Suite No. 1 from The Three-Cornered Hat

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            The triumvirate of composers Granados, Albéniz, and Falla, are the most important composers of twentieth-century Spain, without question.   But, many would award the palm of “first among equals” to Falla.  American audiences know him primarily for three relatively early works:  The “Ritual Fire Dance” from his ballet, El amor brujo; the symphonic suite for piano and orchestra, Nights in the Gardens of Spain; and, of course, the music for The Three-cornered Hat.  All of these compositions are tuneful, accessible, and either rooted in Spanish folk elements, or French impressionism.  However, he went on from the 1920s to explore imaginative and challenging elements of modernism in his stimulating and influential works.

            Achieving a modicum of success as a young composer in Madrid from the turn of the century, he turned early on to works for the stage—not only for their practical popularity, but also because he had shown from an very early age a flair for literary and dramatic interests.  After composing a series of successful zarzuela (popular Spanish musico-dramatic entertainments), he hit the big time in 1905 with his first major opera, La vida breve, which incorporated significant elements of traditional Gypsy music.  A promised performance that was part of the prize that it won never materialized, so in disappointment, the young Falla left Madrid for Paris.  It changed his life.  There he met and hobnobbed with the luminaries of French artistic life, including Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Dukas, and the impresario, Diaghilev.   Later, insular Spanish music critics harped on the “impressionisms” in his subsequent compositions, at the expense of Spanish elements, but never mind.  At the onset of World War I he moved back to Spain, and achieved much greater recognition as a composer than in his earlier period. Nights in the Gardens of Spain dates from this period. His association from that time with the theatrical personage, Gregorio Martínez Sierra and his wife, Maria, resulted in his writing in 1916 the ballet, El amor brujo, and the incidental music for a modest pantomime, El corregidor y la molinera (The Magistrate and the Miller’s Wife). 

            The latter work was immensely successful, and a fateful visit to Madrid by Igor Stravinsky and the acclaimed impresario of the Ballets Russes, Segei Diaghilev, led to Diaghilev’s encouragement of Falla to extend and enlarge the music to a complete ballet.  The little farce, El corregidor y la molinera, was based on the novel, El sombrero de tres picos, and the expansion of the concept by Falla took the original title.  The combination of native Spanish musical material by Falla, Léonide Massine’s choreography, and Pablo Picasso’s cubist sets and costumes received rave reactions at the première.

            The risqué story is a bit complicated, but the essence is that a village magistrate (whose uniform includes a traditional tricorn hat) tries foolishly to seduce a miller’s wife, and ends up making a complete clown of himself.  The lecherous magistrate has the miller arrested on trumped up charges, inadvertently falls in the river, jumps into the Miller’s bed.  Clothes are surreptitiously exchanged, resulting in mixed up identities and competing seductions—you get the idea.  But, in the end virtue triumphs and the ridiculous magistrate is suitably humiliated.

            Falla extracted two suites for orchestra from the ballet, one from each act.  The first suite opens with a very short fanfare for the curtain rise, and we see the mill.  Following that is a leisurely depiction of the warm, sleepy afternoon and the magistrate’s pretentious procession near the mill (the droll bassoon depicts the latter).  The miller, taking a dislike of the magistrate, has his wife tantalize him with a swirling, seductive fandango to lure him on.  Upon the conclusion of the dance the bassoon/magistrate returns.  A tender moment in the music depicts the miller’s wife disingenuously teasing him with an offer of some grapes; she then coquettishly runs away.  Pursuing her, he’s led into an ambush, and the angry husband jumps out of the bushes and frightens away the clownish magistrate with a stick—ending act one.

            The success of the ballet came after Falla, Massine, and Diaghilev had taken time and trouble to tour the country and research the native Andalusian materials.  That took a while, but paid off handsomely a few years later, at the London première, in 1919.  Its Spanish tunes, dramatic storytelling, and brilliant orchestration have made it an audience favorite ever since—even if, like Aaron Copland’s populist music of the 1930s—it represents only one facet of the composer’s musical style.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan