At the beginning of the 20th century, a cultural revolution arrived in Spain. The changes were exemplified by a specific building in Madrid: the Residencia de Estudiantes, a hall of residence for university students, designed to stimulate interdisciplinary interchange to counteract the limitations resulting from increased specialisation. The students moved from their previous dark and cold lodgings to a place that was austere but endowed with the necessities of life as well as a fount of intellectual resources that was extraordinary for that era. Visitors like Albert Einstein, Manuel de Falla or Igor Stravinsky attracted non-residents also, who participated actively in their activities: examples were the poet Rafael Alberti and the composer brothers Ernesto and Rodolfo Halffter. The Residencia was the cauldron in which were brewed the artistic achievements of the so-called "Generation of '27" (the name later given to the musical and literary artists who flourished in those years).

The Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid © Luis García
The Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid
© Luis García

It's both fascinating to imagine – as well as difficult to ascertain with certainty – what the musicians of the Generation of '27 loved to sing in that building, and what was actually sung. The taste for tradition combined with the avant-garde (in its neoclassical guise) was an interest that both musicians and literary figures had in common. Both were eager to fight the establishment, taking inspiration from European modernism and eschewing neo-romanticism. But in terms of song, what did that "establishment" consist of? In those years, what was listened to in Spanish salons still came from the 19th century: reductions of Italian opera arias or German lieder, sometimes with Spanish text, all according to the romantic manner. The musical identity of Spain had become distorted through the lens of exoticism through which the country was viewed by people outside its borders, and in these first generations, there was a drive to disseminate the riches of Spanish culture in all its diversity.

In some way, the gathering of popular melodies into songbooks would be the beginning of the search for modernity by way of folklore, a common basis for all the avant-garde movements trying to break through at the time. It was Manuel de Falla who turned those early aspirations into reality with his Seven Spanish Popular Songs, published in 1915, which were almost all based on melodies collected directly from the oral tradition by José Inzenga, Eduardo Ocón and Pablo Hernández and transcribed into song collections. In this collection, Falla respected the original themes without destroying their popular nature in terms of rhythms or vocal ornamentation: rather, he added accompaniments which was more than mere harmonisation, reinforcing the modal writing, allowing the grace notes to echo and resonate, adding some dissonance or other of the new "avant-garde nationalism", as it was dubbed by musicologist Emilio Casares.

But Falla was also a connoisseur of the "cante jondo" flamenco style, and he understood that Andalucian popular song retained a great deal of linkage to its oriental past, even if it had been occidentalised on a base classical harmonies, from which strove to create a certain distance. Just two of the songs in this collection are exceptions in not being based on songbook melodies, "Polo" and "Jota": these are original compositions created by Falla according to the modal and rhythmic principals of those popular dance tunes.

In addition to these very well-known songs, there are less common works that still inspire curiosity, such as the 1914 song "Soléa", whose music is lost, which started the collaboration between the maestro and the husband-and-wife pair of Gregorio Martínez Sierra and María Lejárraga. From this relationship, in 1915, stemmed an unsuccessful project which they called "Pascua Florida", intended to result in a collection of settings of the verses that Lejárraga wrote in response to the inspiration of various Andalucian landscapes. From this initiative, only one remains: "El pan de Ronda que sabe a verdad", a little published song which grabs hold of the Andalucian-ness that is already present in the text, something which does not happen in the 1914 "Oración de las madres que tienen a sus hijos en brazos" (1914), a lullaby made of a hear-rending anti-war poem with a sonority that barely references Spanish folklore, with a particular emphasis on a piano accompaniment in the mainstream of European language, a lament for the terrible war which had just begun.

García Lorca seated at the piano in Huerta de San Vicente © Diputación de Ourense | Fundación Eduardo Blanco Amor
García Lorca seated at the piano in Huerta de San Vicente
© Diputación de Ourense | Fundación Eduardo Blanco Amor

As we have said, folklore was an object of interest and desire not only for the musicians: writers also searched for the roots of simplicity in popular verses. In the legendary Residencia de Estudiantes, exchange between disciplines stimulated the creativity of the young people there. Federico García Lorca, a musician as well as a poet, made his interest in folklore clear with the his work in setting a whole series of Spanish popular songs. These may not stand out for their musical audacity, but his eagerness to get them published is touching, as well as his success in getting them recorded by the celebrated flamenco artist "La Argentinita", accompanied at the piano by Lorca himself. It's known that Falla visited the Residencia to leave his own imprint on the following generation of songwriters. In fact, the impression he made is sufficiently deep that Falla's works created a level of perplexity for Spanish composers like Gustavo Pittaluga or the Halffter brothers , who sought to continue his example but sometimes fall into a sort of mannerism.

Apparently, Rodolfo Halffter was one of Falla's pupils (although some accounts tell that Rosa García Ascot was his only pupil). He and his brother Ernesto were stalwarts of the meetings at the Residencia, where they met Rafael Alberti and collaborated with him on the composition of several songs. From there stemmed the cycle Marinero en tierra, songs based on a selection of poems which received Spain's National Literature Prize in 1924, five piece that are short but often seen on concert programmes. In that collection, Rodolfo Halffter's music is subordinated to the text and accompanies it both in character and meaning. In "Qué altos los balcones", the melody moves from high to low as the verses indicate, while the bells ring in the piano accompaniment for "Ya se la lleva de España". In all of these, the voice plays with the scales and styles used in Flamenco, while the piano, which forms an important part of the writing, moves "Siempre que sueño las playas" and "Gimiendo por ver el mar" in a peteneras rhythm. In 1925, Ernesto Halffter, who had a particular attachment to songwriting, also set two of Alberti's texts, "La corza blanca" and "La niña que se va al mar". Alberti himself praised the former in his memoirs La arboleda perdida as "something masterly, unaffected, melancholic, much in consonance with the ancient and modern style of my prose".

Rodolfo Halffter reading in his study © D.R. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México
Rodolfo Halffter reading in his study
© D.R. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México
The second of the songs is more vibrant, with a richly ornamented piano part which sometimes reminds one of Scarlatti, a composer who inspired the masters of this generation with what you might call a "neo-Scarlattism", running alongside the neoclassicism which captured the imagination of musicians and poets. It was in 1927 that the writers celebrated with vigour the tricentenary of the death of the poet Luis de Góngora, an event which pulled their writing towards a retrospective style close to Gongorism. The musicians followed the trail that Falla had marked out with his Retablo de maese Pedro and the Harpsichord Concerto, which connected the European neoclassical fashion with a more Spanish version of the same concept. Other composers of this generation turned back to old text and styles, such as Salvador Bacarisse with his 1928 Tres canciones del Marqués de Santillana, which gives a nod to Scarlatti in the piano accompaniment. Juan José Mantecón looked to the same writer to composer his 1930 "Dos canciones", as well as setting two of the Coplas de Mingo Revulgo.

With the arrival of the Civil War, the groups dispersed, and with them went the ideals of the search for a progressive national language which, after all, formed the point at which they came together. In the face of exile and the gag, they continued to write songs. In "Tres ciudades", written by Julián Bautista in 1937, Lorca's poem echoes with cante jondo like a bell tolling for his recent murder, like an elegy to of a Spain that might have shone brightly but in the event, did little more than flicker.

You can listen to most of the songs mentioned in the article in this playlist.

Translated from Spanish by David Karlin