Review | Manuel de Falla and Modernism in Spain, 1898-1936 by Carol A. Hess.

Carol Hess begins her study of Manuel de Falla by asking the question: “What does the concept ‘Spanish music’ mean to the international audience?” (1). Foreign listeners, she claims, commonly associate Spanish music with exoticized representations by composers such as Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Lalo, and Ravel. Similarly, this public favors Falla’s picturesque works like the “Ritual Fire Dance” from El amor brujo, at the same time that it criticizes the composer for failing to live up to stereotypical expectations created by international “models” of Spanish music. Although a more complete knowledge of the Falla repertoire would heighten the general public’s musical and cultural awareness, until now, this public has resisted the composer’s more serious works in favor of the familiar classical “hits” that reinforce his superficial image.

In an influential and provocative study of the composer, Hess draws upon the problematics of Falla reception to interrogate essentialized beliefs about Spanish music. Her work aims to revise picture-postcard images of Spain by proposing alternative ideas about Spanish identity based on local perspectives. Since the author herself is a non-Hispanic scholar, distanced from Falla’s original audience in time and space, she aims to engage his Spanish musical contemporaries in a dialogue to incorporate their voices into her narrative. The conceptual framework she employs perfectly corresponds to these objectives by combining some of the most sophisticated theoretical tools in the musicologist’s toolbox with the methodological rigor traditionally associated with the discipline. 

An important theoretical point of departure for Hess’ work is the application of hermeneutical approaches derived from cultural anthropology to the study of an historical repertoire. To substitute for the participant-observation model of anthropological research, Hess engages with Falla’s listeners by elaborating a detailed reception history that interpolates their voices into her text. Her documentation of the original sources is comprehensive and authoritative. Not only has she translated hundreds of Falla reviews, but she has analyzed the ideological positions of their critics and the political affiliations of the periodicals that employed them. Her work represents a groundbreaking effort in the documentation of Spanish music criticism that will serve as an important point of departure for future studies. Moreover, looking beyond the singular terrain of Spanish musicological research, her work offers an integrated model for studying a national music repertoire in which foreign belief systems are brought into balance with local constructions of identity, as defined and created from within.

A central theme of Hess’ book is the cultural debate over traditionalism versus modernism as it unfolded in early 20th-century Spain. After a brief P. Picasso, Curtain, The Three-Cornered Hatoverview of the subject in the introduction to her work, Hess describes this conflict in Chapter 2 in terms of the opposition between progressive wagnerismo and conservative españolismo. In Chapter 3, she shows how Debussy’s music comes to substitute for the role that Wagner’s once played in the cultural debate. In Chapters 4-5, she situates this conflict in relation to two of Falla’s works: 1) El corregidor y la molinera (1917), the music for a pantomime play associated with Spanish costumbrismo, and 2) The Three-Cornered Hat (1919), a revision of El corregidor into an internationally stylized ballet, with scenery by Picasso and choreography by Diaghilev. 

A comparison of two recorded excerpts illustrates the shifting balance between traditionalist and modernist elements in the changing versions of Falla’s work.  The intimate chamber setting of El Corregidor contrasts with the lush French orchestration of The Three-Cornered Hat. While the reduced instrumentation of the first excerpt enhances its idiomatic guitar-like qualities, the second excerpt reveals the stylistic influence of Ravel. 

Hess devotes Chapters 6-7 to Stravinsky’s 1921-5 travels in Spain and Falla’s stylistically related work, El retablo de Maese Pedro (1923). Although, by the 1920s, the Spanish aesthetic continuum had shifted toward modernism (primarily manifested in neoclassicism), critics still recognized a traditional Spanish essence in El retablo. In Chapters 8-9, Hess concludes her study with an examination of Falla’s mature compositions, approaching works such as his Harpsichord Concerto (1926) as densely clustered sites of multiple constructions that variously refer to Spanish mysticism, Catholicism, and universalism. One of the most fascinating aspects of her work is the way that she contemplates Spanish identity through a series of reflexive gazes that shift toward and away from Spain. Through her skillful juxtaposition of these dual mirror images (such as Falla in France and France in Falla), she illustrates how Spaniards constructed national images in response to perceived differences from others at the same time that they internalized the mirror of distorted reflections that the essentializing outsider cast back on them. 

The intricate details of this interplay between Self and Other in defining Spanish tradition and modernity unfold within a richly-textured narrative that reveals the author’s erudition. Contextualizing Falla’s work demands an immense breadth of knowledge in the fields of Spanish history, philosophy, literature, folklore, visual arts, and music, in addition to requiring a full understanding of the way that international developments shaped the composer’s creative production. In all these respects, Hess brings a commanding scholarly presence to bear on the study of Falla’s music. Whether she is describing the philosophical universe of Ortega y Gasset, the cultural debate over Spain’s regional versus national identity, the shifting ideological platforms of Stravinsky and their relationship to Spanish music, the literary criticism of Don Quijote, or the historical events of the Spanish Civil War, her analysis is clear, penetrating, and incisive. Her writing throughout is elegant, sinuous, and well-crafted. Her work is carefully documented with extensive footnotes (which the publisher has gratefully positioned at the bottom of the page). A twenty-two-page bibliography demonstrates her definitive command of the scholarly sources, particularly the previous Falla research of Andrew Budwig and Michael Christoforidis, which she appropriately acknowledges (xiii, 93, 209, 211, 288-89). 

Given the large and complex body of information covered in the book, devising a suitable organizational scheme presents a formidable challenge. While in most respects, I agreed with the author’s structural plan for the work, in certain cases, I noted inconsistencies. In my view, the introduction would have benefited if the author had operated at a greater level of generality, emphasizing the broad conceptual issues that would appropriately orient her readers to her work. Instead, this section focused excessively on expository writing, often summarizing the points elaborated later in the body of the text. Although Hess does situate her work relative to other Falla scholars in a brief review of the literature, curiously enough, this evaluation appears in the acknowledgements (xi-xii). Even more puzzling is the second part of the introduction entitled, “The Issues” (8-12), in which the author retreats into an even greater level of specificity by elaborating a detailed description of the topics she will cover in the following chapters. Had Hess extended her discussion to relate Falla’s music to either: 1) broad theories of identity, nationality, and representation or 2) comparative cases of similar composers along the musical “periphery,” she would have enlarged the basis of her study, and strengthened her final assertion that “Falla with his small output poses large questions” (291). As it stands, I fear that some of her readers may leave the book with a vast amount of specialized knowledge, but with considerably less ability to extrapolate the larger issues suggested by the reception of Falla’s work. 

In the body of the book (Chapter 2-9), the author’s overriding concern for a chronological organization leads to occasional odd juxtapositions of information. For example, in the second part of Chapter 2, “Falla in France, 1907-14,” Hess discusses Debussy’s influence on the composer’sTrois mélodies. Yet in this section, she fails to mention Debussy’s affinity for Spanish music in pieces like his “Soirée dans Grenade” from Estampes (1903), which eventually formed part of Falla’s personal library (34). Here, it would have been valuable for Hess to have speculated on the extent to which Debussy’s Spanish manner influenced Falla’s early works, especially since the third piece from Trois mélodiesis titled “Séguidille.” Ultimately, Hess does address this issue in relation to Falla’s Hommage à Debussy (1920), in which the Spanish composer quotes a musical excerpt from the “Soirée dans Grenade.” Yet this discussion is deferred until Chapter 6, otherwise devoted to Stravinsky (176-78). In short, this type of organizational issue, here and elsewhere throughout the work, might well have been avoided by more frequent recourse to a topical approach designed to bring like material together. 

These small caveats aside, Manuel de Falla and Modernism in Spain, 1898-1936, represents a remarkable scholarly achievement. It is one of the few important works on a 20th-century Hispanic composer that richly integrates musical context, creation, and reception. Methodologically, Hess’ book makes an innovative contribution by applying some of the latest ideas on identity construction, post-colonial critique, and cultural politics to a classical Spanish repertoire. In the field of Hispanic art music research, which until recently has been noted for its conservatism, her work will come as a welcome change and serve as an important model. Above all, her book will help close the gap between Hispanic music studies and the mainstream musicological community. As a composer who is historically connected and aesthetically bonded to some of the most prominent musical names in the 20th century, Falla has much to offer music scholars. Indeed, as Hess’ study has elegantly shown, the inclusion of Spanish music into the scholarly conversation can only enrich us, especially now that, through her work, its reductionist stereotypes have been so persuasively challenged.

Deborah Schwartz-Kates
University of Texas, San Antonio