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Xavier Montsalvatge, biography and works

Girona 1912 - Barcelona 2002

Xavier Montsalvatge is one of the most representitive names from the so-called "lost generation", between the one of the Spanish Republic and present-day composers. His work has had a large international projection and has become a reference point on the contemporary music scene.

He first gained wide spread recognition in the 1940s with a set of songs called Cinco Canciones Negras (1945); they mark the beginning of a Post-Nationalistic period that later evolved into his so-called "Antilles style" featuring West Indian/Carribean stylistic traits. This is one of the common denominators in works like the Cuarteto Indiano (1951). The Concierto Breve (1953) for piano and orchestra points to the beginning of more abstract forms. The influence of Impressionism is present in the-Sonatine pour Ivette (1960)- or the use of serial-related techniques in the following works: Cinco Invocaciones al Crucificado (1969), Laberinto (1970) for orquestra, and Sonata Concertante for cello and piano (1971).

Later the composer settled into a more eclectic style which seems to synthesize the rest of his production. This is found in his Concertos: for harp (Concierto capriccio, 1975), harpsichord (Concierto del Albayzín, 1977) and guitar (Metamorfosis de concierto, 1980) as well as the Requiem Symphony (1985), Fantasy for Guitar and Harp (1983), Sortilegis (1992) and also in Bric à Brac (1993).



He was also active in the field of Opera: El gato con botas (The cat with boots), Una voce in off (A voice in off) and Babel 46. His works have been premiered in a number of International Music Festivals such as those at Cadaqués, Castillo de Peralada and Cuenca, and his music has been performed by world-renowned musicians such as Neville Marriner, Jean Pierre Rampal, Victoria de Los Angeles, Montserrat Caballé or Barbara Hendrix and Alícia de Larrocha.

He was born in Girona on March 11, 1912, where he first studied violin. After his father's death, in 1921, he moved to Barcelona to live with his grandfather. He continued his musical education at the Conservatory there, where studied with the violinist Francesc Costa, solfège with Lluís Millet, and composition with Enric Morera and Jaume Pahissa. He felt strongly attracted to composition at an early stage in his training. So he decided to concentrate on counterpoint, harmony and fugue and give up the idea of a performing career as a violinist. He also felt a close affinity for the ideas of the French school and he opposed the teaching of the Conservatory, under the influence of Wagner and Strauss.

Una voce in off - Prologo


In 1933 he wrote Tres Impromptus for piano. This was the winning piece at the XII Composition Competition "Concepción Rabell i Cibils", which was sponsored by the Patxot Foundation. He called this work his "opus 00". Thanks to this prize, he made his first trip to Paris. There, he found some of his favorite scores: Satie's Gymnopédies and Gnossienne, Ravel's Sonata for violin and piano, Milhaud's Saudades do Brazil and Poulenc's Mouvements Pérpetuels. In 1936, he won the Felipe Pedrell Prize, sponsored by the Catalan Government (Generalitat de Catalunya) with the score Petita Suite Burlesca for violin and woodwind quartet. From then on, he began to collaborate as a music critic in the Barcelona newspaper El Matí, and starting in December 1939, he became a reviewer for the magazine Destino. In 1936, the XIV Festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music was held in Barcelona. At this event he became acquainted with the works of Europe's leading composers: Alban Berg, Ernst Krenek and Albert Roussel, as well as other Spanish composers such as Rodolfo Halffter, Federico Elizalde, Salvador Bacarisse, Robert Gerhard, Oscar Esplà, Manuel de Falla, Pedro Sanjuán and Joaquin Turina, the so-called "Generation of the (Spanish) Republic". Not long after that, the Spanish Civil War broke out (1936-39).

In the early 1940s, he finished two piano works: Tres Divertimentos (On Themes by Forgotten Composers) (1941) and Ritmos (1942), where he started using polytonality. Ritmos was inspired by the so-called "Casino Dances" which included a Waltz-Jota, a Schottisch (or "Chotis" as it was called in Spain and an especially popular dance in Madrid), an Americana" (the dance that went with the habanera) or a Sardana (a typical Catalan dance). With this work, he began an especially productive period in his career.

At this time, he also developed close friendships with other well-known Catalan composers Manuel Blancafort and Frederic Mompou, as with Manuel Valls and Xavier Turull. And he also met the dancers Yvonne Alexander, Paul Goubé, from the Ballet Companies in Paris and Montecarlo, and Joan Magriñà, for whom he would write small choreographical compositions like Romance de los celos, Pastoral, Capricho, Estudio, La Venus De Elne and Barcelona blues -his first attempt at composing in jazz style. Through Yvonne Alexander Montsalvatge met his future wife, Elena Pérez de Olaguer. They married in 1947 and had two children: Xavier and Yvette.

At the beginning of the 1940's, he started teaching music theory at the Acadèmia Marshall in Barcelona, named after its founder Frank Marshall (1883-1959) who had studied with Enric Granados and continued the Granados school of piano playing. On 18 March 1945 in Barcelona, the soprano Mercè Plantada and the pianist Pere Vallribera gave the first performance of Montsalvatge's Cinco Canciones Negras (1945), for soprano and piano; shortly afterwards the orchestral version was also premiered. This group of songs is one of his masterpieces and the clearest example of the "Antilles style" or what might be termed as "Spanish Colonial Nationalism" that characterized many of his works. This style alludes to the Spanish colonies in North and South America that were lost at the end of the XIXth century, with the Spanish-American War (1898); it influenced Catalan folk music from that time onwards introducing the well-known "habaneras" that Xavier Montsalvatge learned from fishermen on the Costa Brava. This material was collected and compiled in the Álbum de Habaneras and published along with other contributions by the writer Néstor Luján and the painter Josep Maria Prim (1948). In 1948, he premierd in his first opera El gato con botas (1946) at the Liceu, the Opera House in Barcelona, on a text by Néstor Luján. A year later he won the special prize for his Sinfonía Mediterránea (1948), in a Composition Competition sponsored by the Conservatory in Barcelona. This Symphony was first played in what was then Barcelona's main Concert Hall, the Palau de la Música Catalana with the Barcelona City Orchestra, Eduardo Toldrà conducting. In this period, he came into contact with dancers from Colonel De Basil's Russian Ballets and the Marqués de Cuevas Dance Company when they perfomed at the Opera in Barcelona the Gran Teatrre del Liceu. These two troupes kept the creative spirit of the great Diaghilev alive.

Cinco canciones negras:

Cuba dentro de un piano


Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito


In 1951 he composed another important work in his inimitable West-Indian Style: the Cuarteto Indiano, which was awarded the Samuel Ros Prize. In the 1950s, he also wrote the Poema Concertante for violin and orchestra (1951), dedicated to the violinist Henry Szering who premiered it on 22 March 1953 with the Barcelona City Orchestra, conducted by Eduard Toldrà. The Concierto Breve for piano and orchestra, from the same period (1953) is dedicated to the pianist Alicia de Larrocha; she first played it with the Barcelona Orchestra conducted by Louis de Froment. Another score from this period are the four ballet movements for orchestra Calidoscopio, which was awarded the Extraordinary Prize by the Conservatory in Barcelona.That same year, he was accepted as a member of the International Society of Contemporary Music (SIMC), and shortly afterwards, was named secretary of the Comission in charge of promoting the International Music Festival at S'Agaró. In 1958, he won the Oscar Esplà Prize for the orchestral work Partita 1958 as well as the Lluís Millet Prize, sponsored by the Orfeó Català to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Palau de la Música, for the score Cant Espiritual (1958) for mixed choir and orchestra. These works reflect a Neo-Classicism that distinguishes them from earlier periods. During these years he was correspondant for the magazine Música.

In 1960s, his musical creativity reached a fully mature stage. Several instrumental works that came to be considered masterpieces within his overall output were composed during this period. In 1962 the Gran Teatre del Liceu premiered his second opera, Una voce in off, a deeply dramatic work. The pianist Gonzalo Soriano premiered a work that Xavier Montsalvatge dedicated to him: Sonatine pour Yvette, one of the most brilliant piano pieces in the contemporary repertory with clear post-impressionistic influences. He also premiered an orchestral piece, Desintegración Morfológica de la Chacona de Bach (Morphological Desintegration of the Bach Chaconne) (1962), that was conducted by Rafael Ferrer with the Barcelona City Orchestra. In 1966 he composed a musical story for children Viatge a la Lluna (Trip to the Moon) on a text by Josep Maria Espinàs and in 1967 Xavier Montsalvatge composed his third and final opera Babel 46, on a libretto he wrote himself. Finally, in 1969, he premiered his work for soprano and instrumental ensemble Cinco Invocaciones al Crucificado for the Semana de Música Religiosa in Cuenca. That same year, the French government distinguished him as Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et de Lettres. During the same period, he continued his journalistic activity as a music critic for the newspaper La Vanguardia and as a director of the review Destino de Barcelona, until 1975.

In 1970 he became professor of composition at the Conservatory in Barcelona, the old Music School where he had studied in his youth. He was appointed director of the Conservatory in 1978. In the seventies, he composed the scores Laberinto (1970) for orchestra on commission by the International Music & Dance Festival in Granada; the score for flute and piano Serenata a Lídia de Cadaqués (1970) was premiered at the International Music Festival in Cadaqués. He also composed his concerto for harp, Concerto Capriccio (1975), first perfomed by the harpist Nicanor Zabaleta and the Orquesta Nacional de España (ONE) conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos; the Concierto del Albayzín for harpsichord and orchestra, premiered by Rafael Puyana with the Spanish Radio & Television Symphony Orchestra conducted by Enrique García Asensio; the Metamorfosis de Concierto for guitar and orchestra, was premiered by Narciso Yepes and the Orquesta Nacional de España conducted by Antoni Ros Marbà and was awarded the Prize "Ciutat de Barcelona".

Concierto del Albayzín

Con spirito




Moderato - Allegretto


In chamber music, he composed the Sonata Concertante (1971) for cello and piano, presented in the Decena de Música Festival which was held in Toledo; and the work Micro-Rapsodia (A la memoria de Pau Casals) (1976). In 1973 he premiered the work for soprano and orchestra Hommage a Manolo Hugué with Victoria de Los Angeles and the Spanish Radio & Television Symphony Orchestra conducted by Odón Alonso; and, finally, the orchestral work Reflexus-Obertura first performed in 1973 at a monographic concert in the XI International Music Festival of Barcelona.

During the eighties, he was distinguished with the Creu de Sant Jordi (Saint George's Cross) of the Generalitat de Catalunya in recognition of his creative trajectory (1983); he received the Premio Nacional de Música (1985) and was invested Doctor Honoris Causa by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. The world premiere of his Fantasy for guitar and harp (1983) took place at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., played by the guitarist Narciso Yepes and by the harpist Nicanor Zabaleta. He also composed the Fanfarria para la alegría de la paz (1984) in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Coronation of King Juan Carlos I of Spain; this was first performed by the Spanish Radio & Television Symphony Orchestra Orquesta conducted by the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1986, Xavier Montsalvatge premiered the Requiem Symphony commissioned by the Spanish Ministry of Culture as a celebratory piece for the European Year of Music. The following year, he premiered a new piano piece A Page for Rubinstein (Ballade for the left hand) commissioned by the Isaac Albéniz Foundation. In 1988, the International Music Festival of Santander premiered his work for violin, cello and piano Dialogue with Mompou, which became the second mouvement of his Trio (1986). He also published a volume of memoires: Papers autobiogràfics (Autobiographical papers). The City Hall of Girona named a street after him and in 1989 it was created the International Prize for Piano Xavier Montsalvatge.

Interview with Xavier Montsalvatge

He was always a very active man practically up until the end of his life, composing a large number of scores that have been widely disseminated. Most of his works have been published and many of them have been recorded on CD. Besides all this, we should mention his third opera Babel 46 which had its world premiered at the Music Festivals of Cadaqués, Castell de Peralada and Cuenca (1994); Folia daliniana (1995); Cinc epigrames de Manolo Hugué (1998) for mixed choir; Recóndita armonía, for piano and string orchestra (1952-1999); for piano solo Quatre diàlegs amb el piano, Cinc ocells en llibertat (1997), Improviso epilogal (2001); Al·legoria a l'entorn de l'Elegía eterna de Granados for soprano and string orchestra (2000); Sinfonietta-concerto for flute soloist, string orchestra, piccolo, harp and percussion (2001).

Xavier Montsalvatge was decorated with many prizes. Among others, there are the Premi Ciutat de Barcelona (1970), the Creu de Sant Jordi de la Generalitat de Catalunya (1983), the Premi Nacional de Música de la Generalitat de Catalunya (1991), Premi Nacional de Cultura de la Generalitat (1997), Premio Reina Sofía - Fundación Ferrer Salat (1992), Premio Jacinto e Inocencio Guerrero (1992) and most recently the Premio Iberoamericano Tomás Luís de Victoria (1998).

Other distinctions include a Doctor Honoris Causa from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres from the French government, Medal for Artistic Merit from the Spanish Ministry of Culture, Gold Medal from Barcelona's City Hall, Gold Medal from the Generalitat de Catalunya and Gold Medal of Merit in the Fine Arts (Beaux Arts).

He was also a member of the Reial Acadèmia Catalana de Sant Jordi, Honorary member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid and the Real Academia de Bellas Artes Isabel de Hungría in Seville, Correspondiente de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes Ntra. Sra. de las Angustias in Granada, member of the New York Hispanic Society and the Société Fryderyka Chopina in Warsaw.

Xavier Montsalvatge died in Barcelona on May 7, 2002.

© Mònica Pagès