Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Basque Mozart Effect: Arriaga's First (and Only) Symphony

For some of the composers we've covered here, it is truly baffling that they aren't better known. These are the symphonists whose works are accessible, profound, perhaps even popular at the time of their premieres, but for some whim of concert programming, didn't quite make it into the canon.

Then there are those for whom obscurity--however undeserved--is not a surprise. Such is the case with the Basque composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (1806-1826), whose marginal status today is the result of a convergence of sorry circumstances: a brief life, a small output, and a musically non-mainstream nationality.

Arriaga's composing career was stunted because of his incredibly short lifespan. He died from tuberculosis 10 days before reaching his 20th birthday, although his teacher, the eminent François-Joseph Fétis, held that Arriaga's work ethic led him to counterpoint-exercise himself to death.[1] Arriaga developed into an extraordinary musical prodigy at the prodding of his organist father. At thirteen he penned his one and only opera, with an in-vogue Turkish abduction plot, Los Esclavos Felices (The Happy Slaves). Yet he was so shy that at its premiere in his hometown of Bilbao, he hid away until tremendous applause at its conclusion drew him out. He moved to Paris at age 15 to study at the Paris Conservatoire. His truncated tenure was highly productive, for what it's worth. He wrote arias, fugues, a cantata and Stabat Mater, three string quartets--works that stunned Fétis as well as the extremely difficult-to please head professor Luigi Cherubini. And a single Symphony in D.

After his death, Arriaga's relatives promoted an image of Arriaga as the "Spanish Mozart" (or indeed, given his birthplace in Bilbao, the "Basque Mozart" for members of Basque nationalist movements). The comparison is not just apt, it's spooky. Arriaga was born exactly 50 years (to the hour!) after the birth of W. A. Mozart. Like his predecessor/past-soul incarnation, Arriaga wrote in a mostly Viennese classical style, which was still the dominant popular and academic idiom of his day. He had a remarkable melodic verve and mastery of counterpoint, but died before these skills solidified into something truly revolutionary. Perhaps his failure to even glance the surface of the canon owes to the lack of overt "Spanishisms" in his music. Spain since Domenico Scarlatti had more or less slipped off the radar of mainstream European concert composition, and despite his promise, Arriaga neither established a national school of Spanish music at home, nor did he introduce a curious "ethnic" flavor that would have entranced central European audiences. No castanets, no jota rhythms. Though a few commentators have discerned vague "Latin flavor" in his melodic writing, Arriaga was a cosmopolitan composer at heart rather than a purveyor of local color.

The Symphony in D was written during Arriaga's time at the Conservatoire, and was probably performed there once. (At least the composer would have been able to hear his orchestral masterpiece, provided he wasn't still so shy to avoid the premiere.) It is a smoothly conceived and executed work, displaying more than just facility, but a real fluency with Classical symphonic form. The first movement is a churning allegro in D-minor, but it starts off with a lengthy slow introduction in the parallel key of D-major.[2] Things pick up with the entrance of the movement's Sturm-und-Drang exposition, full of dissonant thunderclaps and angsty string palpitations. Especially skillful is the motivic consistency; parts of the main theme and its transition are incorporated into the second subject in the relative major F. Here is a fairly substantial portion of the expo, leading halfway through the second theme. Listen for the 4 eighth-note rhythmic motif ba-ba-ba-BUM, where that last BUM always lands on a note much lower than the first.

[All excerpts come from the Concerto Koln Cappricio recording]

The symphony's slow second movement is based around a pair of unhurried themes framed once again within a sonata structure. The second of these is particularly beautiful, a lyrical melody one might easily mistake for Mozart (on a good day). Next up, a minuet+trio movement (no shock there), although the minuet is so jagged and full of tutti-alternating-with-concertino scoring that whatever gentility the dance might originally have boasted is surely purged here. The cheeky syncopation of the opening, combined with the extreme economy of melodic materials (scarcely more than arpeggios in 2-voice imitation) leaves a distinct and welcome Haydnesque taste.

Arriaga leaves the most impressive display of his burgeoning compositional talent to the last movement's Allegro con moto, where we are returned to the tempestuous mood of the opening. True, the throbbing accompaniment and troubled but energetic theme are heavily reminiscent of Mozart's 40th Symphony. But perhaps the commentator Alan Pedigo isn't totally off-base in claiming that the movement is "flavored with variations of the rhyhtm and melody of the Fandango and Andalucia."[3] The off-beat chords in the woodwinds anticipate more violent bursts when the first theme concludes and heads into the second theme area. We have, then, another rather dangerous dance.[4]

The development is short but in its way substantial, and at one point just happens to launch into a fuguetto based on the second subject. Where lapsing effortlessly and unexpectedly into fugue was a mark of Beethoven's late style, for young Arriaga it seems motivated by a combination of showing-off and free wheeling joy in counterpoint that Fetis so admired.

The modified transition section of the recapitulation is the most remarkable portion of the symphony. To understand what's happening here, we need to return to the exposition, and inspect the way Arriaga gets from the D-minor of the first subject to F-major of the second. The strategy there is already a little odd, as it involves a passage that very quickly takes us to a chromatic destination (C-minor) as part of a sequence falling in major seconds. The ultimate goal is the pitch Bb, which acts as the seventh of a downward arpeggiating C-dominant for F-major.

The question Arriaga must have posed himself is "how do I change this transition in the recap so that I end up *back* in D?" His answer is to re-position that chromatic event so that it affects A rather than the tonic D. The result is a shocking motion from A-major to Ab-major. True, that latter chord is transitional in character, leading to further semitonal droops all the way to Gb (bIV?!). But it remains an astonishingly bold musical shift to the single most remote key out there (Ab in the key of D is...bV?). The surprises continue, when Gb is reinterpreted as F# and climbs *back up* to Ab (now heard as G#), which settles on A major as the proper dominant that clinches theme number two.

For the analysis-oriented of you, here is a little reduction of the process as it occurs in both sections, lined up to show the similarities and divergences in strategy.
Harmonic Reduction of Transition in Exposition and Recap of Arriaga Symphony in D, Mvt. 4
Arriaga's symphony, despite these dazzling flourishes, is ultimately a rather conventional animal. Yet we must remember it was written while he was still a composer in training. Indeed, if his life were not cut so short, Juan Arriaga may well have become one of continental Europe's most widely sung symphonists.

---Frank Lehman

[1]. Recounted in Barbara Rosen's Arriaga, the Forgotten Genius: The Short Life of a Basque Composer. (17-18). Rosen's slim volume is an invaluable source for information on Arriaga, not just biographical, but with regard to his place in music history and the gradual attempts to revive his music.
[2]. Frankly, I feel the intro is the weakest part of the work; Arriaga basically lifts his beginning from the slow opening of Beethoven's 2nd symphony (by accident or more likely, star-struck imitation, I'd wager).
[3]. Cited in Rosen, 50.
[4]. That transition is achieved in part through a hearty "three-blind mice" figure for low strings that Rosen hears as a distant premonintion of Dvorak's 9th symphony, 4th mvt-- and it's hard not to hear it that way once attuned. (Rosen, ibid)


  1. Hearing Arriaga's symphony on the radio (quite randomly!) 2 weeks ago was exactly the spur I needed to get back to the blog. Thanks for keeping up with us!

  2. Ensconced within a musical line-up of Mozart symphonies, do you think anyone would point this one out as the one that's not like the others?

    Another option: publish an article about a long-lost Mozart symphony and see how long it takes scholars to figure it out.

  3. I like they way you're thinking. Better yet, introduce this as Mozart's 40th to a group of complete music novices and see how quickly they begin discussing it as an immortal, unparalleled masterpiece.

  4. Arriaga was born and remained all his life, as a basque, a citizen of Spain. Would you call Copland “a Brooklynian composer” or John Addams a Massachusettsan composer”?

    "The "Basque Mozart" for members of Basque nationalist movements". Based on your insistence on not calling Arriaga Spanish, I could assume that you are one of those Basque nationalists; which by the way are a minority and NON-existing in Arriaga’s time. If you are going to politicize the entrances of your blog perhaps you should get better geopolitical information before writing your blog’s entrances…