One of the very few 19th-century Basque composers, Arriaga (born in Bilbao on 27 January 1806) was writing at a time when his native province, with its unique language spoken also in the southern Pyrenees, looked as much to Paris and other parts of Europe as it did to the Spanish capital Madrid. His father had been organist, royal clerk and schoolteacher in the village of Guernica, where he had become associated with the Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos de Pais (a society dedicated to embracing the ideals of the Enlightenment), before moving to Bilbao in 1804 to become a merchant and shipowner. His elder brother played violin and guitar. Arriaga thus grew up in a family fully active in Basque cultural and intellectual life.
Of exceptional musical talent, he composed his first piece, a violin trio called Nada y mucho (‘Nothing and Everything’) when only 11. By the time he was 15 he had produced over 20 works. His two-act opera Los esclavos felices (‘The Happy Slaves’) was composed when he was only 14 and premiered in Bilbao in 1820, but sadly, as with many of his compositions, the originals have disappeared and only the overture and fragments of several arias remain.
In September 1821 Arriaga went to Paris, as his father had done before him. Here he studied violin with Pierre Baillot and harmony with François Fétis. He won prizes for both counterpoint and fugue in 1823 and 1824 and was rewarded by becoming one of Fétis’s teaching assistants. Fétis said of him, ‘It is impossible to find pieces more correctly written’ and particularly praised his eight-part fugue Et vitam venturi, inspired by Cherubini’s C minor Requiem of 1816.
Arriaga constantly revised his earlier works, and seems also to have disowned several, but in 1824 he published three string quartets that established his reputation. One of his last works, a symphony, shows the influence of both Beethoven and Schubert, and in general his music is characterised by its deep romanticism.
Arriaga was acclaimed for his technical command of musical form. However, his devotion to work may have contributed to his early death – just a fortnight short of his 20th birthday – from a combination of exhaustion and pulmonary infection. He was buried in a common grave in the cemetery of Montmartre.
Arriaga’s posthumous reputation owes much to the tenacity of one of his heirs, Emiliano de Arriaga, in gathering his papers together during the early 1880s. In total, nine works composed in Bilbao and 10 composed in Paris survive. Originally nicknamed ‘the Spanish Mozart’, he became an important symbol within the nascent movement for Basque nationalism and today is more often called ‘the Basque Mozart’. A theatre is named after him in Bilbao, where there is also a statue to him.
Profile © Jan Fairley