Isaac Albeniz
Isaac Albeniz © Getty  /  Hulton Archive

Isaac Albéniz : 7 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer of "Asturias"

A runaway child and adventurer, talented pianist and a composer for the renewal of Spanish music, Isaac Albéniz was an atypique character, and as colourful as his music.

With only a mere mention of the name ‘Albéniz’, Andalusian rhythms come dancing into our mind, the catchy melody of Asturias can be heard played by a guitar in the distance, and the flamboyant Spain of Enrique Granados and Antoni Gaudi seem to come back to life.

And yet, Isaac Albéniz was no more Andalusian than he was a guitarist. He was first and foremost a talented pianist, and many of his works were composed far from his native Spain, during various tours and voyages.

The story of Isaac Albéniz is one worth telling, as surprising and varied as his music, full of rhythms and nuance, and both modern and traditional colours.

Prodigiously talented, prodigiously mischievous

Isaac Albéniz was born on 29 May 1860, in Camprodon, in Catalonia. His first piano lessons came from his elder sister Clementina, and the young boy's musical talents were quickly noticed by the whole family. At the age of 4, Isaac gave his first concert on stage at the Teatro Romea in Barcelona, as a duet with his sister.

After the revolution of 1868 (La Gloriosa) and the abdication of Queen Elisabeth II in 1870, the father of the Albéniz family, Ángel, was no longer employed as a civil servant and was forced to find new sources of income to support his family. The musical talents of his son Isaac began fruit: Ángel Albéniz sought to promote his son as the next Mozart, a young prodigy exhibé partout en concert. 

At only ten years old, Isaac was already travelling throughout Spain displaying his musical talents. He was not always, however, a docile and well-behaved young boy. When the desire to travel or flee the authority of his father, he never hesitated to jump aboard a train or a boat. Thus we was found in Valladolid and Valencia, and even several years later in Latin America. 

A flair for showmanship

Isaac Albéniz was a natural born showman. Exuberant and charming, a gifted storyteller who enjoyed adding a certain sense of wonder to his tales... Albéniz enjoyed explaining how, as a child, he would perform blindfolded, or his back to the piano. And when explaining the reason for his boat trip to America in 1875, he would simply reply that he was fleeing the Port Cadix authorities.

His encounter with Franz Liszt also raises several questions. Though Albéniz claims that this took place in Budapest, during the month of August 1880...but Liszt was not in Hungary at the time but in Germany, in Weimar. When discovering the incredible story of Isaac Albéniz, one must take it with a small pinch of salt and accept a small portion of fantasy... 

Albéniz, entre 1900 et 1909.
Albéniz, entre 1900 et 1909. © Getty  /  Universal History Archive

Et que rien ne lui résiste !

Exuberant, certainly, but Albéniz was also an adventurer, a risk-taker, as can be seen in his private life. In April 1883, Albéniz met Rosina Jordana, in Barcelone. The young pianist eventually became his student and Isaac, taken by her charm, soon began to make his feelings known.

The young lady, however, resisted, an unusual occurence in the life of Albéniz. Nonetheless, after two months of private lessons, the courageous composer asked the young Rosina's hand in mariage. Finally accepting the composer's request, the wedding was held in June 1883. 

The couple was soon accompanied by five children, four girls and a boy: this newly-found family life brought with it a balance in the composer's life and character, who continued his successful career as a pianist and composer.

Globetrotter

Isaac Albéniz embarked upon countless voyages during his life. First, he explored his native Spain, from the Basque Country to Andalusia, alone and with his father, before venturing beyond the Atlantic: Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and even the United States, where he claims to have worked as a baggage handler between concerts. 

Though today Albéniz is considered to be one of the most important Spanish composers, he rarely sought to develop a career in Madrid or Barcelona. During his lifetime, the composer also lived in Bruxelles and Leipzig, towns in which he spent time studying, then in London and Paris where he established a great notoriety. 

In Paris, Albéniz developed a close friendship with Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, Vincent d’Indy and Gabriel Fauré. It was also during this period that he composed one of his greatest works, Iberia, a perfect blend of French impressionism and Andalusian folklore. 

Isaac Albéniz lors d'une visite a la Tour Eiffel (Paris), en 1905.
Isaac Albéniz lors d'une visite a la Tour Eiffel (Paris), en 1905. © AFP  /  PrismaArchivo/Leemage

Spain, love and hate

Whilst the Catalan upper classes of the 19th century seemed to swear by the Italian romantic composers (Verdi, Donizetti…), Isaac Albéniz accomplished two exploits: to contribute to the reconciliation between Spanish folk and learned music, and to promote this national culture throughout Europe. 

Albéniz's choice to leave Spain in the early 1890s was due to a relative indifference on his part towards his native country. The Spanish public welcomed his works though nowhere near as triumphantly as the London or Parisian audiences. Ambitious, the composer therefore preferred to become an expatriot, pouring his patriotism and homesickness into his music: The Alhambra (1897), Espagne (Souvenirs) (1899), Catalonia (1899), Iberia (1907-1912)…  

A decisive encounter

In 1883, Isaac Albéniz arrived for the first time in Barcelona. There he made an important encounter, Felipe Pedrell, musicologist and a key figure in the rediscovery of Spanish renaissance music. 

Pedrell convinced the young and promising composer to begin a new process of creation, blending popular Spanish melodies and rhythms with more learned musical techniques. Thus Albéniz began to draw upon Catalan, Andalusian and Asturian influences when writing for the piano. 

An early disappearance

Isaac Albéniz only tolerated the scholarly academicism of musical eduction for a short while, be it the Real Conservatorio Superior in Madrid or the equally prestigious Hochschule für Musik in Leipzig. However, his dedication to his work and his concentration were no less impressive.

In the ten final years of his life in particular, despite his illness and fragile health, Albéniz never stopped composing, despite the continuous requests by his editor to slow down.

The composer died only days before his 49th birthday, on 18 May 1909, in Combo-les-Bains (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) where the composer had journeyed briefly to relax and replenish his spirit. Shortly before his death, his friend and fellow countryman Enrique Granados paid him a final visit, discussing the latest musical events, in particular his recently-awarded Croix de la Légion d’Honneur, and performed Mallorca, one of the most famous works by Albéniz for the piano.