Discovering Xavier Montsalvatge

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Music-loving friends of mine know of my penchant for doing total immersions in the life and output of particular composers or, at times, spending a year focusing on a single work. Sometimes these immersions are occasioned by anniversaries (recently, Mahler and Barber) while others happen because I feel the need to look and listen afresh at the work of the masters (recently, Schubert and Shostakovich). Next year is the bicentennial of the births of Wagner and Verdi, but these two are never far from my attention.

Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002), the much undervalued Catalan composer, merits consideration even if this year did not mark the centennial of his birth. His most famous works, such as the Cinco Canciones Negras (1946), were not new to me because my musically eclectic and discerning father loved Montsalvatge, whose compositions were among the first I ever heard.

When, about ten months ago, I began my Montsalvatge immersion, my approach was to listen to any music I could find. There has been a small resurgence in recordings recently and, on two visits to Barcelona, I found some live performances to attend. My approach was entirely through the music as there was precious little to read in English or other languages I know. Then, recently, it came to my attention that an exemplary biography in English has just been published.

Roger Evans’s Xavier Montsalvatge: A Musical Life in Eventful Times (Pendragon, 2012) is a small but compelling book that makes the reader want to discover the music. The whole title is quite telling. Montsalvatge was 24 when the Spanish Civil War erupted. For everyone in that nation, and in particular ways for Catalans, the war was a profound trauma whose reverberations are still felt more than 70 years later. Montsalvatge wrote in 1991 of the war as “a dark tunnel, an endless interval during which music ceased to exist for me, collapsed like so many things by the drama that fell down on us from above: more than three years of nightmare, of infinite suffering, of despair.”

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel at New York’s Cervantes Institute with Evans that was moderated by Antoni Bassas, correspondent for Catalonia’s TV3 in Washington. Evans noted that the Civil War brought Montsalvatge’s nascent career to a halt and stated a fact I had not actively considered: “from 1936 to 1975, Spain did not have free cultural communication with other countries.” 

Barcelona before the Franco era had been one of the most open, progressive and forward-leaning cities in Europe, one that was at the cutting edge of culture and design. It was in this environment that Montsalvatge was born and formed as a man and an artist. It must have been traumatic to have all of that sealed tight just as he was ready to step forward as an artist.

The tensions between Catalonia and the rest of Spain are as real today as ever, with the latest vote affecting secession having taken place this week. The idea of identity anywhere in the world is fraught and complicated. Is it about language? Shared blood? Religion? Common enemies? Natural or artificial borders? The answer is some and all of these. I am profoundly egalitarian in outlook and believe that each of us is in every way equal and deserving of equal treatment and benefits. The beauty of being human comes in our differences and what we can teach one another.

When I go to Barcelona and experience its dynamic creativity, respect for art and its outstanding opera audience, I see these as something worth preserving and encouraging but, as I do everywhere, I become concerned if anyone professes a sense of superiority. I would say the same thing in Madrid, New York, Beijing, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Teheran, Johannesburg or anywhere else.

As I have come to know Montsalvatge through his music and writings and Evans’s fine biography, I have asked myself whether it is fair to describe him as a Catalan composer because he happened to be from Catalonia. He surely drank deeply at the cultural and spiritual well of the place he lived in for most of his life. But he also was worldly and cosmopolitan in his tastes. His favorite composers included contemporaries such as Stravinsky, Ravel and Gershwin. Evans described him as “a serious composer who did not look for immortality” who said that he composed for the people of his own time, namely the musicians rather than the audience.

In the cultural mix in which Montsalvatge was not only a composer but a teacher and an expert critic, he encountered and worked with towering artists such as cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals (1876-1973), pianist Alicia De Larrocha (1923-2009) and sopranos Victoria de Los Angeles (1923-2005) and Montserrat Caballé (b. 1933). Unlike these artists, who all had big international careers, Montsalvatge remained mostly at home. But they all became advocates and ambassadors for his music and he, in turn, composed music for them -- especially De Larrocha and de los Angeles.

Anyone interested in music for the piano should investigate Montsalvatge’s output. He wrote pieces specifically for De Larrocha. I would have you start with the Concierto breve (1953). Another evocative piece is the Sonatina para Yvette inspired by his daughter.

Montsalvatge composed ballets, film music, symphonic works and a wide range of pieces. Vocal music was also quite dear to him. There are many beautiful songs, including the last one on this program with Victoria de los Angeles. He also wrote four operas. The one I would commend to you first is the delightful and sly El Gato con Botas (Puss-in-Boots). I recommend a recording on the Columna Musica label of a 2002 performance at the Liceu conducted by Antoni Ros Marbà and starring Marisa Martins. There was a lovely production in 2010 at the New Victory theater in New York directed by Moises Kaufman. The opera is about an hour long and has been congenially paired in theaters with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. I might pair it with and opera by Giancarlo Menotti or perhaps Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges

Montsalvatge drew up a list of his favorite music. The operas were Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Gianni Schicchi, Menotti’s The Consul and Verdi’s Falstaff. He also mentioned two arias, Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Io son l’umile ancella from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur.

The composer once said “It is works by other composers that have driven me to compose, not a particular landscape or literature.”  In completing the so-called Proust Questionnaire he said his favorite heroes of fiction are from opera “from Don Giovanni to Gianni Schicchi” and his favorite heroines were also from opera “from La Sonnambula to the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier.” I think of all this in relation to my wondering whether Montsalvatge was first and foremost a composer or someone whose being a Catalan in eventful times was more determinative of what drove him. Are we the language we speak, the food that we eat and the buildings that surround us--in other words, that which is shared? Or are we what we read, what we listen to, and what we dream--that which nourishes our inner life?

An exhibition on the life and work of Xavier Montsalvatge is on view at the Cervantes Institute in New York (211 East 49th Street) through December 12.