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Triumph over Tragedy: The Love Story of Victoria and Joaquín Rodrigo

Greetings, music lovers! To mark the occasion of Valentine’s Day, this week the NLS Music Section is celebrating the story of love between Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo and his wife, pianist and woman of letters Victoria Kamhi de Rodrigo. Theirs is a remarkable and inspiring journey–a bond that overcame many obstacles and an artistic partnership that spanned decades. In recent weeks, I have been reading Victoria’s autobiography, Hand in Hand with Joaquín Rodrigo: My Life at the Maestro’s Side, deftly translated from Spanish into English by Ellen Wilkerson, and I would like to share with you the story of love, struggle, and redemption that emerges from those pages. To learn more about Joaquín Rodrigo, please read our recent posts about his vocal music and his guitar compositions.

Our story begins in 1905, when Victoria Kamhi was born in Besiktas, which was then a suburb of Istanbul on the European coast of the Bosphorus Strait. Her family owned a successful pharmacy chain that operated all across Europe, and Victoria was born with the proverbial silver spoon, raised in the glow of the Belle Époque’s last radiance, enjoying every imaginable comfort, including an excellent education in music and literature. Her family nurtured the early talent she displayed on the piano, and she studied devotedly with several renowned teachers during her youth. Victoria aspired to become a concert pianist, although her parents’ chief desire was for her to find a suitable match in marriage.

After periods of living in Vienna and Switzerland, the family relocated to Paris in 1918, where Victoria passed six felicitous years assiduously studying piano, enjoying a vibrant social life, and taking in the city’s offerings of opera, theater, concerts, and lectures. She also provided care for children of needy families at a charitable institution called The New Star of the Children of France, contrary to her father’s preference. Little did she know that her own family would soon be in great need.

In 1924 the Kamhi and Sons firm declared bankruptcy and overnight the family’s financial and social status plummeted. In a sudden and shocking reversal of fortune, Victoria and her sister were no longer heiresses with dowries, they could no longer afford their luxurious lifestyle, and an unfamiliar frugality became the order of the day. Victoria’s piano teacher provided free lessons and she earned her diploma as a music teacher from the Paris Conservatory but attracted no students or performance prospects.

However, in 1928, through the connections she maintained to the concert-going life of Paris, she encountered the music of Joaquín Rodrigo and was soon able to meet the young composer, who was then studying at the École Normale de Musique. The two quickly formed an attachment, but the relationship seemed an impossibility. Her father did not approve of her union with a composer who was blind and had no means of supporting her. Victoria and Joaquín continued their relationship in secret but broke up in the winter of 1932 after Joaquín unsuccessfully asked for her hand in marriage. But several months later, Victoria, against her father’s wishes, traveled to Valencia in Spain, and married Joaquín on January 19, 1933.

Although now united, the couple’s difficulties did not end here. Impecunious and unable to establish a household, they had to live apart for several months in 1934. When they reunited, the couple successfully lobbied, with Manuel de Falla’s support, to receive the Conde de Cartagena Scholarship from the Spanish Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which provided financial stability until 1936, when the Spanish Civil War canceled the scholarship. The couple were stranded for more than a year as refugees in Germany’s Black Forest until they returned to Paris, where, with the support of family and the musical connections they cultivated, they managed to improve their prospects. But in 1938, the outbreak of the Second World War loomed, disrupting normal life and undermining the couple’s hard-won stability once again. Once more they were in precarious circumstances, and this time Victoria was pregnant.

In 1939, after seven months of pregnancy, Victoria delivered a stillborn daughter and then became gravely ill. In her autobiography, Victoria relates how Amalia Carrasco–the university professor from whom they rented a room–remembered the days following the loss of the baby: “Later [Amalia] would tell me how [Joaquín] would spend the long hours of the night at the old piano, unable to sleep and that she heard from her room a melody as full of sadness and longing that it truly gave her chills. This melody would become the ‘Adagio’ of the Concierto de Aranjuez… It was an evocation of the happy days of our honeymoon, when we walked in the park at Aranjuez, and at the same time, it was a love song.” Victoria also recounts how, compounding her devastation upon returning home from the hospital, “…we had to sell my beloved Pleyel piano, a gift from my parents, to pay the clinic bills. Sorrow upon sorrow….”

Thankfully, Victoria recovered with the support of family and friends, and circumstances began to improve for her and Joaquín. With the end of the Spanish Civil War, the couple were able to return to Madrid, the Conde de Cartagena Scholarship was reinstated, and Joaquín gained employment with the Spanish National Organization for the Blind (ONCE), Radio Nacional de España, the Royal Conservatory of Music, and a newspaper. The Concierto de Aranjuez had its fantastically successful premiere in 1940, and Victoria and Joaquín’s daughter Cecilia was born in 1941. The concerto’s success firmly established Joaquín’s international reputation as a composer and brought the family the security they needed–a triumph that arose from the most painful tragedy. The importance of Victoria’s contributions to Joaquín’s art cannot be overstated, and in a future blog post we will learn more about the couple’s artistic collaboration.

On this Valentine’s Day, regardless of your relationship status, you can enjoy the music that has grown out of great romances, like the Concierto de Aranjuez. Listed below are some selections for your listening pleasure from the NLS Music Section.

Braille Music

Arlen, Harold. Let’s Fall in Love. For medium voice and piano in section by section and bar by bar formats. (BRM09038)

Gershwin, George. Love Walked In. From The Goldwyn Follies. Words by Ira Gershwin. For voice and piano in section by section format. (BRM35793)

Herbert, Victor. Gypsy Love Song from The Fortune Teller. For low voice and piano in bar over bar format. (BRM06595)

Love and Blues Songs. Words, guitar chords, and melody. Includes “Bill Bailey,” “Love Is Blue,” and “Stormy Weather.” Line by line format. (BRM26491)

McCartney, Paul. Silly Love Songs. For voice and piano; includes chord symbols. Bar over bar format. (BRM24027)

McHugh, Jimmy. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. For voice and piano in section by section and bar over bar formats. (BRM08167)

Old Song Favorites, Part 3: Love Songs. For voice and piano. Includes “Annie Laurie,” “Comin’ thro’ the Rye,” and “La Paloma.” Section by section and bar over bar formats. (BRM13157)

Porter, Cole. So in Love from Kiss Me Kate. For soprano and piano in section by section and bar over bar formats. (BRM06993)

Rodgers, Richard. Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful? from Cinderella. For high voice and piano in section by section and bar over bar formats. (BRM07286)

Rodrigo, Joaquín. En Aranjuez con tu amor. An arrangement for voice and piano of the “Adagio” movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Bar over bar format. Music only, text not included. (BRM35101)

Rodrigo, Joaquín. Cuatro madrigales amatorios: inspirados en musica espanola del siglo 16 : high voice and piano. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM28707)

Tonight I Celebrate My Love and Other Contemporary Love Songs. Includes “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” and “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” For voice and guitar with chord symbols and guitar chord diagrams. 4 volumes. (BRM33879)

Talking Books

All in Love Is Fair. Bill Brown teaches the Stevie Wonder piano solo “All in Love Is Fair” without the use of music notation. Includes orchestrated backing tracks. Intermediate level. (DBM03000)

American Folksongs for Men: To You with Love. Bob Ross plays guitar and sings several American folksong classics including “Drink to Me Only,” “I’m Gonna Marry,” and “Mary, My Beloved.” (DBM03658)

Be My Love. Valentine’s Day customs and music in the romantic vein are featured. “Be My Love,” “I Love You Truly,” and “My Secret Love” are some of the songs you’ll hear. (DBM00807)

Be My Valentine. Anecdotes, stories, and music for those in love. (DBM01003)

The Greatest Love of All. Bill Brown teaches an alto sax solo of this pop hit without the use of music notation. Includes backup tracks. (DBM02717)

Have I Told You Lately That I Love You. Bill Brown teaches how to play this song for flat pick guitar. Based on the older version played by Jim Reeves. Level 1. (DBM03342)

Love Songs: The Hidden History. Ted Gioia discussed the history of love songs in the human experience, ranging from ancient civilizations to current popular culture. (DBM04254)

Sounds to Grow On, Program #25. “In this program, the theme is simple: love. Love songs, courting songs, fertility songs, bridal and wedding songs. Start in North Africa with the Berbers who live in Algeria and move around the world, geographically and emotionally.” (DBM04088)

Large-Print Music

I Love Thee (Ich liebe dich), Think on Me, and Voi Che Sapete. Three pieces by Edvard Grieg, Alicia Ann Scott, and W.A. Mozart. For high voice. Vocal part only. (LPM00013)

Love and Blues Songs. Words, guitar chords, and melody. Includes “Bill Bailey,” “Love Is Blue,” and “Stormy Weather.” (LPM00377)

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 hard copies of braille music, talking books on digital cartridge, or large-print music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, or e-mail us at [email protected] for assistance.

New BARD Additions: September 2020

The NLS Music Section has a batch of new braille music and talking books for you to enjoy! Check out what’s new and available for download from BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download)!

New BARD Additions: January 2020

It’s the end of January, and time to let you know about new materials available from the NLS Music Section.