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.