Isaac Albéniz | Iberia

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Isaac Albeniz


Iberia is a collection of twelve independent works for piano solo by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909). It was composed in London, paris, and Nice in the years 1905-1907. Iberia is considered not only its composer’s masterpiece, but also the “corner-stone, the Koran, of the modern Spanish school” and a major contribution to the virtuoso piano repertoire.(Source) Despite the fact that Albéniz was born in the north of Spain, the son of a Basque father and a Catalan mother, it was the south -Andalucía- that seduced him with its exotic, multicultural spirit and music. So despite the fact that Albéniz entitled his masterwork for piano Iberia (a geographical designation that includes the modern states of Spain, Portugal, and Andorra), 11 of its 12 movements are about Andalucía.(Source)

Iberia‘s complete set was published in Paris by the Edition Mutuelle of the Schola Cantorum and in Madrid by the Unión Musical Española (formerly Casa Dotesio) in 1906-1909. The collection exists in four books of three pieces each. The title page of each book describes Iberia further as “12 nouvelles impressions en quatre cahiers.” Except for the first piece (Evocación), the names indicate either a musical style (such as a dance rhythm) or a geographical location in Spain. In all the various editions, Iberia comprises slightly over 160 pages of printed music. Although it is a collection, and not a suite in the strict sense: performance time required for the complete Iberia would be approximately 75-85 minutes without pause; it is seldom performed in its entirety at a single recital. The large scope of the individual pieces was a new element in the music of Albéniz, who previously had been known mainly for his charming small “salon” pieces.(Source)

Technical difficulty

Working with the composer, who was an extraordinary pianist himself, the french pianist Blanche Selva learned the difficult new works from the manuscripts and gave the premiere performance of each of the four books.(Source) However, before Selva premiered the complete book in Saint Jean de Luz (September 1907), Joaquín Malats performed some of the numbers of the second book in Madrid and Barcelona. In December 1906, Albéniz wrote to Malats (Source) :

“Since I was lucky enough to hear your performance of Triana I can tell you that I only write for you; I have just finished under the direct influence of your marvellous interpretation, the third book of Iberia: the title of the numbers is as follows: El Albaicín, El Polo y Lavapiés; I think that in these numbers I carried españolismo (spanishness) and technical difficulty to the ultimate extreme, and I feel compelled to confirm that you are at fault for it….”

It does not seem difficult to corroborate how Albéniz could “carry the technical difficulty to the ultimate extreme.” Some of the pieces of the first two books are already incredibly demanding for the pianist (especially El Corpus en Sevilla and Triana), but in the last two books Albéniz increases the technical demands a step further, and Lavapiés could easily be the most difficult piece to perform of the entire collection. Apparently, this was the piece that made Albéniz wonder about the playability of Iberia, to the point that he almost destroyed the manuscripts. We see in this letter how Malats could have been at least partly responsible for the level of technical sophistication required to play the third and fourth books of Iberia. (Source) They abound in hand crossings, counter-rhythms, difficult leaps, and nearly impossible chords, while the innumerable double accidentals make them difficult to read. As a result, Iberia requires almost superhuman technique, and Albeniz himself was hardly capable of playing it.(Source) Some pianists, including Arthur Rubinstein, have found it necessary to alter the music to make it playable.(Source)


Albéniz’s exploitation of the fullest possible resources of the piano has inspired many to arrange Iberia for orchestra (Arbós, Stokowski, Surinach, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, and others). The first attempt was made by Albéniz himself, who was unsatisfied with his rendition of “El puerto” and left the job for his friend Enrique Fernández Arbós (1863-1939), the famous violinist and conductor, and a composer in his own right. Arbós did not, however, orchestrate the entire collection, and Carlos Surinach provided complementary arrangements that round out the work.Source)

Sevilla, Triana, El Puerto
and your spirit and my spirit!
The sonorous Guadalquivir,
Everything, in eternity, will sail in a calm
Of illusion and of gold!

Juan Ramón Jiménez, "To Isaac Albéniz"

Of Iberia, Schonberg writes, “Nothing in Albéniz’ previous work had led anybody to expect from him music of such complexity, muscularity, and difficulty.” He continues, “Goyescas (by Granados) is the only set of Spanish pieces for piano that can be spoken of in the same breath as Iberia. “(Source) Indeed, the (for its day) modern style and the challenging pianistic idiom of Iberia place it in the company of the major works in the romantic-impressionistic virtuoso piano repertoire. Some writers go even further in their estimates. The Spanish poet and musician Pedro G. Morales asks, “Is the importance of Albéniz, not only as the founder of our modern school, but in relation to the piano literature of all times, fully recognized?”  In the second and third decades of this century some of the composer’s more enthusiastic partisans answered this question by including Iberia in the mainstream of piano literature extending from Bach through Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, and Franck to Balakirev (Islamey), Debussy, Ravel, and other “moderns. »  One could fill many pages with rhapsodic encomia on the beauty and worth of Iberia from Felipe Pedrell, Tomás Bretón, Enrique Granados, Manuel de Falla, Alfred Bruneau, Pierre Lalo, Gabriel Fauré, and many others. However, the most impressive praise is perhaps that of the frequently acerbic Claude Debussy, who enjoyed playing over selections from the Iberia collection from their first appearance until his death in 1918. He wrote the following oft-quoted critique in the monthly Société Internationale de Musique in December, 1913: (Source)

« Isaac Albéniz, who was first known as an incomparable virtuoso, subsequently acquired a marvellous knowledge of the craft of composition. Although he does not in any way resemble Liszt, he reminds one of him in the generous lavishness of his ideas. He was the first to turn to account the harmonic melancholy, the peculiar humor of his native country (he was a Catalan). There are few works in music to compare with El Albaicín in the third book of Iberia. It is redolent of the atmosphere of those Spanish evenings perfumed with carnations and “aguardiente”… It is like the muffled notes of a guitar lamenting in the night with sudden awakenings and nervous starts. Although in El Albaicín the popular themes are not exactly reproduced, it is the work of one who has absorbed them, listening until they have passed into his music, leaving no trace of a boundary line. Eritaña in the fourth book of Iberia portrays the joy of morning, the happy discovery of an inn where the wine is cool. An ever-changing crowd passes, the rhythm of their laughter marked by the beat of the Basque tambourines. Never has music attained to such diverse, such colorful impressions. One’s eyes close, dazzled by such wealth of imagery. There are many other things in this Iberia collection, wherein Albéniz has put what is best in him. They are written with a carefulness of composition that is almost exaggerated, thanks to a generous nature which went so far as to throw music out the windows. »

Sadly, Albéniz did not live long enough to see Iberia attain the lofty status it was soon to enjoy. He died from kidney failure only eleven days before his forty-ninth birthday and a little over a year after finishing his chef d’oeuvre. (Source)

Iberia composition

Book 1

Dedicated to Madame Jeanne Chausson (Ernest Chausson’s wife).

  • Evocación (“Evocation”, A♭ minor and A♭ major), an impressionist reminiscence of Albéniz’s native country, combining elements of the southern Spanish fandango and the northern Spanish jota song forms. The rarely seen seven-flat key signature is itself part of the Evocación.
  • El Puerto (D♭ major), a zapateado inspired by El Puerto de Santa María, in Cádiz.
  • Fête-dieu à Seville (F♯ minor and F♯ major) (alternative titles sometimes found: Corpus ChristiEl Corpus en Sevilla), describing the Corpus Christi Day procession in Seville, during which the Corpus Christi is carried through the streets accompanied by marching bands. Musically, this piece consists of a processional march that eventually becomes overwhelmed by a mournful saeta, the melody evoking Andalusian cante jondo and the accompaniment evoking flamenco guitars. The march and saeta alternate ever more loudly until the main march theme is restated as a lively tarantella that ends abruptly with a flamboyant fffff climactic chord; the piece concludes with a gentle coda again evoking flamenco guitars along with distant church bells.
Book 2

Dedicated to Blanche Selva.

  • Rondeña (D major), after the Andalusian town of Ronda. A variant of the fandango, it is characterized by the alternation of measures of 6/8 and 3/4
  • Almería (G major), relating to the Andalusian seaport of Almería, is loosely based on tarantas, a flamenco form characteristic of the region of Almería.
  • Triana (F♯ minor), after the Gypsy quarter of Seville.
Book 3

Dedicated to Marguerite Hasselmans

  • El Albaicín (B♭ minor and B♭ major) after the Albaicín, district of Granada.
  • El Polo (F minor) after the Polo (flamenco palo) .
  • Lavapiés (D♭ major), after the district of Madrid.
Book 4

Dedicated to Madame Pierre Lalo

  • Málaga (B♭ minor and B♭ major)
  • Jerez (A minor – arguably E Phrygian – and E major)
  • Eritaña (E♭ major)

(Source : Wikipedia)

Isaac Albeniz

(Short Biography from Britannica)

Isaac Albéniz, (born May 29, 1860, Camprodón, Spain—died May 18, 1909, Cambo-les-Bains, France), composer and virtuoso pianist, a leader of the Spanish nationalist school of musicians.

Albéniz appeared as a piano prodigy at age 4 and by 12 had run away from home twice. Both times he supported himself by concert tours, eventually gaining his father’s consent to his wanderings. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1875–76 and, when his money ran out, obtained a scholarship to study in Brussels. From 1883 he taught in Barcelona and Madrid. He had previously composed facile salon music for piano, but about 1890 he began to take composition seriously. He studied with Felipe Pedrell, father of the nationalist movement in Spanish music, and in 1893 moved to Paris. There he came under the influence of Vincent d’Indy, Paul Dukas, and other French composers and for a time taught piano at the Schola Cantorum. He later developed Bright’s disease and was a near invalid for several years before he died.

Albéniz’ fame rests chiefly on his piano pieces, which utilize the melodic styles, rhythms, and harmonies of Spanish folk music. The most notable work is Iberia. Also among his best works are the Suite española,containing the popular “Sevillana”; the Cantos de España, which includes “Córdoba”; Navarra; and the Tango in D Major. Orchestrated versions of many of his pieces are also frequently played.


Iberia is part of my iTunes February Studio Playlist that you can listen to here.

in Concert today

If you are from the Montreal, Québec area, my art partner, Tristan Longval-Gagné, will be playing Iberia’s book 2 in a concert tomorrow, alongside pieces from Granados, De Falla and Mompou. Concert is February 8 2022 at the Places des Arts but will be available online from March 20 to April 3. All the info here.

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