Roberto Sierra b. 1953
Roberto Sierra
b. 1953
Roberto Sierra

Composer and educator Roberto Sierra was born in Puerto Rico and received his music education at the Conservatory of Music and the University of Puerto Rico. He then went to Europe to study at the Royal College of Music and the University of London, later doing advanced work in composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg under György Ligeti. In 1982 Sierra returned to Puerto Rico as Director of the Cultural Activities Department at the University of Puerto Rico and later as Chancellor of the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. His many compositions have been commissioned, performed and recorded around the globe. During 2000-2001 he was Composer in Residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Dating back to around the sixteenth century, the fandango is a Spanish dance characterized by a repeated four-note bass line, one of the hallmarks of Flamenco music. The bass line descends stepwise but resolves harmonically only upon the repeat of the first note of the pattern, resulting in a massive buildup of tension until the final cadence.

Sierra writes about Fandango, composed in 2000: “Antonio Soler's (1729-1783) Fandango for keyboard has always fascinated me, for its strange and whimsical twists and turns." [warning: this link plays the entire 12-minute sonata, but you can stop it in the middle with the back button] "My Fandangos is a fantasy, or a ‘super-fandango,’ that takes as point of departure Soler's work and incorporates elements of Boccherini's Fandango Example 1 and my own Baroque musings. Some of the oddities in the harmonic structure of the Soler piece provided a bridge for the incorporation of contemporary sonorities, opening windows to apparently alien sound worlds. Example 2 In these parenthetical commentaries, the same materials heard before are transformed, as if one would look at the same objects through different types of lenses or prisms. The continuous variation form over an ostinato bass gave me the chance to use complex orchestration techniques as another element for variation.”

The orchestral color and variations in Fandangos suggest another popular work based on the repetition of a Spanish theme, Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, This is particularly true when one compares Ravel's drastic change of key, the "punch line" of Bolero, with Sierra's atonal excursions. Example 3
Manuel de Falla 1876-1946
Manuel de Falla
Manuel de Falla
Suites from El sombrero de tre picos

Like so many artists, Manuel de Falla showed not only precocious musical ability, but also facility as a writer and a fascination with the Spanish themes and folklore that were to characterize so much of his music. He spent his youth and early career as a pianist and teacher, the proceeds from which helped support his family.

In 1905 Falla composed La vida breve, with which he won a contest for a Spanish opera held by the Reál Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. With this opera he elevated traditional Andalusian cante jondo (deep song) to the level of high art. However, the planned performance at the Teatro Reál fell through, and the opera, in a revised two-act form, was finally premiered in France in 1913 and again in Spain in 1914.

De Falla realized early on that in order to achieve international exposure for his music, he would have to leave Spain. In 1907 he settled in Paris where he came under the influence of Paul Dukas, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. His music, however, even during the height of the French influence, remained solidly Spanish in style. With the outbreak of World War I he returned to his native country.

A deeply religious – almost fanatic – Catholic, de Falla expressed his faith in a magnum opus, Atlántida, an epic based on what he regarded as the holy mission of his boyhood hero Christopher Columbus. The cantata, in which, rising from the ruins of Atlantis, the Spanish nation goes forth under the banner of Christ to the New World, remained incomplete at de Falla’s death. He actually submitted parts of it to Church authorities for approval.

Although devout, de Falla was fundamentally apolitical. Initially leaning towards the new Second Spanish Republic in 1931, his intense faith kept him from a complete buy-in with the anti-religious philosophy of the leftists. However, he never answered the call of Franco’s repressive nationalism. In 1939, disillusioned with Spain, and with Europe on the brink of war, he moved to Argentina. Already in frail health and living on an ascetic diet, he died still trying to complete Atlántida.

The ballet, El Sombrero de Tres Picos, started life in 1917 as an accompaniment to a two-act pantomime adapted from a popular story by Pedro de Alarcón. Sergey Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, heard the music on a visit to Spain and asked de Falla to expand it into a ballet. The story tells of a miller and his faithful wife, and an aging lothario of a Corregidor (district governor) and his haughty wife. In the story – which would have been a perfect one for a Rossini opera – the Corregidor tries to seduce the miller’s wife; the miller, in revenge, tries to seduce the Corregidor’s wife. It all ends happily, except for the Corregidor who is left looking foolish. The ballet premiered successfully in London in 1919 with set designs by Picasso.

De Falla extracted two orchestral suites from the ballet. The first, “Scenes and Dances,” consists of the following scenes from the ballet, although not in the original order:
Introduction: Afternoon: The introduction was added in London, to give the audience time to appreciate Picasso’s drop curtain. After an opening fanfare from trumpet and timpani, Example 1 the music goes through a few standard Flamenco riffs, a practice that de Falla uses throughout the ballet. Example 2 The scene opens on the miller and his wife happily working together and teasing each other. Example 3

Dance of the Miller’s Wife (Fandango): The miller has been called away and she is alone, dancing the fandango, but he returns and secretly watches her. Example 4

The Corregidor: Pompous and self-important, the Corregidor appears on the scene with his retinue, wearing a three-cornered hat, symbol of his class and position. His dance is introduced with the trumpet fanfare, a quote from the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Example 5 The Corregidor arrests the miller and tries to seduce his wife with a courtly minuet. Example 7 She responds by pushing him off a bridge into a stream. Example 8 But after she has chased him off the scene with a gun, he returns and takes off his coat and three-cornered hat to dry outside and goes into the miller’s house to sleep. The miller, who has escaped from the soldiers, returns to find the Corregidor’s clothes outside his house and decides to pursue the Corregidor’s wife (De Falla quotes from the British sea shanty, "I'll go no more a-roving with you fair maid. Example 9

The Miller’s Wife Is a short interlude, which describes the flirtatious and teasing wife. Suddenly she becomes skittish and scampers away.

The Grapes: The Corregidor tries to flirt with the miller’s wife. She teases him with a bunch of grapes, and he chases her awkwardly, trips and falls. The miller and his wife help him to his feet but he leaves in a huff. Example 10
The second, "Three Dances,” which became the more popular one, consists of the following scenes:
The Neighbors’ Dance: The second part of the ballet opens at a St. John’s Day festival around the mill where the neighbors are dancing a seguidilla, a couples dance in triple meter. The score describes the scene as “A lovely Andalusian night, perfumed, starlit and mysterious.” Example 11

The Miller’s Dance: The miller entertains the crowd with a fiery farruca – probably the best-known section of the ballet. It opens with a Flamenco solo for horn followed by the English horn. The accelerating tempo at the end presents the dancer with a spectacular opportunity. De Falla added it at the last moment as a solo for the dancer Leonid Massine. Example 12

Final Dance: In this jota, traditionally danced by couples with castanets, the misunderstandings are all cleared up and everyone makes fun of the Corregidor. Example 13
Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel

“I have written only one masterpiece,” remarked Maurice Ravel to fellow composer Arthur Honegger, “.. That is Bolero. Unfortunately, it contains no music.” His self-irony notwithstanding, it is one of the most popular musical compositions of all time. It was created for the dancer Ida Rubinstein, a protégé of Diaghilev and pupil of Michel Fokine, who was the inspiration for numerous artists of the 1910s and ‘20s, including Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, André Gide, Darius Milhaud and others. She asked Ravel in 1927 to orchestrate for her some of Isaac Albéniz’s dances from Iberia, but the composer found out that someone else was already working on those.

Bolero was born out of this confusion. Its premiere on November 22, 1928, with Rubinstein as the solo female dancer and 20 male dancers mostly standing around ogling her, created a sensation. The whole piece consists of the insistent repetition of a single melody of slightly irregular phrasing, accompanied by an ostinato rhythm on the snare drum. Example 1 Its magic is almost childishly simple: to repeat the melody, changing the instrumentation, gradually increasing the volume, and adding more instruments. But the true genius of the piece is in its “punch-line,” a sudden unexpected and drastic change of key, at which point the whole meticulous structure explodes. Example 2

The Spanish Bolero is usually a couples dance of moderate tempo in triple meter, different from the Cuban dance by the same name, which is in duple meter. According to tradition it was invented by the dancer Sebastian Cerezo in 1780. In the nineteenth century it became popular with classical composers, including Beethoven, Chopin, Carl Maria von Weber and Hector Berlioz.

It is said that the best Spanish music has been written by Frenchmen, and Maurice Ravel was a prime example. His first “Spanish” composition was the “Habañera” for two pianos in 1895, which was followed by many others, including Alborada del gracioso, the opera L’heure espagnole, Tzigane, Rapsodie espagnole and, in 1928 Bolero.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2008