Obituary: Joaqun Rodrigo

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The Independent Culture
WHISTLE THE opening three notes of the slow movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez and almost anyone who has come near a radio in the past half- century will be able to pick up the tune and continue it. To obtain that kind of popular response is given to very few composers in history: Beethoven managed it with the Fifth Symphony and the "Joy" theme of the Ninth - but in each instance it took him a note more than Joaqun Rodrigo required in 1938.

Although Rodrigo is a one-work composer in the popular ear, his output was prodigious - astonishingly so for someone who lost his eyesight at the age of three: between 1922 and 1987, when he finally stopped composing, he wrote over 170 works, and for a bewildering variety of forces, ranging from full orchestra and chorus, via ballets, oratorio and film music, to solo pieces for all sorts of instruments, from piano and cello to accordion and harmonica - and, of course, guitar.

The sheer range of his music, let alone the depth of emotion expressed in it, is almost completely unknown even to the regular concert-goer, whose normal listening will include the Fantasia para un gentilhombre, also for guitar and orchestra, perhaps the Cuatro madrigales amatorios for voice and piano or orchestra and, at a push, the Concierto serenata for harp and orchestra - but that will be about all. The rest of Rodrigo's generous output has been obscured by this handful of successes and that one smash hit, just as much as the Prelude in C sharp minor did for Rachmaninov's more important music and Enescu's Romanian Rhapsodies scuppered the works that he set real store by.

Rodrigo was born in Sagunto, Valencia, on 22 November 1901, the name day of St Cecilia, patron of music (12 years later Benjamin Britten had the same auspicious birthday); his father was a wine merchant and local politician. With the near-complete loss of his sight in a diphtheria epidemic, Joaqun's natural musicality could develop without the conventional distractions of childhood. His parents hired a secretary to assist in his education, with his mother choosing the texts to be read to him, opening her son's eyes, so to speak, to a world of enormous intellectual breadth, with the great works of Spanish literature at its centre. He was not to forget them when, years later, he was seeking texts to set to music.

Rodrigo's first music lessons - in sol-fa, piano and violin - were undertaken at the age of eight, and when he was 16 he began studies in harmony and composition with Francisco Antich at the Conservatorio in Valencia; he also received advice from Enrique Gom and Eduardo Lpez Chavarri. Rodrigo's first documented composition, Homenaje a un viejo clavicordio for piano, dates from 1922 but is lost. The earliest surviving pieces date from the year after, when the floodgates seem to have opened: a suite and a handful of other pieces for piano, Two Sketches for violin and piano, a Canconeta for violin and strings, and Juglares, an orchestration of a four-hand piano piece. Rodrigo was already employing the method to which he stuck all his life, writing his music in braille and then dictating it to a copyist.

In Spain in those days, the road to composition led through Paris, and so, like Isaac Albeniz, Enrique Granados, Joaqun Turina and Manuel de Falla before him, Rodrigo headed north, enrolling at the Ecole Normale de Musique in 1927 as a student of the meticulous Paul Dukas, another one-work composer (not entirely the fault of The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Dukas was to destroy much of his own music).

Rodrigo benefited enormously from his five years with Dukas, and in 1934 he also studied the history of music with Maurice Emmanuel and Andre Pirro. If the subtlety of Rodrigo's handling of the orchestra was learned from Dukas, the modal tint that was to colour his music may owe as much to Emmanuel as to Rodrigo's Spanish predecessors.

Something else of fundamental importance happened in Paris. In 1929 he met Victoria Kamhi, a Turkish piano student. They were married in 1933 and were inseparable companions until Victoria's death in 1997. She was much more than the discreet helpmate who is the typical composer's wife; in the 1991 documentary Shadows and Light, the guitarist Pepe Romero summed up her sacrifice: "Vicki gave up her own career as a promising concert pianist to become the eyes of Joaqun Rodrigo."

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Rodrigos found themselves marooned in Paris; they also lived briefly in Salzburg and Freiburg. It was in Paris that he wrote the Concierto de Aranjuez, taking the manuscript back to Madrid in 1939, once the war was over; there they settled permanently. With the first performance of the Concierto the next year, in Barcelona, Rodrigo's status as a composer of national importance was assured.

The Concierto de Aranjuez was one of 14 concertante pieces he was to compose over the years, for a number of prominent soloists. Chief among them was Andres Segovia, who premiered the Fantasa para un gentilhombre in 1954; other champions include the guitarist Romero brothers, who premiered the Concierto madrigal and Concierto andaluz for two and four guitars respectively (1966 and 1967), and, latterly, James Galway, who commissioned the Concierto pastoral in 1977, and Julian Lloyd Webber, for whom he wrote the Concerto como un divertimento in 1981.

It was one of those concertos - the Concierto heroico for piano and orchestra of 1942 - that was indirectly responsible for the reputation of "Francoist" composer that unjustly stuck to Rodrigo for some years, after a newspaper critic attributed political symbolism to the work, although Rodrigo immediately rejected it. In truth, he was strictly apolitical, though not naively so: asked in an interview in the 1950s what the most important event in his life was, he answered with the D-Day landings - hardly the response of someone with Axis sympathies.

By the time of the Concierto heroico he had himself been active as a music critic for three years and was to carry on writing about music for four decades more. The British musicologist and conductor Raymond Calcraft, a friend of the composer for the last 15 years of his life, is currently translating an anthology of Rodrigo's writings and preparing the first complete study of Rodrigo's music to be undertaken in any language.

Rodrigo first taught in 1934 between sojourns in Paris and on his return to Spain swiftly moved to the centre of musical life, both as teacher and in a dizzying number of administrative posts. In 1940 he was head of the artistic section of the Spanish National Association for the Blind (ONCE). In 1944 he was appointed head of music for Spanish national radio. His first chair was at the Real Conservatorio Superior de Musica in Madrid in 1940, and in 1947 he was the first Manuel de Falla Professor at the University of Madrid. Three years later he was unanimously elected a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid, the first of countless such honours to be bestowed on him.

Rodrigo's music initially bore the impress of his French teaching. His early symphonic poem Per la flor del Lliro Blau (1934) is a heady bouquet of grand-gestured Ravelian impressionism. But he soon became acutely aware of his Spanish inheritance, which his compositions reflected with a melodic immediacy and biting, often bitonal, harmonies that coincided with a brittleness he shared with Stravinsky. Spanish dance, Spanish poetry, the forms of older Spanish composers all found their place in Rodrigo's output. And, for all the popularity of the Concierto de Aranjuez, the best of that output is still unknown, works like the exquisitely beautiful Msica para un cdice salmantino (a setting of a poem called "Ode to Salamanca", 1953), a cantata for bass, chorus and eleven instruments, or the extraordinarily stark Himnos de los neofitos de Qumrn (1965-74) for three sopranos and chamber orchestra, to texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

If such pieces were better known, the popular image of the lightweight, folky composer, on whom more "serious" connoisseurs rather look down their noses, would have to be drastically revised. Rodrigo's art may well have been modest in its outward expression, but in addition to its delicate sweetness it also contained the epic and the profound.

Joaqun Rodrigo Vidre, composer, teacher and writer: born Sagunto, Spain 22 November 1901; married 1933 Victoria Kamhi (died 1997; one daughter); died Madrid 6 July 1999.