Saturday, September 13, 2014



In the summer of 1907 Spanish pianist and composer Manuel de Falla piled up his meager savings and went to Paris in the hope of breaking into the international music scene. He was in for some setbacks.

The jobs he had arranged fell through, and after playing piano with a traveling pantomime company, he scraped by in Paris by teaching piano and harmony students. “I’m more and more glad that I decided to leave Madrid,” he wrote a friend. “There was no future for me there.”

He set about introducing himself to the city’s major musical figures, but summer was a bad time for it because many of them were out of town, although Frenchman Paul Dukas went out of his way to be helpful and introduced him to the influential Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz.

Getting to know the celebrated Claude Debussy would not go so smoothly.

Fall finally met him in October, played the piano score of his opera “La vida breve” for him, and found the Frenchman’s sarcasm a little intimidating.

A little later, Falla’s shyness made for an even more awkward encounter.

Falla came to visit Debussy, was told that he was out, and was ushered by a servant to a dark alcove off the dining room, a storage space filled with grotesque Chinese masks. After a while Falla heard Debussy, his wife Emma, and composer Erik Satie come into the dining room and begin lunch. Falla was too timid to enter the dining room unannounced and sat there in the dark alcove, faint from hunger, staring at the weird and ghoulish faces of the masks.

When the chatting and clatter of lunch seemed loud enough to cover his retreat, he slipped into a dim hallway and hastened toward the egress, only to bump headfirst into Debussy’s wife, who screamed.

Even though everybody encouraged Falla to join them for lunch, he was so rattled by the encounter that he made his apologies and departed.

VERSATILE ENOUGH                    

The string quartet is a curiosity, a series of short dances for three violins and cello to be played on open strings. It’s attributed to Benjamin Franklin and since he was so versatile, it’s tempting to assume that Franklin would also turn his attention to composing music.
Franklin played the harp, the guitar and something called the glass dulcimer, but his best known contribution to music was his improvement of the so-called musical glasses. The instrument had become popular in Europe by 1746, when Christoph Willibald Gluck performed in London a “concerto on 26 drinking glasses tuned with spring water”, accompanied by an entire orchestra.

In 1762, during a sojourn in London, Franklin described in a letter his improvement of the musical glasses by fitting glass bowls concentrically on a horizontal rod, which was turned by a crank attached to a pedal. The turning of the bowls kept them moist by passing them through water, and enabled the performer to stroke their rims with a minimum of motions. Franklin’s new instrument, which he called the armonica, was fairly popular in America, but quite the rage in Europe.

A few years later, in a letter to a friend in Edinburgh, Franklin wrote a short treatise on music theory, setting down his ideas about the nature of melody and harmony, and in a letter to his brother Peter he favored clarity and simplicity in vocal music and took issue with the relatively intricate arias of recent operas and oratorios in the Italian style.

The intriguing string quartet attributed to Franklin probably says a lot less about his musical tastes. The manuscript, with Franklin’s name on it, was discovered in Paris in the 1940s, but since then, copies have turned up in Prague, Vienna, and elsewhere, each attributed to a different prominent composer of the time. It’s quite possible that the scientist, statesman, and inventor was simply too busy to write music.

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