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The work of composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) ranges from late-romantic salon pieces to evocations of flamenco to stark neoclassicism. Yet his work has met with a variety of reactions, depending on the audience. In his native Spain, he is considered a leader in the avant-garde and the greatest composer in the Spanish cultural renaissance that extended from the latter part of the nineteenth century until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. In the United States his music was imported as part of the "Latin" music craze of the 1930s and 40s and arranged by pop artists and used in MGM musicals. Similarly enigmatic are the details of Falla's life. He never sustained a lasting, intimate relationship with a woman, yet he created compelling female roles for the lyric stage. Although he became incensed when publishers altered his music, he more than once tinkered with Chopin and Debussy. Despite insisting that he was apolitical, he ultimately took sides in the Spanish Civil War. All his life, his rigorous brand of Roman Catholicism brought him both solace and agony in his quest for spiritual and artistic perfection.
In Sacred Passions: The Life and Music of Manuel de Falla, Carol Hess explores these contradictions and offers a fresh understanding of the life and work of Manuel de Falla. Building on over a decade of research on Spanish music, Hess examines his work in terms of musical style and explores the cultural milieu in which he worked. Biographical, historiographical, and cultural threads are explored against the compelling backdrop of early twentieth-century Spain, where Falla was a pivotal figure in a group that included not only his Spanish contemporary Enrique Granados, but also composers Dukas, Stravinsky, Ravel, and the group known as les Apaches, and many other artists and writers. During this remarkable cultural renaissance known as the "Silver Age," Lorca, Buñuel, Dalí, Unamuno—and de Falla—created some of their greatest works.
Hess explores a number of myths in earlier biographies, including his life as an ascetic saint, his supposed misogynistic tendencies, and the accusations of homosexuality. She also offers a balanced view of his behavior during the Spanish Civil War, a wrenching event for a Spaniard of his generation and which Falla biographers have left largely unexamined. Hess also examines the notion of de Falla as merely a high-class pop composer, the quintessentially Spanish composer of colorful and exotic dances from The Three-Cornered Hat and El amor brujo. She incorporates recent research on de Falla, draws upon untapped sources in the Falla archives, and reevaluates de Falla's work in terms of current issues in musicology.
Ultimately, Hess places de Falla's appealing music, which straddles popular and serious idioms, securely among the best of his better-known European contemporaries. What emerges is a portrait of a man whose lofty spiritual values inspired singular musical utterances but were often at odds with the decidedly imperfect wrold he inhabited.