Isaac Albéniz was born in 1860 in Camprodón in the Catalan province of Gerona in the far north east of Spain. Possessed of an extraordinary pianistic facility, he soon became a child prodigy and gave his first concert at the age of six. As a 15-year old, he traveled to the New World (presumably with his father, and not, as legend has it, as a stowaway on a freight ship), and gave concerts in Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 1876, he enrolled in the Leipzig Conservatory to receive a proper musical education, but, desillusioned by the formal regime, returned to Spain soon after. Some years later he briefly studied with Liszt in Weimar (although it is currently disputed by scholars whether this really happened).
His artistic career blossomed after meeting Felipe Pedrell, the 'father of Spanish music', in 1883. Like Granados, Falla and Turina, he was inspired by Pedrell to write music rooted in the Spanish culture. From 1885 onwards, when he settled in Madrid, he became a renowned piano teacher, and travelled widely as a virtuoso performer, his playing being compared to that of Anton Rubinstein and Liszt. He subsequently lived in London and later in Paris, where he became a member of the Schola Cantorum, and befriended Paul Dukas and Vincent d'Indy.
After 1900, Albéniz suffered of Bright's disease (a kidney disease). His health deteriorated and his prodigious musical production diminished. Yet, these years produced his greatest masterpiece, his suite Iberia for piano. He died in 1909, in Cambo-les-Bains in the French Pyrenees, and was buried in Barcelona.
Albéniz was an extraordinary person : exuberant, extrovert, kind, humorous, and generous. All of these qualities are reflected in his music, the best of which throws out notes and sounds by the handful with joyful abandon. He composed an enormous oeuvre, most of it consisting of works for piano solo from which a great number has not been published or even preserved, but also concertos and even two operas, Pepita Jimenez and the unfinished Merlin.
His best piano works, notably the suites España, Cantos de España, Recuerdos de Viaje and Iberia, are indispensible additions to the piano repertoire. Iberia, the most important Spanish piano work of all times, represents one of the pinnacles of 20th century piano music, with its unique blend of exuberant virtuosity and impressionistic colours.
-- Chris Breemer (more on the author...)
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