Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Manuel Blancafort

I came across the composer Manuel Blancafort (1897-1987) very recently, while I was preparing some pieces by Mompou (1893-1987) for performance. Mompou is still not as widely known this side of the Pyrenees as he should be, but he is a positive celebrity compared to Blancafort. The two composers were friends and shared a common outlook: a desire for simplicity and clarity, expressiveness achieved without excessive counterpoint, chromaticism or embellishment (though from what I have seen Mompou was the more experimental of the two with his use of chromatic harmonies). So out of interest I got hold of Blancafort's early collection of piano pieces Cançons de Muntanya  (1916-19) and after a happy couple of hours getting acquainted with this delightful set of miniatures I decided to find out more about him.

Manuel Blancafort was born (the fourth of ten children, and he went on to have eleven himself) in La Garriga. His father, a cultured man, specialised in choral music, so Manuel's budding talents won't have gone unnoticed. The family business was a spa, the 'Balneari Blancafort de La Garriga', and there MB would have met some illustrious figures come for the soothing waters: among them Francesc Cambó (politician), Santiago Rusiñol (painter), Josep Carner and Jacint Verdaguer (poets). His father started another family business, ‘La Victoria’, which made piano rolls for pianolas and exported them around the world. A crucial part of Blancafort’s musical education seems to have been transferring music from notation to the rolls, whatever that involves. (Has any other composer learned music in this way?) Many of his compositions were, he said, the fruit of long solitary walks in the mountain countryside around his home.  Recognition built up gradually, and was given a boost when ‘El Parc d’atraccions’ (1924) was played in Paris by the piano virtuoso Ricard Viñes .

Paris was the centre of the musical world at this time, so Blancafort naturally took in the world of impressionist sound (though he didn’t actually live there, as Mompou did for large periods of his life). Other key influences were Russian music and Iberia by Albeniz. The Barcelona world was another matter: nowhere had the Wagner phenomenon been stronger than in the Catalan capital, and in the Palau de la Música we see the Wagnerian dream transformed into stone – architecture aspiring to the condition of grand opera. Blancafort pronounced that ‘To get rid of Wagner is, in my opinion, the first commandment of the new Catalan music … a few of us in Catalonia would rather lean towards Paris than Berlin’. A group of Catalan composers sympathetic to this idea was formally organized as the Associació de Compositors Independents de Catalunya (CIC) in 1931 (Mopiu being a member).  Another important cultural context was Noucentisme, a cultural movement committed to a modern world based on classical purity and rational form, in some ways in opposition to the historicism of Modernisme. A founding figure of Nouncentisme was Eugeni d’Ors (1881-1954), who Blancafort had met in a cultural gathering back at the spa.
As far as a brief glance at the life on Wikipedia and the Blancafort Foundation site has  revealed, hard times followed the closure of ‘La Victoria’, and MB did various jobs. His name was really made in the 1930s and later, and from the 1940s he concentrated on orchestral works. After the war (the Spanish Civil War, that is) he moved to Sarrià in Barcelona.
I haven’t heard his orchestral work yet, so can only report on the Cançons de Muntanya (UME). These are exquisite lyrical pieces , so simple that you (or at any rate, I) have to play or listen to them a few times for the contours to become clear. Mompou’s piano works, though quiet, have a more immediate impact, like lines of poetry you instantly remember. Maybe they are just stronger musical ideas, but then there are different kinds of strength, different types of idea. Mompou loved the anonymity of the big city. Blancafort comes more from the natural world: the first piece, ‘Cançó
del vent gronxant les branques’ (Song of the wind rocking the trees) gives a fair idea of his chief inspiration.  The nine short pieces - album leaves, really -  are clearly evocative of folk songs, though not I think based on any actual folk melodies. Mood is everything, as the simple directions (amb dolcesa, clar i vibrant) indicate. Anyway, the piano music has been recorded by Miguel Villalba for Naxos, which offers recordings of other works. If you’re in need of a spa break from Wagnerian romanticism, try this.Here is Andreiovitch Wudnitski playing Cançons de Muntanya on YouTube - a lovely rendering, I think.

(One picky point:  'Cançó de la tarda morint' means 'Song of the dying afternoon', not 'Song of an afternoon at sea'.)

NB In the course of doing this blog, I found the site La ma de Guido (ie the hand of Guido [de Arezzo]). Some useful info, and a source of orchestral parts for Catalan works. So just note it here for future ref.