Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Spanish Mozart

They called him 'the Spanish Mozart'. Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (1806-1826) was a composer-prodigy, writing an octet at the age of 11, having an opera performed at the age of 13 and dying young - very young - at the age of 19. He was maturing quickly before what seems to have been tuberculosis struck him down. Schubert died at 31, Mozart at 35. It's hard not to wonder what even an extra twelve years of life would have meant for the name of Arriaga. 

So what have we got? Alas, little more than the overture from that opera, Los esclavos felices ('The Happy Slaves') survives; however, this overture is one of the works which proves young Arriaga to be at least as precocious as Mendelssohn, Mozart and, maybe, even Korngold. I hope you'll agree that it's a beautifully-proportioned, delightful piece. The style is essentially Classical with an added dash of Rossini (especially in the woodwind writing). The slowish introduction has a bucolic air and a charming tune. The main allegro is full of good things, including memorable themes, an imaginative development section, a rousing Rossinian crescendo leading into the coda and a surprise ending. The scoring throughout is felicitous. 

Now, if you enjoyed that happy creation then you are also bound to like the Symphony in D, completed at the age of 18. It is, however, a piece in a different temper and an even more impressive creation. It starts with a stormy early-Beethoven-like first movement prefaced by a solemn slow introduction, then a beautiful,  pathos-laden Andante followed by a syncopated Minuet with a delectable pastoral trio section and, to end, an agitated Finale that anticipates the coming of Mendelssohn. A noteworthy feature of the symphony is that it is indeed "in D", spending as much of its time in D minor as it does in D major and passing through many a surprising modulation along the way. Many hear a budding Romantic beginning to burst into flower here.

The other main legacy left to us by the young composer are his three string quartets, composed as a group when the composer was 17. In these pieces you also hear Arriaga, like Schubert before him, displaying love and understanding for the quartets of Haydn and Mozart, alighting occasionally on Beethoven but building his own proto-Romantic style. You may also hear little touches of Spanishness from time to time (something absent from the orchestral works). I can bring you only two of them unfortunately. 

The dramatic opening Allegro of the String Quartet No. 1 in D minor has a melancholy air to it and begins with a theme which is quickly developed before yielding to a folk-inspired second subject. Listen out for more of those subtle major/minor shifts in this movement. The tender Adagio unwinds a long cantilena from the first violin, while the Minuet has a trio section that uses pizzicato chords to suggest the accompaniment of a guitar. There's a slow, grave introduction to Mozartian finale, which turns out to be a somewhat brighter movement whose main theme seems to have something of the jota rhythm about it.

The first movement of the String Quartet No. 3 in E flat major shows Arriaga pursuing the Hadyn/Beethoven path of playing with short thematic ideas. It also contains another of the composer's characterful development sections, plus more of his enticing modulations. The delightful second movement takes us into the countryside for a pastorale. As in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, there's a brief storm - evoked using tremolo writing - to disturb the peaceful scene. The cloud-covered C minor Minuet is even closer to the spirit of Beethoven, though its trio section is a far more genial affair. Then comes the closing presto agitato where the Haydnesque impulse to mine themes is further pursued and done so admirably.

You may already know some of these pieces but I suspect you may (like me) be unfamiliar with his vocal music. There's a pleasing if not especially dramatic Stabat Mater for three male voices and orchestra, plus several cantatas. These include the strongly dramatic Agar dans le désert, for soprano, treble and orchestra, which tells the story of Hagar's flight into the desert with her son Ishmael as told in Genesis. The cantata has more than a flavour of tragic opera about it, especially in the striking scene between mother and child and the fierce and fabulous final aria, and is a remarkable piece of writing for a teenager. In a lighter but no less impressive vein, please also try the Dúo from Ma tante Aurore, a lyrical buffo number that lovers of Mozart and Rossini will surely appreciate. 

It's always a bit melancholy, even nearly two hundred years later, to get to know and appreciate someone's work whilst being aware that they had hardly even begun their journey as a composer (and human being) before their death and could have gone on to become one of the greatest names of music, as Arriaga certainly had the makings to be. Still, we have what we have to console us I suppose.

Further listening
Erminiascène lyrique-dramatique
Médée, air
La Hungara, for violin and piano

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