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The Music of a Gentle Man

Perhaps it was the success of “Carmen.”

Overnight, Spanish music was all the rage of Europe, particularly in Paris. Everyone was composing Spanish-flavored tunes, much of it based on Spanish folk tunes.

Among the Russian composers, Tchaikovsky wrote “Spanish Dance” for “Swan Lake”, and Rimsky-Korsakov composed the atmospheric “Capriccio Espagnol.” Even Claude Debussy and Emmanuel Chabrier took a turn, with “Iberia” and “Espana” respectively.

But it was Maurice Ravel who fully embraced the music. His father was French, but his mother, whom he adored, was Basque. The tunes seemed to flow out of him: “Bolero”, “Rhapsody Espagnole”, “Alborado del Gracioso”, and “Piece en forme de Habanera for Violin and Piano.” All of it was among his best work.

Suddenly, Spanish composers, who previously had been unknown outside Barcelona and Madrid, were the toast of Paris: Isaac Albeniz, Manuel de Falla, and Enrique Granados among them.

One of them was a mere boy at the time, but his day would come. His name was Joaquin Rodrigo. Blind since the age of three, Rodrigo wrote music in braille, which was transcribed for publication. An accomplished pianist, his most famous work was written for guitar, which elevated that instrument to a position among today’s concert instruments.

Rodrigo’s most famous work was a concerto for guitar and orchestra, entitled, “Concierto de Aranjuez.” It was composed in 1939 for Spanish guitarist Regino Sainz de la Maza. The central adagio is one of the most recognizable in 20th-Century classical music, a lovely interplay of guitar and French horn. This movement was later adapted by jazz arranger Gil Evans for Miles’ Davis’ 1960 album “Sketches of Spain.”

The success of the guitar concerto led to commissions from a number of prominent soloists, including flutist James Galway, for whom Rodrigo composed “Concierto pastoral for flute and orchestra”. In 1954 Rodrigo composed a second guitar concerto entitled, “Fantasia para un gentilhombre” (Fantasy for a gentleman) at the request of Andre Segovia.

A kind and gentle man, Rodrigo married Victoria Kamhi, a Turkish-born pianist and a star in her own right, in 1939. They had a daughter, Cecilia, born in 1941, who now manages their estate.

Rodrigo was honored in both Spain and in France. In 1983, he was awarded Spain’s highest award for composition, and in 1996 he received the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award--Spain’s highest civilian honor. In 1998, the French government named him Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Rodrigo died in 1999, at age 98. His two guitar concertos top the list of Spanish classical guitar music.


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