How did Enrique Granados die?

How an invitation to play at the White House in front of President Wilson led Enrique Granados to board the ill-fated passenger ship, SS Sussex. Words by Freya Parr

How did Enrique Granados die?

On 24 March 1916 at the height of the First World War, the SS Sussex, a passenger ferry travelling from England to France, was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine. The unprovoked attack killed around 50, two of whom were the Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados and his wife Amparo Gal.

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It was a series of ironic twists of fate that led Granados to be on this particular ship. Based on the positive reviews of his earlier piano suite Goyescas, the Paris Opera commissioned Granados to adapt the work into an opera, the premiere of which was scheduled to take place in Paris in 1914. However, because of the outbreak of World War I, its premiere had to be postponed indefinitely, whereupon the New York publisher G Schirmer agreed to publish the work and have it performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

So on 28 January 1916, Granados and his wife travelled from their home in Spain for the opera’s premiere – the first time both a Spanish-language opera had been staged at the Met and a major Spanish composer had visited the US. It was, without a doubt, the pinnacle of Granados’s career.

Granados, however, failed to make a great first impression on the US press, declaring on his arrival that Americans knew nothing of real Spanish music. His opera went on to receive mixed reviews, with the New York Times asking ‘Was it worth all that? Hardly.’ Despite this, Granados was subsequently asked to give a piano recital for President Woodrow Wilson at the White House.

The unexpected invitation meant that he was forced to miss his return ship back to Spain. So, after the recital, he and Gal took the Rotterdam passenger ship to England instead, where he spent a few days at London’s Savoy Hotel before leaving on the SS Sussex from Folkestone to Dieppe in northern France. Granados gave an impromptu piano recital on board the ship in the Gentlemen’s Smoking Room.   

The trip from Folkestone to Dieppe took twice as long as the alternative route from Dover to Calais, but Granados and Gal chose it because it was supposed to be safer: the Dover-to-Calais route was known to be infested with submarines. But as the SS Sussex passed through the English Channel, it became the victim of the Germans’ policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Although several passengers were killed instantly, Granados and his wife survived, but the impact threw them into the water. Granados was picked up by a life raft, but saw Gal struggling and jumped in to save her. In a tragic turn of events, the pair died together.

Granados’s ultimate sacrifice for his wife is bittersweet – their marriage had been tumultuous thanks largely to Enrique’s various infidelities. At the Granados Academy (the school he opened for pianists), he often attracted the attention of admiring female students and embarked on a long affair with 17-year-old Clotilde Godó Pelegrí, which, after numerous other fleeting relationships with other women, had severely tested his 24-year marriage.

Later, it was revealed that the SS Sussex had broken in two parts, leaving one still afloat. The section of the boat that contained Granados’s cabin was pulled ashore with most of its passengers still in it. The submarine attack became known not just for taking the lives of Granados, his wife and 50 others, but also for triggering the Sussex Pledge: a promise from Germany to the United States not to target passenger ships during war.

Enrique and Gal Granados, meanwhile, left behind six children, one of whom, Eduard, would follow in his father’s footsteps as a composer.

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