandering.

Consider how diminished the history of music would be if composers focused only on the language of their native countries. We need to honor the powerful vision of nationalists. Chopin can induce a patriotic fervor for Poland regardless of one’s country; Sibelius could make a Haitian long for Finland. But music, like food, can serve as a panoramic window into different cultures. Copland wrote Appalachian Spring, but he also wrote El Salon Mexico.

Portrait of Emmanuel Chabrier, painted by Édouard Manet in 1880.

Portrait of Emmanuel Chabrier, painted by Édouard Manet in 1880.

The ersatz Turkish music of Mozart and Rossini, the idiomatic Chinese touches within Puccini’s Turandot; there are countless examples of this appropriation, and you can find a particularly rich vein of it in French compositions written in Spanish idioms.

Debussy’s Ibéria, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, Bizet’s Carmen, and Erik Satie’s parody Españaña, show an enduring and widespread French fascination with, and love of, the soundscapes of Spain.

And if this mountain of musical invention has an apex, it’s most likely Emmanuel Chabrier’s España, which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform Sept. 24-29, under Riccardo Muti.

Curious that a French civil servant composed such a perfect embodiment of the Spanish style, but Chabrier came by this work honestly. A long trip in 1882 took him through San Sebastián, Burgos, Toledo, Sevilla, Granada, Málaga, Cádiz, Cordoba, Valencia, Zaragoza and Barcelona. Enchanted by the jotas, malaguenas and flamenco music he heard, he wrote long letters about his experiences, transcribed some of the melodies and returned home passionately committed to writing an “extraordinary fantasia” that would “incite the audience to a pitch of excitement.”

That it did. The first performance, Nov. 4, 1883, at the Théâtre du Château d’Eau, was a resounding success and thrust Chabrier into the spotlight overnight. Manuel de Falla insisted that did no Spanish composer had succeeded in achieving so genuine a version of the jota, and Gustav Mahler went as far as to say that España was “the beginnings of modern music.” Even Ravel, not prone to hand out compliments like Halloween candy, solemnly declared: “All of contemporary French music stems from [Chabrier’s] work.”

Did it launch the vogue among French composers for Spanish music, as is so often said? Considering that both Bizet’s Carmen and Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole pre-date España, and more than a decade passed after the premiere of España before Debussy and Ravel wrote their Spanish-tinged works, it’s a hard case to make.

Another myth that ought to be disposed of is the exaggerated claim, made by Harold C. Schonberg among others, that the French have written better Spanish music than the Spaniards have. It might be more accurate to say that some tastes prefer Spanish music with a French accent. Scholar Samuel Llano, in his book Whose Spain? summarizes just these questions of authenticity. Spanish composers like Falla and Albeniz are writing their music with an awareness of French composers and audiences, striving to define just exactly what is the nature of Spanish music. Writer Joaquin Turina contributes to the debate about authenticity, describing Carmen as “a French work ornamented with inauthentic and superficial Spanish color.” In short, when we listen to these works, we aren’t listening to “Spanish” works. We’re listening to works that synthesize some of the strongest aspects of two distinct musical cultures.

Chabrier, for his part, never made claims of authenticity, nor did he devote any further compositional efforts to the Spanish style. España sounds like nothing else in his canon. The work emerged from Chabrier’s immediate and irresistible need to recapture the lively and erotic spirit of the zarzuela as well as he could. For all the influence the work has had, for all the visceral thrill it offers, he refused to make grandiose claims for it. His full description? “A piece in F and nothing more.”

Peter Lefevre, based in California, covers opera and classical music for the Orange County Register and Opera News.

TOP: Detail of a cover illustration for an album featuring legendary Spanish conductor Ataulfo Argenta leading the London Symphony Orchestra in a program of so-called Spanish blockbusters, including Chabrier’s España.

 

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