Like Pachelbel with his Canon, Sinding with his ‘Rustle of Spring’, Rodrigo with his Concierto de Aranjuez – perhaps even, at least for the wider public, Barber with his Adagio – Xavier Montsalvatge didn’t realise he was writing a piece of music about to become so popular that it would obscure everything else he had written. But that’s just what happened when he produced his ‘Lullaby for a Little Black Boy’, at the request of Mercedes Plantada, a family friend. It generated such enthusiasm that Plantada came back and asked for an entire set. And thus Montsalvatge – through no fault of his own – joined the league of one-work composers.
Xavier Montsalvatge was born on 11 March 1912, in Girona, north of Barcelona. His first music lessons were taken in the Catalan capital, where his teachers included Luis Millet and Jaime Pahissa – figures of considerable local importance. After a sound training at the Barcelona Municipal Conservatory he headed north, to Paris, as had Falla, Rodrigo and Mompou before him, and the tart sounds of Les Six soon made themselves heard in his own music.
Just as Rodrigo’s neo-Classicism helped keep the postcard Hispanicism of an earlier generation at an ironic distance, so Montsalvatge’s music took a further step towards modernism, gradually embracing 12-tone elements without ever abandoning tonality – and it always sounded Spanish, despite its sometimes astringent language.
Of Montsalvatge’s 100-plus works, around a quarter were for orchestra. The first was the Simfonia Mediterrànea of 1948 (the year in which Puss in Boots, the first of his three operas, also appeared), while the last, Tri-cronomia sobre un pastoral de invierno, was finished in short score only four days before he died.
His catalogue contains much for piano and many other songs (and choral pieces) besides the Cinco canciones negras; his chamber music includes the punchy Cuarteto indiano of 1951 – a further indication of his interest in music from the non-Iberian Spanish-speaking world.
The hallmark of Montsalvatge’s music is clarity. He complained that a lot of modern music was over-scored and unnecessarily complex – not a charge that can be levelled against his own transparent textures. He wrote to please his performers, not to push them, and once observed, only a little tongue-in-cheek: ‘The most difficult thing is to write something simple’.
Montsalvatge was an influential professor of composition at the Conservatorio Superior in Barcelona, and for 60 years was also active as a critic: he worked for the Catalan daily El Mati before the Civil War, and latterly was critic for – and director of – the magazine Destino; he wrote for the newspaper La Vanguardia, too, giving up criticism (which kept him abreast of contemporary trends in music) only when advancing age prevented him getting out and about.
Right up to his last days (when he had the satisfaction of seeing his work begin to appear systematically on CD) his faculties were crystal-clear: he retained a vivid curiosity and always had a kind word ready for younger musicians who consulted him – leavened with a piquant sense of humour.
Profile © Martin Anderson