The Most Famous Work For Guitar
Our program note annotator Michael Clive writes about the guitar’s most famous work, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. After reading about this beautiful piece, listen to Pablo Villegas playing the exquisite slow movement.
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So many of classical music’s great geniuses led tragically short lives—Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Bizet all died in their 30s—that when we encounter those blessed with longevity, we rejoice. The Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, though blinded by diphtheria at age 3, lived to be 98. He credited the apparent calamity of his illness for his lifelong involvement in music.
Bust of the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, with an image of his wife, the pianist Victoria Kamhi, in the background. España Park, Rosario, Santa Fe Province, Argentina.
But while he absorbed the elements of French style and refinement, his music remains Spanish to its very core. With Manuel de Falla (b. 1876) and Enrique Granados (b. 1867), Rodrigo was central to the flowering of musical creativity that raised the prominence of Spanish music in the 20th century.
These composers burst upon the music world like a new discovery, though their cultural lineage extended back centuries. Musicians and audiences greeted them like long-lost brothers, but their distinctively Iberian sound, drenched in folk melodies and in the traditions of Spanish church music of the Baroque period, was like nothing to be heard in the rest of Europe.
While Manuel de Falla gained renown for ballet scores that traveled with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Granados’ orchestral and piano compositions earned their standing as repertory staples (and his opera Goyescas in opera houses including New York’s Metropolitan), Rodrigo became known for his remarkable concertos.
They reflect the Spanish affinity for the guitar; the two best-known examples, his Fantasy for a Nobleman and the Concierto de Aranjuéz, are both for that instrument. But there are other notable examples, including a spectacularly original concerto for harp.
Rodrigo composed the Fantasy for a Gentleman in 1954 for Andrés Segovia, and though it is often mistakenly associated with Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme—inspiration for many musical adaptions—the gentleman of Rodrigo’s title is actually Segovia himself. But the Concierto de Aranjuéz remains his most popular and widely performed composition.
Inspired by the gardens at the Palacio Real de Aranjuéz, the concerto opens with two themes in alternation. As Rodrigo notes, the movement is “animated by a rhythmic spirit and vigor without either of the two themes … interrupting its relentless pace.”
Their rhythmic impetus makes the slow hush of the second movement all the more dramatic, with a dialogue between solo instrument and ensemble that is traditional in concertos. The last movement, as Rodrigo notes, “recalls a courtly dance in which the combination of double and triple time maintains a taut tempo right to the closing bar.”
The late George Jellinek—a perceptive musicologist and commentator not inclined to exaggerate—called Rodrigo’s concertos revolutionary, and asserted that their freshness resulted from the composer’s use of the second interval. Even listeners with no musical background are likely to have heard about other harmonic intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, and so on—but seconds, comprised of two notes that lie next to each other on the piano keyboard, are rarely heard or mentioned. And, yes, we do hear them frequently in this concerto.
But are they so fully responsible for the concerto’s distinctive sound? Or do they function more like the rainfall on a streetscape in Paris or at the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, adding a poetic dimension to a scene that is already beautiful?
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor‑in‑chief for The Santa Fe Opera.