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Learn About the Spanish Composer, Isaac Albéniz's Works and Life

Isaac Albéniz: Overview

  • Born: 1860 - Camprodon, Spain
  • Died: 1909 - Cambo-les-Bains, France
  • Historical Period: Romantic 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, keyboard, opera, choral 

Composer, Isaac Albeniz

Isaac Albéniz was born in Spain in the year 1860 and is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 19th century. A Spanish virtuoso, he was primarily a pianist, and his talents manifested at a very early age. He ran away from home by the time he was 12 and over time performed on concert tours to earn his prominence. He passed away in 1909 in France. 

Dive Deeper into Isaac Albéniz's Life and Works: A Mammoth of Spanish Music

At the age of six, Albéniz visited Paris with his mother, where he learned music under Antoine Marmontel, a respected professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Although young Albéniz’s brilliance was evident, he couldn’t be admitted to the Conservatoire because of his age. Returning to Spain in 1868, the young artist performed a number of concerts in Catalonia and was immediately hailed as a genius. In the year 1872 Albéniz ran away from home and reached South America aboard a ship. After begging on the streets of Buenos Aires, the gifted young boy came across multiple opportunities that he made use of to make a name for himself. By the time he was 15, Albéniz had already gained considerable fame for his many performances on the piano. 

He received further recognition after studying at the Leipzig Conservatory and then at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. For the latter, he became the recipient of a royal grant through the machinations of Guillermo Morphy, who was the secretary to Brussels’ King Alonso. Albéniz dedicated Sevilla to Morphy’s wife to honor Guillermo Morphy’s actions towards him. From 1883 onwards, Albéniz was a piano teacher in Madrid and Barcelona and was well recognized as the “Spanish Rubinstein”. Recuerdos de viaje, op. 71 (1886-87), Concerto in A Minor, op. 78 (1887) and Spanish Rhapsody (1887) were some of his exceptional pieces produced during this period. The Spanish Rhapsody is representative of European Hispanic music. 

Albéniz also made his acquaintance with Felipe Pedrell, who was actively involved in nationalism in Spain, before shifting to Paris in 1893. The Magic Opal saw publication that same year and was adapted from Arthur Law’s work. English banker Francis Burdett Money-Coutts considerably compensated Albéniz in 1893 for adding music to the former’s dramas. Although the pianist agreed to the arrangement, this went on to produce a number of sub-par pieces. Money-Coutts composed mediocre librettos and the subjects of his pieces were uninteresting. These include Merlin (1897-1902), the opera Henry Clifford (1895), and the two-act comedy Pepita Jiménez (1895).

London was his home between 1890 to 1893, and he was recommended to the English Queen by her Spanish royal counterpart. During this time, publications such as España y Hojas de álbum (1891), Mallorca, Op 202, and Zambra (1888), which were piano works, appeared in the musical scene. 12 Piezas características, Op.92 (1888) and the Suite Española No.2, Op.97 (1888) saw immense popularity, propagating Albéniz to the forefront of the Spanish musical stage. The Cologne Orchestra performed Cataluña, Op. 47, No. 2 (1899), which then received widespread acclaim. 

Additional notable works from this time were the Cantos de España (1892) and San Antonio de la Florida (1894). Albéniz’s ultimate dream was the creation of an authentic Spanish National Opera and he did everything to introduce Hispanic music to his audiences. His work is characteristically comprised of haunting melodies, guitar tunes, energetic rhythms, which combine to form a unique and yet, sophisticated art form. His pre-1900s works include the Seguidillas (1898), or the Tango in D Major, Op. 165, No. 2 (1890) which was written as a component of the suite España, Op. 165 (1890). This resulted in a significant influence from French composers Vincent d’Indy and Paul Dukas, among others. Albéniz was also attached to the Schola Cantorum, where he taught piano and subsequently, the composer produced his most popular work, Iberia, between 1906 and 1909, with a debut performance in 1906 by Salle Pleyel. 

The fame and excellence of his body of works resulted in many of them being adapted for other musical instruments. Popularizing Spanish tunes and inspiring generations of artists were direct results of Albéniz compositions. Near the end of his life, the pianist contracted Bright’s disease which rendered him an invalid until the day he passed away in 1909. There were a couple of incomplete pieces left behind by Albéniz such as Navarra, which was then finished by Déodat de Sévérac and Anzulejos, completed by Enrique Granados. Isaac Albéniz, through his vast contribution to music, received the Grand Cross of the Legion d'honneur from the French government, posthumously.  


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