In recent weeks I have had the privilege to learn some of the songs of Joaquín Rodrigo, one of the greatest Spanish composers of the 20th century, who happened to be blind. I have been aided greatly by the work of Suzanne Rhodes Draayer, who wrote A Singer’s Guide to the Songs of Joaquín Rodrigo. Specifically, I have been studying Rodrigo’s song cycle Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios, which is available to learn in braille and audio formats from the NLS Music Section. In today’s post, I will focus on Rodrigo’s special relationship to vocal music. Future posts will cover other aspects of the fascinating life and oeuvre of this great artist. Many will know Rodrigo from his Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra and the famed melodic theme of its Adagio movement. But he composed 87 pieces for voice during his lifetime (1901-1999), setting texts that date from the 9th century up to his own time–and not only in the Castilian language but also Catalan, Galician, Ladino, French, and German.
Joaquín Rodrigo Vidre was born in 1901 in the province of Valencia, Spain, and became almost completely blind at the age of three due to a diphtheria epidemic that struck his hometown of Sagunto. Subsequent infections later in life claimed what little vision remained. Rodrigo attended a school for the blind in the city of Valencia, but his family additionally hired a tutor who read him works of Spanish literature and philosophy, which fostered his love of language from an early age. Suzanne Rhodes Draayer reports that Rodrigo later observed, “As a lover of literature, I have always tried to combine my musical inspiration with some of the great poetic texts of Spanish literature.” Furthermore, as fate would have it, Rodrigo found the perfect partner and collaborator in Victoria Kamhi, the woman of letters and pianist who married him in 1933. A fellow student of literature, she worked with him to select texts for songs and translated them into other languages when needed.
While studying composition in Paris in his twenties, Rodrigo’s engagement with the music of his homeland was encouraged. In a 1958 interview with The London Times, he explained: “I learnt a great deal from [Paul] Dukas, but studying under him I became even more Spanish than I was before. Indeed, I feel that composers today must keep to their national idioms. So much of modern music is monotonous because all the very young composers will write in the same atonal style.” In an interview that same year with The Washington Post, Rodrigo remarked, “I try to capture the spirit of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in Spain and put it into music–not traditional Spanish music, but I modernize and intellectualize it.”
Over the course of his life, the voice proved to be Rodrigo’s favored medium of musical expression. Rhodes Draayer reported in 1999, “Rodrigo considers the voice to be the perfect instrument, and his most favorite is the soprano voice.” He accompanied many great singers of the day who performed his vocal compositions, including Victoria de los Ángeles, who premiered some of his songs.
All of these factors–his love of literature, desire to use Spanish musical traditions, and appreciation of the human voice–coalesced so that Cecilia Rodrigo would later remark of her father, “The true essence of his music is found in his vocal music…” A perfect example of this synthesis is the song cycle Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios (Four Madrigals of Love), which is subtitled “Inspired by Spanish music of the 16th century.” The four poems are of indeterminate authorship but come from a collection of poetry called Recopilación de sonetos y sonatas y villancicos a quarto y a cinco dating to 1560. Apparently Rodrigo’s initial inspiration came in the late 1930s in Paris, when he heard guitarist and fellow Spanish expatriate Emilio Pujol play settings of these texts for vihuela and soprano that had been composed by Spanish vihuela masters of the Renaissance era. Rodrigo selected poems from this collection and created his own settings for voice and piano in 1947 and then for voice and orchestra in 1948. Each song is dedicated to a different soprano, all of whom were students of Lola Rodriguez Aragón, singer, vocal pedagogue, and godmother to Rodrigo’s daughter, Cecilia. Aragón played a leading role in the musical life of postwar Spain, and her studio produced such artists as Teresa Berganza. Rodrigo himself played the piano at the premier of the Madrigales in February of 1948.
In performance, the Madrigales occupy roughly 7-8 minutes, and each piece provides a brief but powerful depiction of a distinct emotional state caused by loss in love, unrequited love, flirtation, or infatuation. The emotional arc moves satisfyingly from the devastation and despondence of “¿Con qué la lavaré?” (With what shall I wash myself? I have only my sorrowful tears), to the bewildering, all-consuming onslaught of a passionate infatuation in “Vos me matásteis” (I saw you on the riverbank and you have destroyed me with your beautiful hair), to the light-hearted teasing of “¿De dónde venís, amore?” (I know where you’ve just been!), and finally the joyous effusions of new love in full bloom in “De los álamos vengo, madre” (“I have seen my beautiful love by the poplar trees of Seville”).
Rodrigo said he likely became a composer and musician because of his blindness, and that he otherwise would have become a historian, philosopher, or poet. As his work makes clear, however, Rodrigo became all of those things through his music. Music became his vehicle to explore, study, and ultimately become part of Spanish history, music, and literature with his own contributions. In creating his music, he entered into a vigorous and vibrant dialog with Spanish writers and musicians of centuries past and aligned himself with their traditions, using his creativity to enhance and build upon them.
The NLS Music Section has the braille score for Cuatro Madrigales for voice and piano. We also have audio lessons for learning to sing each of the four songs created by renowned vocal pedagogue Nico Castel. Each lesson includes a performance of the song with accompaniment, a reading of the lyrics for diction guidance, an English translation of the text, a recording of the melody, and a recording of the piano accompaniment alone for use in practice.
To borrow any of these titles, you may either download them from BARD or request a hard copy through the mail. Please contact the NLS Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, or e-mail us at [email protected] for assistance or if you have any questions.
Cuatro madrigales amatorios: inspirados en musica espanola del siglo 16 : high voice and piano. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM28707)
Audio Lessons for Each Song
¿Con qué la lavaré? (DBM01921)
Vos me matásteis (DBM01924)
¿De dónde venís, amore? (DBM01922)
De los álamos vengo, madre (DBM01923)