15 Apr 2019

RODRIGO – Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra

by Michael Clive

  1. Allegro con spirito
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro gentile


So many of classical music’s great geniuses led tragically short lives—Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Bizet all died in their 30s—that when we encounter those blessed with longevity, we rejoice. The Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, though blinded by diphtheria at age 3, lived to be 98. He credited the apparent calamity of his illness for his lifelong involvement in music.

Rodrigo made rapid progress at the conservatory in Valencia, graduating early and going on to Paris, where he studied with Paul Dukas at the École Normale de Musique. But while he absorbed the elements of French style and refinement, his music remains Spanish to its very core. With Manuel de Falla (b. 1876) and Enrique Granados (b. 1867), Rodrigo was central to the flowering of musical creativity that raised the prominence of Spanish music in the 20th century. These composers burst upon the music world like a new discovery, although their cultural lineage extended back centuries. Musicians and audiences greeted them like long-lost brothers, but their distinctively Iberian sound, drenched in folk melodies and in the traditions of Spanish church music of the Baroque period, was like nothing to be heard in the rest of Europe.

While Manuel de Falla gained renown for ballet scores that traveled with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Granados’ orchestral and piano compositions earned their standing as repertory staples (and his opera Goyescas in opera houses including New York’s Metropolitan), Rodrigo became known for his remarkable concertos. They reflect the Spanish affinity for the guitar; the two best-known examples, his Fantasy for a Nobleman and the Concierto de Aranjuez, are both for that instrument. But there are other notable examples, including a spectacularly original concerto for harp. Rodrigo composed the Fantasy for a Gentleman in 1954 for Andrés Segovia, and though it is often mistakenly associated with Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme—inspiration for many musical adaptions—the gentleman of Rodrigo’s title is actually Segovia himself. But the Concierto de Aranjuez remains his most popular and widely performed composition.

The website devoted to Rodrigo’s life and work includes the composer’s charming personal account of “how and why the Concierto de Aranjuez came about:”

In September of 1938, I was in San Sebastián on my return to France…It was during a dinner organized by the Marqués de Bolarque with Regino Sáinz de la Maza and myself. We ate well and the wine was not bad at all; it was the right moment for audacious fantasizing… All of a sudden, Regino, in that tone between unpredictable and determined which was so characteristic of him, said:

-Listen, you have to come back with a ‘Concerto for guitar and orchestra’ – and to go straight to my heart, he added in a pathetic voice: – It’s the dream of my life – and, resorting to a bit of flattery, he continued: – This is your calling, as if you were ‘the chosen one.’

I quickly swallowed two glasses of the best Rioja, and exclaimed in a most convincing tone: – All right, it’s a deal!

Inspired by the gardens at the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, the concerto opens with two themes in alternation. As Rodrigo notes, the movement is “animated by a rhythmic spirit and vigor without either of the two themes… interrupting its relentless pace.” Their rhythmic impetus makes the slow hush of the second movement all the more dramatic, with a dialogue between solo instrument and ensemble that is traditional in concertos. The last movement, as Rodrigo notes, “recalls a courtly dance in which the combination of double and triple time maintains a taut tempo right to the closing bar.”

The late George Jellinek—a perceptive musicologist and commentator not inclined to exaggerate—called Rodrigo’s concertos revolutionary, and asserted that their freshness resulted from the composer’s use of the second interval. Even listeners with no musical background are likely to have heard about other harmonic intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, and so on—but seconds, comprised of two notes that lie next to each other on the piano keyboard, are rarely heard or mentioned. And, yes, we do hear them frequently in this concerto. But are they so fully responsible for the concerto’s distinctive sound? Or do they function more like the rainfall on a streetscape in Paris or at the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, adding a poetic dimension to a scene that is already beautiful?