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Isaac Albéniz

born: 29 May 1860
died: 18 May 1909
country: Spain

There are many descriptions of the childhood adventures of Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909), but constructing a reliable account of his early years is made all the more difficult by Albéniz’s habit of inventing tall stories. He was first taught the piano by his elder sister Clementina, and made such rapid progress that they gave a public concert together when he was about four years old. Albéniz was admitted to the Royal Conservatory in Madrid in 1868, but he was an unreliable student and never completed his studies, largely because he began giving concerts throughout Spain when he was only eleven. Many of his early concerts were for Masonic groups, arranged through contacts of his father, who was a Mason. Albéniz travelled to the Greater Antilles in 1875 with his father, who had been appointed to a government post in Havana.

After numerous successful appearances in Puerto Rico and Cuba, Albéniz went to Leipzig in May 1876 to study composition with Salomon Jadassohn (whose pupils included Grieg, Delius and Busoni) and Carl Reinecke (teacher of composers as diverse as Bruch and Janácvek), but withdrew after two months. Albéniz returned briefly to Spain where the royal family awarded him a scholarship to study at the conservatoire in Brussels, where he arrived in October 1876. He studied the piano with Louis Brassin, and in 1879 shared a first prize in the annual piano concours with Arthur de Greef. Albéniz wanted to pursue a career as a piano virtuoso and set out to ask the great Franz Liszt for lessons. Albéniz wrote in his diary: ‘I have visited Liszt. He received me in the most amiable manner. I played two of my Etudes and a Hungarian Rhapsody. To all appearances he was much pleased with me, especially when I improvised a complete dance on a Hungarian theme … I am to return the day after tomorrow.’ This was pure fabrication: it seems Albéniz never even met Liszt, let alone studied with him. His classmate Arthur de Greef did become a Liszt pupil at the time, and that may have encouraged Albéniz to invent this tallest of stories about his student years—an embellishment that was intended to enhance his reputation back in Spain.

In 1883 Albéniz began to study composition with Felipe Pedrell (1841–1922), the musician who did more than any other to encourage an exploration of Spanish folk music as a way of developing a distinctive national style. The same year, he fell in love and subsequently married Rosina Jordana Lagarriga. Albéniz was now in his early twenties, and under Rosina’s calming influence, and inspired by Pedrell, he began composing a series of works that evoked the sounds and sights of Spain, most of them for solo piano.

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