Concierto de Aranjuez

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        For composers not of the ranks of the immortals it is rare to have the privilege to create the one composition that--almost alone of their works—seems to take on a life of its own, and becomes cherished by the whole world.   We can think of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, for example, and perhaps Alford’s Colonel Bogey March, for another.  Certainly, Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for solo guitar and orchestra falls into this category.  Rodrigo lived a long life as an honored and distinguished composer, but he will always be remembered for this one composition.  It is known and loved the world over, enjoying several lives as background music in any number of contexts.   I first encountered it thirty-something years ago so used on a humorous program on KRMA.  As a result its ubiquity, the composer even had difficulties collecting royalties for its use, owing to ignorance of the composer or the presumption that it was in the public domain.

        Rodrigo, of course, is not an unknown, for during his lifetime he became one of the most honored composers that Spain has ever produced, along with Albéniz, Falla, Granados, and Turina.  Born in Valencia, he contracted diphtheria when he was three years old and permanently lost his eyesight.  He studied piano and violin early, and then advanced subjects at the conservatory in Valencia.   In 1927 he moved to Paris where he became a composition student of Paul Dukas.  He also studied musicology, which prepared him for his career in Spain as a professor of music history, as well as that of a music critic.  He and his wife lived in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland until the events leading up to World War II forced their return to Spain, where they settled permanently in Madrid.  For the rest of his life he was active as a composer, and was showered in honors and recognition.  His musical style is steeped in traditional Spanish harmonic and melodic elements, and deep evocations of Spanish cultural elements.  His education in Paris exposed him to Ravel, and the sophisticated subtleties of his own style reflect this.   There is a sheen and beauty to his music that stems directly from his melding of French and Spanish characteristics.

        The Concierto de Aranjuez was composed in Paris in 1939 and given its première in Barcelona in 1940.  As they say, the rest is history; it is probably the most performed solo concerto written in the twentieth century.  It takes its name from the beautiful, extensive gardens of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, home of the Bourbon kings of Spain.   The sightless composer knew the gardens well, and wrote that his concerto reflected “the fragrance of the magnolias, the singing of birds and the gushing of fountains”—the beauties that he could enjoy.   The first movement has elements of the traditional Spanish dance, the fandango, and one can note the rhythmic interest generated by the alternation of 6/8 and 3/4 rhythms.  Also clear in the guitar part are techniques of the flamenco guitar tradition, such as a vigorous strumming effect and various scales.   The adagio second movement, of course, is the famous one, and the sound of the plaintive English horn playing a traditional Andalusian melody from Holy Week is one of its endearing elements.   In this particular case we have the word of the composer’s wife, Victoria, that she thought of the melody as evocative of the joys of their honeymoon, as well as the tragedy of the miscarriage of their first child.   The third movement, dances with a light vigor, and as in the first movement, explores the Spanish proclivity for alternating a 6/8 and 3/4 feeling.

        If you first encountered this classic in the movies—“Brassed Off “or “School of Rock”—or in jazz recordings by Miles Davis or Chick Corea, now enjoy the beauties of the original.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan