The Context of Music: The Spanish Civil War

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Music of Spain: Composers of the Civil War, performed on Feb 25, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

The modern political history of Spain began formally with the declaration of the Second Republic of Spain (the so-called “first” republic was a short-lived affair in 1873–4) at the end of 1931 after the departure of King Alfonso XIII (who did not abdicate but was declared guilty of treason) and the adoption of a constitution. The 1931 constitution may have had hallmarks of a modern democracy, including the election of a president by parliament and an electoral college based on the popular vote, freedom of religion, and the civilian control of the military. But it also outlined a radical and perhaps even noble agenda that was divisive and suggested the possible influence of communists. The new republic sought in its fundamental laws to sharply reduce the role not only of the military (no professional soldier could become president), but also of the Catholic Church. The radical secular vision of the new political order was perhaps best expressed by nationalization of church property and the dissolution of the Jesuit order.

The extreme and historic social inequality that dominated in Spain justified legal provisions to expropriate private property, engage in land reform, and nationalize public utilities. Popular as these measures were, particularly in the midst of a terrifying and worldwide downward economic spiral, they were undoubtedly starkly progressive and profoundly influenced by socialism. They alarmed the vested interests of the past, the landed aristocracy, the army, and the clergy. The nation that would face this swift turn to republicanism was itself not cohesive enough as to make the shift from monarchy to an egalitarian republic smooth. And for all the ills of the church, it had its adherents throughout all social classes.

The new republic also faced a major issue central to all twentieth century (and twenty-first century) Spanish politics: the bedeviling tension between regional and national identity. Catalonia, the home of Pablo Casals, was by far the region most determined to achieve autonomy. It had its own language and culture and its own political elite. But Andalusia (where Picasso was born) and the Basque region were also places with distinct cultures and proud traditions. Regional pride may have survived in competition with more modern constructions of national identity in all major European nations (France, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy), but regional identity remained far more competitive in Spain. Spain entered the twentieth century more as a fragile dynastic entity akin to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Spain was an amalgam of not always compatible peoples, despite a shared common language and a seemingly coherent geographical and historical profile. It was far less an incipient centralized modern state of the sort fashioned over centuries in France and rather more rapidly out of large sections of nineteenth-century German-speaking Europe.

If regionalism was not enough of a challenge to the republic, religion—in the form of the Catholic Church—had provided a powerful common ground in the Iberian Peninsula. The republic sought to weaken the Church’s influence. A deep religiosity pervaded Spain for centuries. It cut across class divisions. Ignatius Loyola was Spaniard and the Spanish monarchy helped define the Counter-Reformation. Spain carried the banner of the dream of universal Christendom, expelling Islam and its own Jews by the end of the fifteenth century and bringing Catholicism with an equally chilling brutality to South and Central America. Monarchy and Church were closely aligned and both were associated with the towering and impressive colonial expansion that had made Spain legendary before the 18th century throughout the world. The heritage bequeathed by these two powers, secular and sacred, sustained a national sensibility in the era after Spain’s fall from economic and political preeminence between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, regional and social divisions notwithstanding.

Spain’s relative economic backwardness and political impotence during the nineteenth century did not diminish its place in the European imagination. Weakness lent its culture a romantic allure, particularly among intellectuals and artists in France, England, and Germany. Spain, in part owing to the Moorish influence in its history, its proximity to North Africa, its distinctive regions, and the residues of its colonial reach, came to represent something exotic and unsullied by modern rational commerce and industry. The French in particular saw in Spain a thriving, magical, and genuine musical and visual culture. By 1900, Spain had taken its place in the romantic imagination in the more industrially advanced countries of Europe in a sympathetic albeit condescending manner; Spain was both sufficiently similar and distinctly “other” as to offer European artists powerful sources of inspiration that could fuel resistance to the worst spiritual and aesthetic consequences of modernization. From Bizet to Ravel, the Spanish element offered an inspiring antidote to the overwhelming dominance of German and Italian musical traditions.

Nevertheless, despite its historical drift into relative powerlessness and decline in the late nineteenth century, a renascence of Spanish culture in literature and the arts took place, culminating in a vibrant modern outpouring of music, painting, and literature in the twentieth century. But in no other part of Europe was culture so intertwined with and affected by politics. The Spanish Republic struggled to achieve stability. The contradictions between a noble effort to create a modern nation marked by freedom and equality by eliminating the last residues of influence on the part of the twin pillars of feudalism-church and crown and the reactionary will to restore monarchical and Church power became violent. As the Civil War took shape, Spain’s artists and intellectuals could not stand aside.

In 1936, a coalition—a popular front of left wing parties—defeated their conservative opponents at the ballot box, including supporters of the church and monarchists. A revolt ensued that turned into the civil war. It broke out first in July, initially in Spanish Morocco. As the legitimate elected government proceeded to further confiscate church property, the conservative rebellion gathered momentum and the fighting spread to the mainland. At the head of the insurgents was Francisco Franco.

For three years Spain was torn by a Civil War fueled not only by divisions in the country itself, but by the intervention and non-intervention of the rest of the world. Germany and Italy, both in Fascist hands, recognized and supported Franco generously with military and economic support. The republican side, known as the Loyalist cause, received support from Stalin that was limited, expensive, and highly compromised. The Loyalists were abandoned by those nations that should have been their natural allies—the democracies of France and England, as well as by the United States. The republic’s most steadfast ally was Mexico. Fear of communism and a lingering post-World War I romance with disarmament and pacifism resulted in a nearly deliberate international effort to prevent the Republic from defending itself. Many have speculated about how different the rest of the twentieth century might have turned out had the world stood up to Hitler and Mussolini in Spain and defended the Republic against Franco.

Ironically, it was Catalonia that put up the most heroic effort on behalf of the Spanish Republic. The Loyalist cause could not prevail against Franco’s military superiority. The fall of Barcelona in January 1939 marked the true collapse of the Republic. But before the end, the cause of the Loyalists managed to electrify an entire generation. Americans, as private individuals, mobilized into the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, aptly named to underscore the ideal of democracy, legitimacy, and unity. The list of volunteers who went to Spain to fight in what came to be known as the “last great cause,” in defiance of the failure of democracies to match the power and brutality of dictatorships, is a veritable who’s who of celebrities, ranging from George Orwell to Ernest Hemingway. All told, over 30,000 individuals volunteered to fight on the side of the Republic.

The collapse of republican Spain foreshadowed the tragedy of World War II and has become, as a subject of history itself, an ideological battleground of interpretation about propaganda, dictatorship, the role of communism and Stalin, the place of intellectuals, and the nature of justice and democracy.

The composers on this program all emerged from the flowering of Spanish culture before the onset of the Civil War. Each took a different path once it began. De Falla went into voluntary exile. Turina sided with Franco and benefited from his allegiance to the victors, and Gerhard, like his better known countryman Casals, fled in the wake of defeat and lived with a life-long sense of defiance towards Franco, the revolt, and the forces that brought the Republic down.

Each composer, through music, expresses a distinct construct of and debt to a modern Spanish identity. All three help explode the distinction between a “center” to Europe and a “periphery.” In this music one encounters an engagement with one’s heritage—the distinctly local, so to speak—in a manner that does not trivialize it or render it an object of fetishism or reductive simplification. The music is no longer “provincial” but an integral part of a pan-European dynamic that sought to engage the issue of the proper nature of art in modernity. These composers stand alongside Bartók and Janáček in utilizing the familiar and seemingly more-authentic roots of concert music in a formal manner possessed of a universal reach. In particular, Roberto Gerhard (whose magnificent Violin Concerto was performed by ASO in New York some years back) is one of the twentieth century’s finest and most distinctive composers. Although his career flourished in England, his music is today very underrepresented in the repertory.

The trauma and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War receded very slowly into history. It is ironic that Spain, despite its significant current economic difficulties and continued tensions between regions and the central government, has flourished since the death of Franco. Under Juan Carlos, Spain is a constitutional monarchy that has managed to negotiate the competing pressures within Spain without substituting dictatorship for democracy.

The Music of Spain: Composers of the Civil War

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Music of Spain: Composers of the Civil War, performed on Feb 25, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who styled himself “Caudillo de España por la gracia de Dios,” despised the nineteenth century, for this particular tyrant identified the romantic era with the disruptive transgressions of individualism, rebellion, anti-clericalism, and political liberalism. Franco much preferred the sixteenth century, the “Siglo de Oro” (“The Golden Age”), which he viewed as the apex of Spanish greatness in politics and art, as well as a period when the influence of his own Roman Catholic faith, as exemplified by the Inquisition, pervaded and regulated all facets of Spanish life. Franco’s brand of Fascist ideology was thus pro-Catholic and socially conservative—and profoundly homophobic. Franco was a ghastly dictator, but his long “regency” was notable for what did not occur: he did not make an alliance with the Axis powers during the Second World War; his regime was not officially anti-Semitic, which made Spain a haven for some 200,000 Jews; and unlike either the Nazis or Soviets, his regime welcomed the objectivity of musical Modernism, if contained within nationalistic limits and depending on the political convictions of the composer. This program explores the work of three composers whose lives were changed dramatically by the triumph of Franco’s Nationalist Party after the horrifying carnage that was the Spanish Civil War. During the war, the Nationalists executed tens of thousands of Spaniards, many of whom were leftists, artists, Republicans, atheists, Freemasons, and intellectuals, including the great (and notoriously gay) poet, Federico García Lorca, in 1936.

MANUEL DE FALLA (1876–1946)

Homenajes (“Homages”), Suite for Orchestra (1938–9)

Stravinsky famously described Manuel de Falla’s nature as “the most unpityingly religious I have ever known—and the least sensible to manifestations of humor.” Francis Poulenc, a far more ebullient Roman Catholic than Spaniard, marveled at Falla’s strict daily attendance at early mass. Falla’s religious fervor would lead him into political difficulty during the Spanish Civil War, however, when, horrified by rumors (which, indeed, were more than just rumors) of the torture and murder of priests and nuns by extreme Republican factions, he wrote a public letter denouncing the atrocities. The composer’s political naivety played into Franco’s hands: the Nationalists attempted strenuously to co-opt Spain’s greatest composer for their cause. Disheartened by the devastation that came in the wake of the Civil War, Falla accepted gladly an offer to conduct a series of concerts in 1939 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. After these successful events, Falla settled permanently in Argentina with his sister, Maria del Carmen, and, resisting the blandishments of the Spanish government, never returned to his native land.

Many reasons have been advanced for Falla’s self-induced exile in South America. One theory is that Falla was a closeted homosexual who, after his courageous but fruitless attempts to save Lorca from execution, may have feared reprisal. Although his circle included such homosexuals as Wanda Landowska, Francis Poulenc, Serge Diaghilev, and the British Hispanicist J. B. Trend, who was the life partner of the Cambridge music historian E. J. Dent, there is no hard evidence that the Spanish composer was a homosexual or that, if he was, he ever acted on his supposed sexual proclivities. (Counter-arguments to the possibility of Falla’s homosexuality are often founded on the rather amusing premise that such a devout and austere Roman Catholic would have been incapable of secretly gratifying such sinful and perverse proclivities.) Perhaps Falla believed that a government that would execute a great poet was not one within which he wished to live, but he may have just craved the quiet and security that Argentina offered him at a fraught and dangerous moment in history.

Falla compiled, rather than composed, his last completed orchestral work, Homenajes, for his appearances in Buenos Aires and conducted the premiere there on November 18, 1939. All of the movements are based on preexisting materials: the earliest of these was Homenaja pour Guitare that appeared in a special 1920 edition of the Revue Musicale dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy. In that issue, Falla’s homage appeared alongside musical tributes by Stravinsky, Ravel, Roussel, and Satie. (Interestingly enough, Debussy was one of Lorca’s favorite composers.) Surrounding this elegy to Debussy is a fanfare in honor of the Spanish conductor and violinist Enrique Arbós—the musical materials of which are derived from Arbos’ initials. The next movement, and, touchingly, the second elegy within Homenajes, is a reworking of a “tombeau” written in memory of Falla’s loyal friend Paul Dukas, while the finale is a tribute to his beloved teacher, Felipe Pedrell.

JOAQUÍN TURINA (1882-1949)

Sinfonía Sevelliana, Op. 23 (1920)

Like his friend and colleague Manuel de Falla, Turina had to travel to Paris in order to become completely Spanish. Already a brilliant pianist and a promising composer before he left for France, Turina studied composition there with the redoubtable pedagogue Vincent D’Indy at the austere Schola Cantorum, a school founded to counter the perceived worldliness of the Paris Conservatory. Falla, however, successfully urged Turina to eschew the pious aesthetics espoused by D’Indy and take Spanish popular music as the basis of his style. After his return to Spain, Turina settled in Madrid, winning many prizes and teaching at the Madrid Conservatory in 1930. During the Spanish Civil War, Turina and his family fell afoul of the Republicans and he embraced enthusiastically the order brought to him by Franco’s fascist government. After the end of the war, and partly in consequence of Falla’s self-imposed exile in Argentina, Franco’s government heaped honors upon Turina, ultimately awarding him the Grand Cross of Alfonso the Wise.

One of Turina’s most celebrated works is his Sinfonia Sevilliana, Op. 23, which was given its premiere on September 11, 1920 by the Madrid Symphony Orchestra conducted by Enrique Arbós. This coruscating evocation of Turina’s natal city of Seville is more a symphonic poem than a thematically integrated symphony; the composer’s penchant for employing a brilliant, at times garish, orchestral palette pervades the entire score. The first movement, Panorama, which is cast in sonata form, is the aural equivalent of a bird’s-eye view of Seville, while the voluptuous second movement, entitled Por el rio Guadalquivir (“By Guadalquivir River”) evinces the influence of the French Impressionists. The finale, Fiesta en San Juan de Aznalfarache, described by the composer as a fantasy in three parts, is a veritable riot of local color that recalls Respighi’s tone poem Feste Romane.

ROBERTO GERHARD (1896-1870)

Don Quixote (1940–1 and 1947–9)

Symphony No. 4, “New York” (1967–8)

Born to a Swiss father and an Alsatian mother, Roberto Gerhard proudly and defiantly considered himself truly Catalan. (In Catalan and in German, his first name is simply “Robert,” but he later adopted the Castilian form “Roberto” for political reasons.) Gerhard studied piano with another Catalan composer, Granados, and was the last pupil of the great Filipe Pedrell, an astonishingly successful pedagogue whose other students included Albéniz, Granados, and Falla. Unlike these composers, however, Gerhard spurned Paris for Vienna, where he became a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. In 1931, Gerhard was appointed to a teaching post at the Ecole Normal de al Generalitat in Barcelona. During the Civil War, Gerhard and his family were ardent Republicans who lived in Barcelona, a city that gallantly resisted the Nationalists. After Franco’s final victory, Gerhard fled to Great Britain with his wife, where E. J. Dent, at the urging of his partner J.B. Trend, managed to award the Catalan composer a modest fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge. (Gerhard and his wife later repaid Dent’s kindness by nursing the music historian through a serious illness in1942). Gerhard, who became a British subject in 1960, remained in Cambridge for the rest of his life, augmenting his modest living through composing for radio, films (including the wonderful This Sporting Life), and the theater; his music was proscribed in Spain until after Franco’s death. In 1967, Gerhard was made a Commander of the British Empire and awarded an honorary doctorate from King’s College where he was a beloved and, indeed, revered figure.

Gerhard’s greatest success came with his ballet, Don Quixote, which was originally written in 1940–1 for chamber ensemble; the score was later reworked extensively in 1947 to 1949 and rescored for large orchestra. With stunning choreography by Ninette de Valois and brilliant décor by Edward Burra, Don Quixote was a resounding success at its premiere by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1951. The composer’s scenario skillfully condenses Cervante’s sprawling picaresque novel down to a clearly defined series of interrelated episodes apt for dancing. Gerhard’s music is so lively and rhythmical that few listeners at the time of its premiere were aware that the Catalan composer had employed his inimitable adaptation of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique to generate the musical materials. Surely Gerhard’s choice of this quintessentially Spanish subject, composed at that time and in exile, was meant to have a political resonance.

By contrast, Gerhard’s late Fourth Symphony, “New York,” is a powerful one-movement work that engages with both the 1960s avant-garde and refracted memories of Catalan folk music. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for is 125th Anniversary (thus giving rise to the sobriquet “New York,” which was attached to the work by the composer himself), the symphony was premiered on December 14, 1967 by the New York Philharmonic conducted by William Steinberg. Gerhard’s own words serve as an eloquent portal through which to enter into the world of this expressive and richly complex work: “A composer needs grace (inspiration), guts, intellect, madness; and systems are a sine qua non, because the intellect can only work, only take grip, when confronted by a system.”

Byron Adams

Mr. Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside, and his music has been performed across Europe and the U.S. He has published widely on the subject of English music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.