Braille manuscript of the <i>Concierto de Aranjuez</i> © Courtesy of the Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo
Braille manuscript of the Concierto de Aranjuez
© Courtesy of the Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo
It's the most famous work of classical music to come from Spain. It stands head and shoulders above all other guitar concertos, with a place in the top handful of concertos for any instrument. It earned its composer a place in his nation's hereditary peerage. And yet, the circumstances of the birth of Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez were hardly propitious.

In late 1938, as Rodrigo embarked on the piece, Spain was still in the throes of civil war. He was living in Paris with his beloved wife, scribe and later editor and biographer, the pianist Victoria Kamhi, and the couple’s financial situation was dire. Winter conditions were Arctic – 12 to 15ºC below zero – and they were only comfortable when huddled around their ancient stove: perhaps this contributed to Victoria’s miscarriage and a hospital bill that could only be paid for by selling her beloved Pleyel piano. It would not be until the following September, just before the start of World War II, that Rodrigo would return to Spain, carrying the precious score in his luggage, to a stable job with Radio Nacional de España.

Guitarist Regino Sáinz de la Maza (right) with the Rodrigo family © Courtesy of the Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo
Guitarist Regino Sáinz de la Maza (right) with the Rodrigo family
© Courtesy of the Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo

The  concerto was conceived in September 1938, just two days before the Munich accord between Hitler and Chamberlain, during a boozy lunch in San Sebastián, where the Rodrigos were stopping over on their way back to Paris. Hosted by the music lover and patron the Marqués de Bolarque, the couple were joined by the guitarist Regino Sáinz de la Maza. Accounts differ as to whether it was Bolarque or Sáinz who made the suggestion that Rodrigo should write a concerto for Sáinz, but everyone agrees that the wine was excellent and plentiful and that all three men were enthusiastic. Later, the enthusiasm gave way to doubt: guitar concertos had been written by Mauro Giuliani back in the classical era, but it wasn’t clear that a concerto for guitar and modern orchestra was even feasible. Rodrigo was confident, but as late as the night before the 1940 première, as composer and guitarist shared a sleeping compartment on the train to Barcelona, Sáinz was overcome by fear that his instrument would not be audible, and neither man slept. In the event, the première was wildly successful, but that didn’t prevent well-meaning colleagues from advising Rodrigo to arrange the concerto for piano, on the grounds that it was so difficult that he would find no-one except Sáinz who could play it (after the war, the 20-year old Narciso Yepes was the first of many guitarists to prove their advice to be utterly wrong).

Ask ten people what makes the Concierto de Aranjuez so special and you’ll get ten different answers, with a good place to start being Graham Wade’s description of it as “a wonderfully coherent statement, rich in local detail and loaded throughout with musical felicities of many kinds”. Three things, however, tend to get mentioned by everybody. Firstly, the music is visually vivid to an extraordinary extent: you simply can’t listen to it without conjuring up images in your head. Secondly, the theme of the Adagio – together with the way it’s developed – is impossibly heart-breaking. And finally, the concerto exudes Spanishness.

Rodrigo's suitcase which brought the manuscript back to Spain © Por cortesía de la Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo
Rodrigo's suitcase which brought the manuscript back to Spain
© Por cortesía de la Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo

Miloš Karadaglić, who has played the piece as much as any guitarist of recent years, is entranced by the sheer optimism of the first movement and by its visual appeal, with its evocation of the royal palace gardens. “It’s such a joy to play, because it's full of these accents and staccatos and scales and strums; it's really as if you hear so many different elements in nature. Whenever I work with orchestras and conductors, the first thing I say is that you have to just think of a really hot summer and the sound of the crickets and the sound of the birds, in every note that you have. In the texture of the writing, it brings out such an amazing feeling that you can smell it.”

The visual appeal is made particularly uncanny by the fact that the composer had been blind since he was three years old (he wrote his works in braille). It also makes little difference that the subject matter of the concerto owes more to its composer’s imagination than to physical reality. Rodrigo had in mind the Aranjuez of the Bourbon kings of the eighteenth century, with its majas and bullfighters, described in its glory days as “an enchanted palace … birds singing on all sides, the waters murmuring sweetly, the sepaliers loaded with delectable fruit and the beds with fragrant flowers”. By the time Rodrigo and Victoria visited Aranjuez in the 1930s, the place would have been sadly depleted.

Joaquín Rodrigo in Salzburg © Courtesy of the Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo
Joaquín Rodrigo in Salzburg
© Courtesy of the Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo

As to that extraordinary theme of the Adagio, Rodrigo told different stories to different people about its genesis. Victoria writes that he composed it in a night where he couldn’t sleep as he was grieving for their lost child and trying to conjure back his love for her and the happy days of their honeymoon. Elsewhere, Rodrigo related that the melody came to him fully formed as he stood in his studio in the Latin Quarter in Paris. To one fellow musician, he explained that “it came to me while waiting for a tram”. Whichever of these – if any – is true, it’s undeniably a melody that makes you explore the depths of your own soul. “There’s a really magical relationship of intervals there”, Miloš explains, and points at the unusual and stunningly effective way in which the Adagio is constructed: “the cor anglais gives the theme, and then the guitar takes the theme, embellishes it and brings it to another level. It's just a very clever way of doing it, because the cor anglais has that amazingly expressive sound.”

Rodrigo consciously injected Spanishness into the score, with the guitar itself, and its redolence of flamenco and dance rhythms, as the primary medium for so doing. Later in life, he described his thinking:

To say “dance” is to say “rhythm”, and rhythm in Spanish terms means “guitar”. But what precisely is this guitar? What instrument is it that the composers of Spain hear in their moments of greatest intensity? It is – as I have said before – a strange instrument, gigantic, multiform and fantastic, an instrument which has the tail of a piano, the wings of a harp, and the soul, in fact, of a guitar. This phantom, this impossible sonority, created by the imagination of the Spanish musician, is what inspires our music.  

Joaquín Rodrigo and Victoria Kamhi © Courtesy of the Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo
Joaquín Rodrigo and Victoria Kamhi
© Courtesy of the Fundación Victoria y Joaquín Rodrigo

What’s the key to a great performance of the Aranjuez? For Miloš, the soloist needs to go the extra mile, to push the boundaries of what’s possible on the guitar. “The second movement is all up to you, the soloist, and that’s the golden moment, I’m never worried about it. But in the first and the third movement, the writing for the guitar is very thin in texture, so it’s very difficult to find the golden middle with the orchestra and the conductor. If the orchestra plays too softly, there is no energy. If they play too loudly, there’s no point, because you cannot hear the guitar. There are very, very few conductors who know how to do it.”

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to the composer himself about the work that earned him the title of 1st Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez:

It would be wrong to expect power in this Concerto of mine, and one can look in vain for great sonority; that would be to falsify the guitar’s essential nature, and debase an instrument which is capable of creating the subtlest of sounds. Its strength is to be found in delicacy, and in intense contrasts. The music of the Concierto de Aranjuez, a synthesis of the classical and the popular, of form and feeling, sounds forth – hidden in the breeze which moves the leaves of the gardens – and only wishes to be strong like a butterfly, but as tightly controlled as a veronica, the pass of a bullfighter’s cape.


Sources:

  • Joaquín Rodrigo : Voice & vision : selected writings on music / translated by Raymond Calcraft and Elizabeth Matthews. Bath: CMC, Brown Dog Books, 2016.
  • Victoria Kamhi, De la mano de Joaquín Rodrigo : historia de nuestra vida. Madrid : Fundación Banco Exterior, 1986.
  • Graham Wade, Joaquín Rodrigo and the Concierto de Aranjuez. Leeds: Mayflower Enterprises, 1985.
  • Graham Wade, The Truth About Rodrigo's 'Concierto de Aranjuez'. Classical Guitar Magazine, 15th July 2015
  • Author's interview with Miloš Karadaglić, with kind thanks, August 2018