Book 1 No 1: Evocación
Book 1 No 2: El puerto
Book 1 No 3: El Corpus en Sevilla
Book 2 No 1: Rondeña
Book 2 No 2: Almería
Book 2 No 3: Triana
Book 3 No 1: El Albaicín
Book 3 No 2: El polo
Book 3 No 3: Lavapiés
Book 4 No 1: Málaga
Book 4 No 2: Jerez
Book 4 No 3: Eritaña
Iberia represents Albéniz’s distinctive merging of three principal style elements: Impressionist harmonies, especially the use of whole-tone scales; Lisztian virtuosity taken to the limits of human ability; and the Spanish nationalism he himself had developed and defined. This nationalism evoked a variety of regional styles of song and dance, especially Andalusian flamenco, along with intimations of the guitar’s rasgueo and punteo (strumming and plucking) and of the singer’s coplas (songs or song verses). However, as Albéniz insisted, ‘I never utilize the “raw material” in its crude state’. Rather, as Debussy noted, he had absorbed native melodies and rhythms so completely that ‘they have passed into his music, leaving no trace of a boundary line’.
‘Evocación’ (‘Évocation’) is a prime example of these traits. But what most impresses us is the profoundly interiorized mood that pervades this piece, as Albéniz views his homeland from a distance in time and space, through a haze of memory and nostalgia. This is one of the eight Iberia selections in sonata form, with its attendant exposition, development, and restatement of themes. While the principal theme here harkens to southern songs and dances of the fandango/ malagueña type, the second theme evokes the northern jota. Thus, this ‘evocation’ (entitled ‘Prélude’ in the manuscript) seems to embrace the entire country in a sweeping musical gesture. ‘El puerto’ exudes a completely contrasting atmosphere of noisy good spirits, the hustle and bustle of a seaport, El Puerto de Santa María near Cádiz. It is in the style of the zapateado, a dance based on an insistent rhythm in 6/8, and Albéniz highlights his score with occasional rhythmic flourishes suggesting rasgueo. ‘El Corpus en Sevilla’ (or ‘Fête-Dieu à Séville’) is a programmatic piece in ternary form (aba) that paints a captivating picture of Corpus Christi in Seville, during which a statue of the Virgin is carried through the streets accompanied by marching bands, singers, and penitential flagellants. The piece begins with some rataplan, then introduces a march-like theme inspired by the popular song ‘La Tarara’. What follows in the ‘b’ section is an evocation of the soulful saeta (literally ‘arrow’), a piercing cry of religious ecstasy. Despite all the festive tumult, the piece concludes in a tranquil mood, as if the procession had passed into the cool evening of the composer’s romantic imagination.
Book Two commences with ‘Rondeña’, a type of song and dance named after Ronda in western Andalusia. But this piece bears only passing resemblance to it and is a hybrid of various styles. The hemiola rhythm of the principal theme marks it as Spanish, while the copla secondary theme is suggestive of the jota. ‘Almería’ is a city on the Mediterranean coast of Andalusia, where Albéniz’s father once worked briefly in the 1860s. Hemiola rhythms dominate this piece as well, but the mood is altogether different, and there is a strong suggestion of the siguiriyas, a jondo (literally ‘deep’) gypsy song and dance. The secondary theme is again a copla à la jota, but stretched out in slow motion, over a gently rocking accompaniment. As in ‘El Corpus en Sevilla’, Albéniz resorts to three staves here, giving the score the appearance of organ music. ‘Triana’ is the gypsy quarter in Seville and one of the cradles of flamenco. This number resounds with all the clamor of a juerga (flamenco party), with the strumming of guitars, snapping of castanets, palmas (clapping), and percussive zapateo (footwork). After a pasodoble-like introduction, the principal theme evokes the sevillanas, a lively and lighthearted song and dance popular in Seville.
Book Three begins with ‘El Albaicín’, the gypsy quarter of Granada, a city Albéniz loved and often evoked in his works. This number is structured as a series of three alternations between a dance-like principal theme and a freer, copla-style secondary melody. The dance section recalls the rhythm of the flamenco bulerías, while the distribution of the notes simulates a guitar technique alternating thumb and index finger. The jondo-style copla has a chant-like quality that creates an entrancing reverie. Albéniz’s ‘El polo’ does not bear much of a resemblance to the flamenco song after which it is named, except in its inconsolably melancholy character. The most famous concert polos are those of Manuel García, but Albéniz does not seem to have used them as a model either. What most interests us about this selection is the persistence of the rhythmic pattern from the first beat to the last, giving the piece an almost obsessive quality consistent with its mood. In fact, Albéniz instructs the performer to play as if ‘sweetly sobbing’ and again ‘always in the spirit of a sob’. The rhythmic figure itself suggests this. Book Three concludes with ‘Lavapiés’, a district in Madrid named for the local church where a foot-washing ritual was performed on Holy Thursday. This locale was known in Albéniz’s time for its low-class denizens called chulos. There was a lot of noisy street life in this district, which Albéniz simulates through a riot of wrong-note dissonance. Both principal and secondary themes are based on the Cuban habanera, which was all the rage in Madrid in the late nineteenth century.
Book Four opens with ‘Málaga’, one of the shortest pieces in the collection. The rhythmic freedom, triple metre, and modality of the principal theme suggest the malagueña, while the secondary theme evokes a jota malagueña, one of many regional varieties of jota. The reappearance of the jota throughout the collection, in one guise or another, gives it the character of a leitmotif, unifying the various numbers. ‘Jerez’ is a city in western Andalusia famous for producing the liquor named after it: sherry. This is the only piece in the collection with a key signature of no flats or sharps. Its emphasis on A minor and melancholy mood have reminded some of the soleá, one of the most jondo of flamenco songs and dances. The rhythms may not be quite right for a soleá, but the unusual alternation of metres gives the piece a rhythmic complexity thoroughly flamenco in character. In any case, Albéniz masterfully elicits from the keyboard colourful suggestions of singing and guitar-playing. The final piece in Iberia takes us again to Seville, this time to the Venta Eritaña, a popular inn on the outskirts of the city that was famous for its flamenco entertainment. The rhythms of the sevillanas permeate the entire piece, and there is no contrasting copla section. The exuberant spirit and piquant dissonance of ‘Eritaña’ convey in unforgettable fashion the excitement of a juerga, and Debussy singled out this number as the finest in the entire collection.
from notes by Walter Aaron Clark © 2005