Xavier Montsalvatge

Catalan composer of 'Cinco canciones negras'
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The Independent Online

Xavier Montsalvatge i Bassols, composer, teacher and critic: born Girona, Spain 11 March 1911; married 1947 Elena Perez de Oleguer (one son, one daughter); died Barcelona 7 May 2002.

There seems to be something about Catalan composers that blesses them with longevity. Xavier Montsalvatge shared the position of Grand Old Man of Catalan music with Joaquim Homs, who first saw day in 1906 and is still going strong. Montsalvatge was well suited to the role: a tireless worker who continued to speak his own voice throughout the stylistic upheavals of the 20th century, a consummate craftsman, a respected teacher and critic.

Born in 1911 in Girona, between Barcelona and the French border, Montsalvatge began his musical education as a boy in the Catalan capital; his principal teachers included the local masters Luis Millet, Enrique Morera, Eduardo Toldrà and Jaime Pahissa – forgotten names now, but central figures in the building of a Catalan musical establishment. And indeed Barcelona in those days was teeming with music, much of it new: Falla, Stravinsky and Schoenberg played or conducted their own music; Rubinstein and Landowska visited, as did Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Montsalvatge was given a good German training at the Barcelona Municipal Conservatory but was more readily attracted by the piquant sounds of "Les Six" and, like Falla, Rodrigo and Mompou, made the journey north to experience Parisian musical life at first hand. His interest in composition was given the boost necessary at such an age when his first serious score, Tres Impromptus for piano (1933), was awarded the Rabell Prize of the Paxtot Foundation – the beginnings of a catalogue over a hundred works strong.

Montsalvatge's music lies on a continuum between Joaquín Rodrigo's evocative Spanishry, with its frequent, piquant bitonal clashes, and Maurice Ohana's more explicitly modernist, but still audibly Spanish, idiom – although he was adamant that he was neither a Catalan nor a Spanish nationalist. He, too, was fond of tart dissonance and the astringent Concerto breve for piano and orchestra (1953), which emphatically rejected postcard Iberianism, points the way to his later partial use of dodecaphony.

Around a quarter of his output involves the orchestra, the first such work, the Simfonia Mediterrànea, appearing in 1948, the same year as the first of his three operas, Puss in Boots. One of his eight works for string orchestra looks to Tudor England for its inspiration, in the Tema variat de Farnaby (1991); he finished the last of them, Tri-cronomia sobre un pastoral de invierno, in short score only four days before he died. There is also a generous amount of piano music, a goodly number of songs, works for chorus, and chamber music for various forces, including a Cuarteto indiano (1951) that attracted considerable attention.

Montsalvatge's one big popular success was the Cinco canciones negras, written in 1946. He was asked by the singer Mercedes Plantada, a family friend, to write her a song – the bluesy "Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito" ("Lullaby for a Little Black Boy") – which provoked such enthusiasm on its first performance that she returned to request an entire set. The Canciones negras entered the repertoire of some of the world's major sopranos, Victoria de los Angeles, Teresa Berganza and Marilyn Horne among them. And they still sing them the world around – the latest recording comes from the New Zealander Deborah Wai Kapohe. These five songs, 12 minutes in duration, were so successful that they almost pigeonholed him as a one-work composer.

Montsalvatge always favoured clarity in his music: while he was acting as judge in a composition competition, receiving one complicated score after another, he joked that "It must be a natural instinct for young people to want to say everything at once!" That wasn't his way: he was always concerned that his music should be transparent and playable. Indeed, he deliberately avoided pushing the virtuosity of his performers to the limit: "The most difficult thing is to write something simple".

As professor of composition at the Conservatorio Superior in Barcelona, Montsalvatge was an influential teacher. He was also active as a critic, initially on material grounds since his music didn't earn enough to feed him and his family; it also allowed him to keep track of musical trends. Before the Civil War he worked for the Catalan daily El Mati; his major stints were writing for the magazine Destino (1962–70), of which he also became director, and the newspaper La Vanguardia (1968-95).

He enjoyed considerable local esteem. He was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Barcelona University (1985), of the Cross of St Jordi (1983) and the Premi d'Honor de la Música Catalana (1991). From 1962 he was a member of the Reial Acadèmia Catalana de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi; more recently, he became a permanent member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. And in his last years he had the satisfaction of seeing the outside world catch up in a more practical manner, with CDs of his orchestral music from ASV and Marco Polo, and his second opera, Una voce in off (1961), released by the Spanish label Columna Musica. Puss in Boots is scheduled for release in September, also from Columna, which has already released the fifth disc in a complete, 15-CD survey of his music.

Martin Anderson