Manuel de Falla–El Amor Brujo

El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla

Program notes by Sato Moughalian ©2013

The great Spanish nationalist Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was one of the first composers from the European classical tradition to incorporate Gitano (Spanish Gypsy) flamenco elements into his work.


The 1915 version of El Amor Brujo is the original version of Falla’s great masterwork inspired by Gypsy flamenco music. In a contemporary interview Falla said of the piece: “The work is eminently Gitano. To execute it I always used folklore — some of it from Pastora Imperio [who commissioned the work] herself, who sings them from long tradition and with undeniable ‘authenticity.’ In the forty minutes that the piece lasts, I have tried to live it as a Gitano, to feel it honestly, and I have not made use of any elements other than those that I have believed to express the soul of the race.” After the original version of El Amor Brujo met with criticism in its 1915 premiere in Madrid, Falla reworked the piece, enlarging the orchestration, trimming its length, and omitting much of the vocal part. This subsequent version was first performed in 1916. In 1925 Falla unveiled a final ballet version in Paris. It is this arrangement of the piece that is best known today.

Manuel de Falla was born in Cadiz, in the southernmost part of Spain, into a cultured and musically educated family that promoted his interest in music from an early age. He studied harmony, composition, and counterpoint in his hometown, and attended local performances of orchestral and sacred music and opera. At the same time, he encountered folk and indigenous forms of music in his native Andalusia. The winds of nationalism blew strongly throughout Europe during Falla’s youth, and he determined at an early point that he wanted to create works in a Spanish vein.

In 1902 Falla continued his studies with musicologist, critic, and composer Felipe Pedrell in Madrid. Teacher of Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados, Pedrell was at that time the champion of Spanish nationalism in music, writing prolifically on the subject and participating in various organized attempts to reform religious music in Spain and to repopularize Spanish composers from past generations. He gained widespread recognition for his paper “Por nuestra musica” in which he urged the creation of nationalistic musical dramas based on Spanish folksong — an extension of the previously existing form, the zarzuela. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the zarzuela, had reached the height of its vogue. A popular form of Spanish musical drama or comedy, it incorporated alternating sections of singing, dancing, and dialogue. Falla himself had written five zarzuelas between 1901 and 1903 in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the form. In addition, even before his work with Pedrell, Falla had made a serious study of Andalusian folk music, and flamenco. In particular, he was attracted to cante jondo, literally the deep or serious songs associated with the Gitanos (derived like the term “Gypsy” from “Egyptian,” perhaps in reference to darker skin).

In 1907 Falla traveled to Paris, where he lived for seven years. His music was well received, and he was further inspired by the abundance of musical activity, his meetings with Debussy and Ravel, the ever-present discussions of nationalism and universalism, and the idea of “truth without authenticity,” which was the operative description of the works of French composers who attempted to evoke the atmosphere of Spain and, in particular, Andalusia.

In 1914, as the Great War commenced, Falla returned to Spain. He embarked on the composition of El Amor Brujo, which he conceived as a “Gitaneria” — a work in one act of two scenes with songs, spoken passages and dancing. Written for the acclaimed flamenco dancer Pastora Imperio, it took form over a period of six months, from November 1914 until April 1915. The text, by Gregorio Martinez Sierra, is derived from a Gitano tale recounted by Pastora’s mother Rosario “la Mejorana.” It presents a variation of a theme frequently found in Romani (the preferred adjective used by people commonly referred to as Gypsies) folklore, which is the dread of the disembodied spirit that remains among the living even after death. In El Amor Brujo, Candelas, a Gitana woman, is haunted by the sprit of her jealous and vengeful lover. The first scene takes place at night in the house of the Gitanos. As sea murmurs in the distant background, Candelas relates the tale of her sorrowful love and tries to exorcise his malevolent spirit by throwing incense in a fire. In the second scene, she goes to a witch’s cave in search of help in her quest. There she encounters a will-o’-the-wisp, experiences hallucinations, performs acts of ritual purification, and ultimately encounters the spirit of her dead lover. As day breaks to the sound of church bells, she finally succeeds in freeing herself from his bonds.

Falla, like countless other composers, writers, and artists, was intrigued by Romani culture. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, innumerable works drew from Romani traditions with varying degrees of authenticity: Bizet’s Carmen, Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder, Johann Strauss’s Gypsy Baron, the virtuoso violin works of Kreisler and Sarasate including La Gitana and Zigeunerweisen, Ravel’s Tzigane, Liszt’s piano music, Victor Herbert’s The Fortune Teller, Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs are but a few of the works inspired by aspects of this very enigmatic and intriguing culture. Falla had the great advantage of passing his formative years in southern Spain, in the area where the Gitano contribution to flamenco flowered most brilliantly. Falla had countless opportunities to hear flamenco in its intended venues, the cafe cantante and juergas, informal social gatherings in which friends would typically enjoy wine together and, when the inspiration arrived, burst into song and dance. Angus Fraser, in his excellent book, The Gypsies (see suggested reading list at the end of the notes), describes this well:

The relationship of Spanish Gitanos to the music for which they became renowned was similar to that of the Hungarian and Russian performers to their repertoire. It was not originally theirs, but was nonetheless their creation. From the late fifteenth century they appear in the role of interpreters of Spanish song and dance, which in the process took on a Gypsy allure. Their dances formed a popular part of secular and religious events so that Philip IV’s attempt to put a stop to their performances had but little effect. Some of the Spanish vocal forms were gradually metamorphosed in theme and delivery; and with the emergence of what came to be known as flamenco in the nineteenth century, Andalusian culture felt the full impact of Gitano style. Flamenco had a long, clandestine gestation during the times of savage repression. At its heart was cante jondo (‘deep song”), a musical style (or, more accurately, three styles – tonas, siguiriyas, and soleares) growing out of an Andalusian foundation but, said Manuel de Falla, compounded with Byzantine liturgical, Arab, and Gypsy elements. (Others also point to a Jewish influence.) Its motifs, couched in laconic defiance and compressed ambiguity, were love, loyalty, pride, jealousy, revenge, freedom, persecution, sorrow, death; Garcia Lorca described cante jondo as ‘the sound of gushing blood.’ Originally the singer, improvising dramatically, had no accompaniment other than a rhythmic tapping. Guitar and dance emerged later, enriching and reinforcing the cante, and eventually showed greater capacity to continue evolving and to stretch the concept of flamenco. The scale typical of cante flamenco is Phrygian in character (i.e. the mode represented by the white keys on the piano, beginning on E), a scale which occurs with great frequency from India through Persia and Turkey to the Balkans. In the first half of the nineteenth century the main centers of development were Cadiz, Jerez and Seville (more precisely, Triana, Seville’s former Gypsy quarter, now to some extent gentrified), and the known interpreters in those times all came from sedentary Gypsy families in that one region of Andalusia.

The history of the Roma (the preferred term for people commonly referred to as Gypsy) is a long, complex, and painful saga of a rich and varied culture that has been primarily transmitted through oral tradition. It is fraught with misunderstanding and prejudice. Ian Hancock, Romani scholar and representative to the United Nations for the International Romani Union, explains:

The understanding of Gypsy identity among the non-Roma is vague, which usually results in prejudice. There are many reasons for that: the association of the Roma with the Islamic takeover of parts of the Christian world; color prejudice, specifically the association of darkness with sin; the exclusionary nature of Romani culture, which does not encourage intimacy with non-Roma and creates suspicion on the part of those excluded; fortune telling, which inspired fear but had to be relied upon as a means of livelihood in response to legislation curtailing Romani movement and choice of occupation; …the fact that the Roma have no territorial, military, political, or economic strength and are therefore easily targetable as scapegoats because they cannot retaliate and the fact that the “gypsy” persona has an – again unchallenged – ongoing function as a symbol of a simpler,  freer time. . .

The early history of the Roma is unclear. It is generally believed, though, that the original group, which may have numbered 12,000 or so, traveled to Persia from northern India in the tenth century. Even at this early point in their history, they were identified as musicians. From Persia they traveled to Armenia, Turkey, the Byzantine Empire, Greece, the Balkans, the Kingdom of Hungary, Transylvania, and ultimately to the Eastern, Central, and Western European countries. In many of the countries they entered, they were viewed as dangerous intruders because of their itinerant ways, their lack of desire to assimilate fully into the local cultures, and the mystery surrounding their origins — a mystery often cultivated by the Roma themselves as a protection against hostile authorities. Frequently in their history, the Roma have been subjected to barbarous oppression. In Spain, in particular, by the end of the seventeenth century, sedentarization of the Roma was a goal so fervently sought by the royals that Roma were allowed to live only in places that had 200 or more inhabitants. Moreover, they needed written permission to travel and they were prohibited from engaging in any profession unconnected with cultivation. They could be seized by local authorities almost at will, and any outsider found guilty of aiding or protecting them could be fined or even sent to the galleys. The situation continued to deteriorate through the first half of the eighteenth century and reached a climax in July 1749 when Ferdinand VI, acting with the advice of the Bishop of Oviedo, devised and instituted a plan to round up approximately 12,000 Roma, including women and children, and send them off to forced labor camps. These actions foreshadowed Hitler’s treatment of the Roma during the Holocaust, in which as many as half a million were deported and massacred by the Nazis. Those that survived were “redistributed” and to this day remain largely uncompensated by the German government. In Wallachia and Moldavia, Roma were enslaved for centuries, not achieving full freedom until 1856.

Perhaps it is not surprising that in Spain, a country which had repressed its Gitano population in past centuries, the original version of El Amor Brujo, would meet with critical failure. Reviewers said it was “not very Spanish.” Falla, who had collected flamenco melodies in his native Andalusia, notated the vocal part with the approximations, turns, cries, and ornaments typical of a flamenco cantaor. The text of the 1915 version, which is quite extensive, is filled with descriptions of the Candelas’s attempts at purification. In Romani culture, the idea of cleanliness, both physical and spiritual, reigns paramount. The rules pertaining to this subject and to its opposite, called mahrime or uncleanliness, are numerous, complex, and anxiously regarded. Candelas’s chants, prayers, incense burning, and ritual fire dance reflect this very characteristic desire for ritualistic purification. The end of Candelas’s battle with the haunting spirit is marked by the breaking of day and the ringing of church bells that symbolize her cleansing. While the 1915 El Amor Brujo is filled with Gitano references, they are rendered with an obvious sincerity. Falla was firm in his view that for composers of folkloric music “inspiration must be drawn directly from the people and whoever does not understand this will only make of his work a more or less witty imitation of what he intended.” In the 1916 and 1925 versions, perhaps in response to the critical rebukes, Falla significantly lessened the Gitano element.

The Roma have been known traditionally for their expertise in professions that could co-exist with an itinerant life: metalworking, basket making, horse-dealing, hawking, tinker, knife grinding, and of course, professional entertainers — bear trainers, musicians, card and palm readers. It is astounding that this group has exhibited the strength to survive and maintain its culture in the face of terrible oppression. In a culture with little written legacy, music has served the important function of reinforcing and passing on of tradition. Music is a critical strand in the fabric of life, marking not only important celebrations and holidays, but serving to express centuries of bitter experience. In Spain, where institutional oppression had worked to eliminate, for the most part, the use of the Romani language, the traditions of Gitano and flamenco music have flourished nevertheless and now number among the most recognizable elements not only of Gypsy culture but of Spanish culture as well. And so in the face of centuries of effort to oppress and even eradicate the “familiar strangers” in a worldwide diaspora, and today as the largest minority in Europe (estimated between ten and twelve million people), the Roma have triumphed through the strength of their culture. It is this culture that captivated Manuel de Falla, and produced the inspiration for one his most   memorable and engaging works.

–©2012 Sato Moughalian (not to be reproduced without permission):

For further information:
J.P. Liegeois, Roma, Gypsies, Travellers (Council of Europe Press, 1994)
M.Stewart, The Time of the Gypsies (Westview Press, 1997)
Angus Fraser, The Gypsies (Blackwell Press, 1995)

These three books were recommended to me by the renowned Romani scholar Andrzej Mirga, when I was looking for accurate sources of material on the Roma.

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