Cançons i Danses – Federico Mompou … a new recording.

“Ah, the inspiration. That’s the secret. I don’t know from where it comes, but that’s one of the secrets of art. It’s a form of medium in the spiritual world. I receive the messages, but I don’t know where they come from … they come at unexpected moments. You must learn to wait. It demands a great patience. You cannot sit down at the table and start to compose. You have to hear it. I never start to compose from the title out. Just the contrary. I start to imagine a work and from there out I compose. First the music, then the title at the end…” Federico Mompou

Mompou’s affinity for folkloric music demonstrates his love for an art with no artifice – one that can only be described as genuine, natural, sincere, and authentic. The meditative and contemplative qualities of his music speak to the individual in such intimate terms that the listener is transported to a moment in time, free from constraints of musical techniques and drama, but rather carried by the freedom and economy of notes, and once concluded the moment seems elusive and has evaporated without a trace leaving only a feeling of distant nostalgia like a long forgotten childhood memory from another world.

Mompou was born in Barcelona of both Catalan and French heritage. His love affair with the piano started through his brother José who would encourage his younger sibling, helping him to imitate his fingers. Their grandparents owned a bell foundry: Mompou spent time as a child there and frequently references tolling chords in his works.

A concert of music by Gabriel Fauré had a profound effect on the young Mompou, resulting in him travelling to Paris with a letter of recommendation from Enrique Granados to Fauré, the then director of the Paris Conservatoire. The letter never found its way into Fauré’s hands, but Mompou was nonetheless accepted into the Conservatoire to study piano, whilst taking harmony lessons privately.

Mompou’s naturally shy and retiring nature seems to have been the deciding factor in his realisation that the life of a piano virtuoso was not for him. Once he had discovered the music of Debussy and Satie, the world of composition must have offered more solace to the aspiring Mompou, and returning to Barcelona in 1914 to escape the War, he started to compose the first piano works which would define his musical style. These included, Impresiones intimas (1911-1914); Scènes d’enfants (1915-17); Cants Magics (1920); and Suburbis (1916-17), a haunting atmospheric depiction of his native Barcelona.

On his return to Paris in 1921 and with the increasing popularity, favourable reviews and performances of his piano works, Mompou now found himself one of the darlings of Parisian artistic circles.

Mompou’s music seemed at odds with what had happened during his absence: an anti-impressionism reaction in Les Six in the wake of Debussy’s death; the shockwaves following the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; and the rise and fall of Cubism and Dadaism. Mompou’s music, although introspective, seems to have touched a nerve at a critical moment and been heard above the noise of Paris …

“I make music like this because art has reached its limits … my art is a return to the primitive … no, not even a return, it is to begin again (recomenzar).”

Mompou’s ‘rebirth’ of what he termed his primitivista style was his search for musical simplicity. “The maximum expression with the minimum of means” was a popular mantra Mompou liked to repeat to his students.

Not only was this a reaction to the fast-changing pace of musical styles and fashions during this period, but Mompou also desired to forge a purity which went back to the origins of music: the music of ceremony, spells, magic, and solitude. This much he had in common with Satie – but instead of irony and whimsy, Mompou would offer sincerity and innocence.

Throughout the 1930s Mompou published barely any music. The constant social whirl of Paris was at odds with Mompou’s shy nature and he stayed away from the public, preferring to perform his pieces to small gatherings of artists and composers. His father’s death and brother’s illness, and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, caused Mompou grave concern. With the German occupation of Paris in 1941 Mompou returned to Barcelona for good.

In 1942 Mompou composed Paisajes (Landscapes), dedicating the work to the pianist Carmen Bravo. Sixteen years later the two were to marry, Mompou at the the age of 64.
Other works include 6 sets of songs, works for choir, and a ballet Don Perlimpin (1956). Later Mompou found an authentic definition of his own music within San Juan de la Cruz’s mystical poetry, which inspired his piano masterpiece Música Callada (The Music of Silence), a setting of Cantar del Alma (Song of the Soul). Música Callada took eight years to complete from 1959-1967, containing twenty eight pieces divided into four books.

Mompou states … “The music falls silent because it must be heard in one’s inner self … Restraint and discretion. The emotion remains hidden, and the sounds only take shape when they find echoes in the bareness of our solitude.”

Mompou also wrote Suite Compostelana (1962) for guitar, a suite of pieces for Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) which memorialised their shared time teaching on a summer school in Santiago de Compostela. As well as this, Mompou arranged for Segovia his Canço i Dansa No.10. Although originally sketched by Mompou as another possible piano piece, Canço i Dansa No.13 was dedicated to the guitarist Narciso Yepes (1927-1997).

The bulk of Mompou’s works were, however, composed for his beloved piano.

“ … without my piano I can do nothing. I absolutely need contact with its ivory keys.”

No one can doubt that Mompou is a true poet of the piano, but it is however as a guitarist that I need to reference these arrangements and recording, and as the guitar was the only other instrument Mompou considered composing (and arranging) for, one can only assume he had some affinity with its intimate sound world.

A tantalising small piece of film shows Mompou recounting a visit from the famous Catalan guitarist Miguel Llobet (1878-1938) in Paris: Mompou recalls sitting at the piano and improvising, there and then, the Prelude No.6 (1928) pour la main gauche (for the left hand). One can only guess that Mompou may have been experimenting at writing a possible work for Llobet. The Prelude demonstrates Mompou’s power to distill his musical style: no bar-lines or key signature, and all seems paired down to the bone, almost naked.

Mompou must have been aware of Llobet’s own celebrated Catalan folk songs arrangements, Canciones populares Catalanas, written between 1899-1920, which Segovia described as “… the jewels of the guitar’s repertoire”. Segovia claimed that Llobet’s arrangement of El Mestre (1910) was at that time the most sophisticated re- imagining and use of modern harmonisation and polyphony on the guitar.

Many guitarists (myself included) may have become aware of Mompou’s own folk song arrangements through Llobet’s, (as well as through the Suite Compostelana, popular with guitarists and recently republished with a facsimile by Bèrben). Either way, it seemed natural for me, over 10 years ago, to arrange a small selection of Mompou’s piano Cançons i Danses for guitar duo, particularly those which Llobet didn’t use. Subsequently I kept adding more to our program to the point where I felt compelled to complete the set!

Cançons i Danses

Mompou wrote fifteen Cançons i Danses between 1921 and 1978, all for piano with the exception of the thirteenth for guitar and fifteenth for organ – this last being the only one we judged unsuitable for arrangement on guitars. They are as Mompou describes,“a contrast between lyricism and rhythm”, the freedom of the song and the propulsion of the dance.

They are mostly based on celebrated popular Catalan folk tunes including Canço del lladre (Song of the Thief) in No.14; the well known Christmas song El noi de la Mare (The Mother and Child) in No.3; L’hereu Riera (Heir Riera) in No.7; El cant dels ocells (Song of the birds) – made internationally famous by Pablo Casals as a political protest to the Franco regime after his exile from it – in No. 13; and both Muntanyes Regalades (No.7) and Rossinyol que vas a França (No.9), which are almost national anthems in Catalonia.

El testament d’Amèlia (Amelia’s will) from No.8 is famous throughout Spain and as far afield as Sweden, telling the story of a young wife being poisoned by her mother so she can steal the girl’s husband. Mompou contrasts this in the dance with La filadora (The Spinning-Woman).

Other Cançons i Danses by Mompou take their influence from Spanish folk songs and fiestas, hymns and religious ceremonial music, South American music such as the Cubana Dansa No.6, fleeting jazz chords, and significantly, extracts from the thirteenth century Galician collection of songs the Cantigas de Santa Maria by King Alfonso X El Sabio (The Wise).

Unlike Liszt’s or Bartok’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, a similar expression of a composer’s nostalgia for a homeland while in exile, Mompou’s Cançons i Danses speak in hushed tones, bare of any gypsy flamboyance by comparison, more akin to the mazurkas of Chopin, a kindred composer close to Mompou’s heart and one similarly focused on the lyricism of the piano.

Mompou is associated with the rebirth of the Catalan cultural movement started by Verdaguer in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch in his book La Présence lointaine states, “Mompou has never claimed to be a folklorist; but he does love and use popular song, Catalan popular song, and at times he reinvents it; he is himself the soul of Catalonia in song”.

Mompou went even further in his rejection of being a folklorist …

“I have always protested when I am called a composer … I am not a composer; I do not wish to be a composer. I believe, quite simply, that I am a music; a music which I am sure is not made by me, for I always have the feeling that it comes into me from without.”

If he is not a composer then what is Mompou? To quote Jankélévitch again …
“The mystery of Mompou eludes us as soon as we try to label it or attach it to some conceptual category. Yet we are able to perceive this sensitive, inimitable voice, the voice of silence itself… Mompou’s desire in seeking this solitude in sound, is to reach the unattainable point where music becomes the very voice of silence, where silence itself becomes music.”

Mark Eden 2017

One Comment

  1. Where can I buy your Mompou CD?


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