Composers active between the advent of the railways and the start of air travel are liable to get categorised as ‘nationalist’. As were Spain’s three most prominent from the late 1800s and early 1900s: Isaac Albéniz, Manuel de Falla and Enrique Granados. Falla could mix austere precision and gypsy drama, turning an orchestra or a piano into a monster flamenco guitar. Albéniz, the larger-than-life adventurer, wrote splashy and vibrant piano tall-stories that combine vivid Iberian colour with Liszt-like pyrotechnics.
But Granados… ah, Granados. The incurable romantic, the piano-poet, the Spanish Grieg. The handsome, likeable, dreamy-eyed artist, staunchly supported by a long-suffering wife despite flings and affairs. Distracted, improvisatory, passionate, joking, un-arrogant, always sure it would work out in the end. The proverbial struggling-composer, scraping a salary from teaching and overlooked theatre works, barely supporting his six children… Yes, six: in life and music he could over-repeat things he liked, and was bad at seeing the big picture.
He didn’t do Beethoven-scale architecture. If Falla and Albéniz did the big technicolour, Granados did intimate, locket-sized, sepia-toned nostalgia. The least familiar of the three on concert programmes, he’s also in many ways the subtlest and most difficult to pin down. In that very question of nationalism, for instance – how ‘Spanish’ was Granados’s music? – we soon get into murky waters…
And discussion of ‘murky waters’ is itself inevitable with Granados, who drowned in the English Channel in 1916 when his ship was hit by a German torpedo. As the vessel went down, he apparently left a life-raft in a vain attempt to rescue his wife. Both perished. He became another in the list of Great War casualties, cut down in mid-life on the verge of international recognition. That cinematic drama hoovers up most of the limited wordage that Granados is allocated in music books. The remaining lines might squeeze in a mention of his fizzy little Spanish pieces, popular in guitar transcription; his Goya-inspired piano tableaux; and his rather backward-looking salon style.
For almost all of the 20th century, Granados was little more than that tick-list. More than half of his work, even some which had enjoyed brief commercial viability in turn-of-the-century Barcelona, existed only in manuscript. Biography was decades old, only in French or Spanish. Recordings were limited. Recently all this has changed, and we can appreciate the man’s genius. A minor genius, yes, but a genius all the same. He was no Schumann, Chopin or Wagner, whose music he idolised and often imitated. ‘He knew that, and so do we,’ admits Walter Aaron Clark’s excellent recent biography. But despite its flaws, repetitions and unspectacular scale, there’s something attractive, pure, often surprising about Granados’s musical world.
Take the nationalism business. His two most familiar works, from either end of his all too brief composing career, each have clear Spanish number plates. His first hit was the charming set of 12 Danzas españolas from 1888-90. They tick all the boxes – short lively tunes, clear tonal contrasts, light references to picture-postcard Spain with hints of seguidilla or fandango – and were immediately feted as nationalist piano gems at home and abroad by luminaries such as Cui, Massenet and Saint-Saëns. They’re familiar to many in their transcription for two guitars, where they work beautifully, especially the sublime Oriental. This is no surprise, even though Granados never wrote a note for the guitar, and couldn’t play one. Many of the markers of ‘Spanish’ music – the punchy rhythms, the descending (‘Phrygian’) G-F-E shape of the bassline, the ‘plucked’ arpeggios – come ultimately from the natural way a guitarist’s fingers work on strings. The effects they produce would be imprinted on Granados’s phenomenal musical ear, which could assimilate new ideas readily. (Though never an out-and-out modernist, he ‘got’ Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in one, enthusiastically reproducing its jagged rhythms to friends afterwards.)
Then there’s his late – in some minds greatest, certainly best-regarded – work: the Goyescas, six substantial, yearning, bittersweet piano sketches inspired by Goya’s paintings of a century before (though not specific ones). Rarely can sounds have emulated the spirit of a visual artist so effectively. Just as Goya’s outlines are simple but have rich colour-depth behind them, so Granados’s melodies are folksy, singable and memorable, but have luscious high-Romantic harmony underneath. He lards it with countless trills, turns and decorations; you can almost feel the drips of paint building up a three-dimensional impasto. It’s very Spanish. Not the Spain of gypsy bars, though, but the aristocratic Spain of the late 1700s, an era with whose elegant aesthetics Granados fell in love.
Between those two ‘Spanish’ extremes, his many piano works have virtually nothing of the castanet or guitar. Most are charming and well-crafted miniatures, usually modelled rather obviously on late 19th-century European maestros. The sparkling Allegro de Concierto, for example, (Liszt), which won a competition in Madrid in 1903. Or the delightful Escenas romanticas (Chopin), with their quiet and poignant melancholy. Or the Cantos de juventud (Schumann: the title is surely inspired by Kinderszenen). Or the lovely Valses poeticos (Schumann again), which Granados played to concert acclaim throughout his career. He was an outstanding pianist, admired by the French for his subtlety and restraint, but by the Spanish for his fire and passion, and left some piano-roll recordings which show his facility for improvisation.
He was no son of flamenco. He came from a military family from cool, cosmopolitan Barcelona – Catalan, not Castilian-Spanish, though he spoke both languages fluently. Like the commercial routes of his native city, he looked for musical inspiration as much towards middle Europe as he did towards the rest of the Spanish peninsula. After two years studying in Paris he added French to his language set, though not his harmonic toolkit: no Debussy influence here. Was he a Catalan nationalist, then? No. For one thing, he always signed himself ‘Enrique’, the Castilian spelling, not ‘Enric’, the Catalan spelling. Granted, he wrote five stage works to Catalan texts by Apeles Mestres, two of them genuine operas, others with spoken dialogue. Picarol was the most successful, with a hundred performances; Gaziel scored 40; the others flopped. Yet nowhere in any of them is there a hint of Catalan self-assertion, never mind separatism: no history, no battles, no morals.
Looking for clues in his Spanish-language opera of 1898 María del Carmen yields nothing either. There’s a dash of south-Spanish folklore (from Murcia); a bit of Italian verismo, but with a happy ending; and a deal of Wagner in the approach to handling musical drama. But it received a mixed reception in Madrid and in Barcelona, depending on whether the critic was pro- or anti- Catalanism. Or Wagnerism. Or other -ism.
The answer is actually the obvious one. Granados didn’t care for politics. He was interested in music and art. If he heard a rhythm, a melodic idea, or a harmonic twist that he liked, he would use it. It didn’t matter whether it was Schumann, flamenco, or the emotional reaction he had to Goya’s paintings. He was proud to promote his country’s culture, as he did in New York when Goyescas was turned, with limited success, into an opera and staged there (the return from which ended in that fatal Channel crossing). But he didn’t regard himself merely as a Catalan; or a Spaniard; or even simply as composer, pianist, or teacher. He saw himself as something grander: an Artist. If Granados was a ‘nationalist’, it was as a citizen of the Nation of Art.