The Albéniz-Debussy connection

In the previous entry, I discussed the fascinating differences and similarities between Schubert’s single Diabelli variation and Beethoven’s 33 variations on Diabelli’s theme. Here I discuss another intriguing relationship between two contemporaneous works, Albéniz’s El Albaicin from the third volume of Iberia, and Debussy’s La serenade interrompue from his first volume of Preludes. 

Debussy composed his first volume of Preludes shortly after the premiere of the third volume of Iberia.Although he was ruthlessly critical of other composers, he was full of admiration for Albéniz. Except for the natural fascination of French composers with Spanish culture and music, his admiration for Albéniz may seem somewhat surprising at first, but when one examines the two in relation to each other, many threads of mutual influence emerge. For example, parts of Almeria from the second volume of Iberia sounds almost like “Spanish-ized” Debussy, and the Debussy’s influence on El Puerto, from the first volume is hard to ignore when hearing the abundance of the whole-tone scale. But in the case of El Albaicin, it is Albéniz who provided the impetus for Debussy’s prelude, written a year later. The difference between this parallel and the aforementioned movements from Iberia is that whereas Albéniz was influenced by the characteristics and spirit of Debussy’s music, Debussy, in a way, “took apart” the material out of which El Albaicin is built and reconstructed it. Although the shape of the work is different, the building blocks (even the most basic ones, such as time signature and key) are the same. 

Both El Albaicin and La serenade interrompue are entirely tonal but ambiguous. The ambiguity of both pieces stems from the way they begin with a single voice, making the relative harmony uncertain. El Albaicin starts with a tonic that might not be a tonic, since it isn’t heard in any relative context, and La serenade interrompue starts with a dominant that might also be a neighbor note. This sort of opening makes the harmonic character of the music a lot more fluid and spontaneous, allowing a greater degree of adventurousness. Both Albéniz and Debussy, however, chose otherwise. Neither El Albaicin nor La serenade interrompue venture as far as we might expect works by Albéniz or Debussy to go. In both cases, the “second themes,” if one can even call them so, are in the same key as the beginning, making the music “linger” around rather than develop. 

All this, of course, deals merely with the “technicalities” of the music rather than with the emotional character. When it comes to affect, the two composers diverge. La serenade interrompue is one of the less tumultuous preludes, a number of outbursts notwithstanding. By contrast, Albéniz uses the relatively simple harmonic character to build moments of utmost emotional tension. One can say that El Albaicin moves between one breaking point to another. It is the music of someone beside himself—what started as a simple pizzicato-like figure ends up erupting into something explosive and uncontainable. However, this tension is amplified by something El Albaicin has in common with La serenade interrompue—rhythmic near-uniformity. When the rhythm remains almost unchanged and does not develop, it seeps into our subconscious, and our ears are focused on all the other characteristics of the music, in this case the sizzling melodic and harmonic material. 

The mutual affinity between these two composers and the many musical parallels that arise therefrom led me to cultivate the view that Iberia, while of course being a description of Spain, is nonetheless quintessentially French. Albéniz was, after all, in France when he wrote it, at the end of his life. While Debussy is the most obvious French connection to Iberia, if we were to “dig a bit deeper,” we would find in it plentiful musical descriptions of Paris at the turn of the century, with possible subtle nods to composers such as Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Enescu, and Chabrier. Can these intentional or accidental similarities to composers we are well acquainted with help us better acquaint ourselves with the utterly unique and beguiling musical dialect of Albéniz? 

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