The one who stayed…Spanish composer Fernando Remacha (1898-1984) and his song “Nouturnio”

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Fernando Remacha

When I was looking around for songs composed during post civil war era Spain for a symposium I was invited to present, about music in Franco era Spain at the University of California (Riverside), my friend Spanish pianist Borja Mariño lent me his copy of a curious anthology of song settings for voice and piano commissioned by the Spanish music critic Antonio Fernández-Cid using poets of Galicia and hence in the language spoken in this northern part of Spain,  Gallego; the index listed was a Who’s Who of those composers active in Spain during this era. The two edition dates, which eventually in the 80’s was made into one, where 1951 and 1958.  Several of the names of I knew  (Esplá, Mompou, Montsalvatge, Rodrigo, Toldrá)  but many names where new to me. Borja was sure my whole presentation could evolve from this collection. The anthology was in essence a still photograph of the various composing styles of 1950’s in Spain, an era that at least in the United States, there is very little knowledge of in the concert halls.

Back in NYC, I mulled over the edition and read thru the songs with a pianist and picked out seven to learn and look up.  I was very curious at that point about the song composed by Fernando Remacha which was included.  The anthology reflected composers from Generación de los Maestros all the way down to the then young Cristobal Halffter and Anton Garcia Abríl.  Conspiciously absent was the bright generation of the first wave of avant-garde composers of Pre civil war Spain, and its hallmark group, “Los Ocho“; this group of composers had as their nexus the school Residencia de Estudiantes, which boasts as their alumni Federico García Lorca, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Nobel prize poet Juan Ramon Jiménez, just to name a few.

Los Ocho

At that time when I heard Remacha’s song from the anthology of the Galician songs for the first time (and wanting to program it in principal! my only avant-garde composer in a sea of what seemed like at the time, all nationalist style songs), I balked: it followed a twelve tone aesthetic, and very much like the expressionist Germany composers of the first two decades of the 20th century. I wanted to represent him, but it was basically too much work to learn at that time; I had the paper and program notes to write, as well as chasing down broadcasting rights for the other songs I was preparing, not to mention the rest of the program to prepare. So I shelved it Remacha and his “Nouturnio” for the time being…

Fast forward to August of 2012: The Fundación Juan March in Madrid had asked both pianist Jorge Robaina and myself to put together a special project of songs composed during post civil war Spain, but of composers not heard or programmed in the past decades.  The program would also served to be a tribute to Antonio Fernández-Cid, the musicologist that commissioned the anthology of Galician songs I had studied for the symposium; it was understood I would program a small portion from this anthology; I had already inserted “Ao lonxe”  by Antonio Iglesias, “Meus Irmans” by Xavier Montsalvatge, “Pra Virxe que fiaba” by Manuel Castillo, and “Panxolina” by Cristobal Halffter. I wanted one more, and in a practice room at La Escuela Superior de Canto de Madrid, I showed Jorge a song I was interested in by Manuel Blancafort. He wasn’t too excited about it.  The song that followed the Blancafort coincidentally enough was “Nouturnio”  by Fernando Remacha.

Jorge Robaina is one of the foremost Spanish pianists of his generation; he combines his position as professor at La Escuela Superior de Canto de Madrid with his solo concert career. Among other things, Jorge has a specialization in the solo piano works of “Los Ochos”, of which Remacha was a member.  He played thru the Remacha song; and yes, the piece was stellar and completely different from everything else in the anthology. “This is the best song in the whole concert; a composer that says I’m aware of the second Viennese school, and of a high musical culture; someone that composed the way he wanted, despite his times and circumstances.”  I made the decision there and then to end my concert with this atonal piece by Remacha. It wasn’t ending with a high note bang, it was the complete opposite, and perhaps a counter intuitive move in my programming. I felt also a kind of liberty: not being Spanish, but a foreign artist coming to interpret art song of this period, I felt I could throw a wild curve.

Autograph score by Fernando Remacha

The piano accompaniment is completely independent of the voice; using a somewhat symbolist style poem by Jose Luis Lopez Cid, Remacha does a tone painting of a night scene with various nature effects that he takes as his cue from the poem to symbolize the lose of love. The aesthetic is German expressionist; its in essence a potent musical miniature in three pages, spooky in that kind of Schoenberg/Krenek kind of way.

With the coming of the Civil War, most of Remacha’s group of “Los ocho” dispersed to the Americas or other parts of Europe. With an absolutely brilliant and promising career as a young composer before the civil war, he was the winner of two National prizes in Music, as well as numerous commissions and premieres; poised to be one of the most brilliant and successful composer of his generation, the coming of the Spanish Civil War forced Remacha and his wife to a brief stay at a refugee camp in France. As he had not held any government posts with the previous Republican government, he then made the decision to return to his native Navarra and take charge of the family business, ensuing in what is perhaps the most cruel exile of all, the exile of cultural silence.  I found this video by the Foundation Ars Incognita about his life:

The biographies I read about him in Tomas Marco’s book XX Century Music of Spain and other things I found in Wikipedia remark that he started coming out again as a composer in the 50’s. What I didn’t know was the connection between Fernández-Cid and Remacha. This past summer during the Música en Compostela course there were various elegies to the recently deceased founder of the festival, the pianist/musicologist Antonio Iglesias.  During the course of the elegy, it came to light that as part of the reconstructing of the musical culture of Spain after the civil war, Iglesias asked Remacha to put together and lead a music conservatory in Navarra that could be a musical reference for all of Spain.  Iglesias was also an intimate friend of Antonio Fernández Cid, so it was natural that Fernández Cid and Remacha would would know each other well.   In Fernández Cid’s curious project of creating a body of song repertoire in Galician by the foremost contemporary composers of Spain, and wanting to leave no stone unturned, he asked Remacha for his contribution, which we have in “Nouturnio”.

Spanish music critic and writer Antonio Fernández Cid

I have no idea how the Spanish public will react to this piece; the concert will be broadcast via Radio Nacional de España; come what may, and upon reading more about this remarkable composer, I feel more than ever that his inclusion in this concert to be a rightful thing. Hoping I will be present enough to transmit this song with its strange beauty to the concert going public at the the Fundación Juan March next week.

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