I doubt that there is anyone who does not know at least some of the music of Joaquín Rodrigo – even if they normally steer well clear of classical music. His most famous piece, of course, was the Concierto de Aranjuez and is instantly recognisable for its haunting melody. To many people it represents the very essence of the culture of Spain and could have been written only by a Spaniard and one who is, perhaps, Spain’s best classical composer.
Joaquín Rodrigo was certainly an extraordinary man whose life virtually straddled the whole of the twentieth century. Born in Sagunto (Valencia Province) in November 1901, the tenth child of a wealthy businessman, he died in the middle of 1999, having experienced an unbelievably turbulent century for his country. Spain, in his lifetime, went from being monarchy, to a military dictatorship (1923 – 30) to a short lived republic (1931-39) before descending into a bitter Civil War (1936 – 39) and the dark days of the Franco dictatorship (1939 – 75). Finally, in 1978, a true democratic constitutional monarchy was established and Spain quickly became a First World country and an integral part of Europe. All of this was within Rodrigo’s lifetime – and it must have had a profound influence upon his music.
Of course, Joaquím Rodrigo was completely blind for most of his life. At the age of three he caught diphtheria and lost most of his sight, which disappeared completely in 1948. It is therefore all the more incredible that he was able to compose and write down his music. This he did by using braille, after which he would dictate his music to a copyist, an exhausting and terribly slow process. However, Rodrigo famously said that: ‘The loss of vision was the vehicle that took me down the road to music.’ This was a good thing for the world at large, no doubt, but must have been dreadful for Rodrigo.
Certainly, his life was not always easy and was rocked by the Spanish Civil War. During this time he was living in France and Germany but in near poverty. He had been given a grant to study musicology in Paris but this was cancelled during the war and he ended up, with his wife (Victoria Kamhi), providing lessons in Spanish and music to make a living.
However, Rodrigo composed his most famous work in Paris in 1939 (the Concierto de Aranjuez) and then returned to Spain and became Professor of Music in the Complutense University of Madrid. This position provided him with stability and the space and time to continue composing, lecturing worldwide and performing as a virtuoso concert pianist. Indeed, so highly regarded was he internationally, that he was constantly in demand by some of the finest musicians of the 20th Century, many of whom commissioned pieces from him.
Joaquím Rodrigo never really surpassed his Concierto de Aranjuez – although in 1954 he wrote Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, which is considered his second most popular composition. This work was commissioned by the virtuoso guitarist Andrés Segovia, who is considered to be the father of modern classical guitar (and is probably the gentilhombre referred to in the title of the music). A concerto for guitar and orchestra, the music is masterful and notable for its melodic quality.
Rodrigo is, of course, a composer most famous for providing superb pieces for the guitar within classical concertos. This was an unusual thing to do at the time and made the guitar worthy of being accepted as an instrument for classical concertos. However, Rodrigo’s output as a composer did not stop with the guitar and his position as a major world composer would have been assured by this solo works for the piano, let alone other pieces that he wrote for the violin and cello. Indeed, few people would argue that Joaquín Rodrigo is Spain’s best classical composer.
Finally, as you can imagine, Rodrigo was showered with awards, including several doctorates and a Spanish hereditary title (Marqués de los Jardines de Aranjuez) – a fitting way for Spain to acknowledge the greatness of one of their most famous composers.
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