Reflections on Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje

(Originally posted Sunday, November 9, 2014)

“Masterpiece” is a term I have heard throughout my career when colleagues mention Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje. Benjamin Britten, after hearing Julian Bream performHomenaje, is reported to have said, “The piece is only seven minutes long but there is twenty minutes of music in it.”  As it turns out, the work is actually more like three minutes in length, which makes Britten’s comment even more remarkable.

What makes Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje a masterpiece? There are too many reasons to mention here in a single essay, but I will try to explain why I love the work so much.

The genesis of Homenaje is to be found in the death of Claude Debussy, when Henri Prunierers ,editor of  the Parisian music journal, Le Revue Musicale, asked numerous composers among them Stravinsky, Satie, Bartok and Falla to compose musical tributes in honor of the late composer. No wonder, then, that, as part of his charge to pay tribute to the French composer, Falla drew inspiration from Debussy’s own music, in particular a piano piece called “La Soirée dans Grenade,” which is the second part of a three-movement work,Estampes, that Debussy wrote for solo piano.

At the top of his score for “La Soirée…” Debussy notes, “Mouvement de Habanera” The habanera is a sung dance created in Cuba (Havana) that became very popular in Europe, South America and the United States during the 19th century. It is an important influence in American jazz and the development of the Tango in Argentina.

This rhythm of the Habanera is the rhythm that Falla employed in his homage — composed, curiously enough, in Granada — to Debussy.

The habanera rhythm is comprised of a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note that skips into the two following eighth notes. Falla adds two sixteenth notes to the sequence which are followed by the dotted eighth and sixteenth-note figure as originally found in the opening measure of the Debussy.

After a seven-measure introduction, Falla introduces the main melody, one of the most memorable and heartfelt melodies in the classical guitar literature.

What is so arresting about the work is how Falla juxtaposes the sexy rhythm of thehabenera with this sad melody. Guitarist Rey de la Torre wonderfully articulates the issue in an interview (now available online here) done in 1976 by Walter Spalding. I urge all who want to perform this work to read this article.

Eight measures from the end of Homenaje, Falla quotes directly from Debussy. The passage is there on page one of the Debussy score in the fourth system, pulled directly from measures 3 and 4 of his “La Soirée…”

The pitches Falla chose for the opening figure in the upper voice are F and E. This interval of a semi tone set in the habanara rhythm produce a musical equivalent of a sigh. It is a haunting and gripping introduction.

I adore the harmonies of the Homenaje. The use of the guitar’s open 5th and 6thstrings E and A on the downbeat of the first measure creates an aura of tonal ambiguity that pervades the piece. For example, on the downbeat of measure 19, a critical moment in the work, the composer sounds the notes from bottom up C, G, D, creating a C 9 chord. That having been said, I don’t think the composer was thinking so much in that manner as he was of the idiomatic chord voicings on the guitar.

For example, the chord in measure 9 is perhaps better thought of as a “stacking” of the intervals of fifths and a forth. This type of chord voicing is heard again in measures 27. I particularly like the haunting shift in mood in measure 24 with the change of color on the recording. Here we have an A major 7th chord but the F# is there as part of the motive and creates an uneasiness. It is the contrasting color of the chord that is so arresting. Returning to the chord in measure 19, it is the only point in this piece that a stacked 4th-5th sonority contains only perfect qualities of these intervals without dissonant tritones seconds, sevenths or ninths.

The most striking dissonant chord happens in measure 34 where we see within the chord a fifth, a fourth and an augmented fourth on the top. If you include the low e before the chord it could be labeled an F major 7th #11 but again it does not function that way in the traditional sense. I believe Falla was thinking more of the guitars sonorities and tying them in with the original notes of the opening motive. The chord lies beautifully on the instrument and is an iconic chord in the guitar’s literature.

This climatic moment is followed by a run that takes us off into an entirely new section of the work both rhythmically and melodically. This section from measures 37 to 42 exploits the open string pedal tone E on the guitar’s first string that provides a sense of flow reminiscent of some of Debussy’s piano compositions.

These harmonies offer a musical instability that gives the work a mournful tone while also propelling the work forward. The main motive and the evocative chords create a modal atmosphere, which is characteristic of traditional Spanish music.

What is particularly beautiful is the chord after the fermata in measure 67. It is an A major chord and the final chord, but the chord is set off balance because of the F which continues on through completing the opening motive. The final two notes reiterate that opening musical sigh —a breathtaking ending marked with perdendosiover the last two measures. As my dear friend and colleague Julian Gray wrote about the ending, “Falla truly creates a moment here as when Hamlet says of death that it is "The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."

I have recently been conducting seminars based on the Homenaje, and one of the many issues that come up is the extraordinary amount of musical markings the composer provides throughout the work. I would venture to say that I know of very few works written before this (this particular issue of Le Revue Musicale was published in 1920) that offer so much detail on the printed page. Falla tells you precisely how he wants you to play the piece dynamically and rhythmically.

Falla was clearly a stickler for detail. Right from the opening notes of the piece, he is notating specific dynamic and articulation markings. On the second beat of the measure 1, he writes staccato indications under the bass notes and “x’s” above the upper voice notes (at the bottom of page one it is written in French that the “x”-marked notes should be slightly held). The effect is wonderful, demanding a specific technique often overlooked by many guitarists. I would guide the reader to Alicia de Laroccha's recording of Falla's" Fantasia Baetica". It is very instructive in how to handle this gesture.

These are just a small few of the numerous markings included in the score. I urge students to use a few different highlighters to color the articulation markings, the dynamic markings, the hairpins and all of the musical markings such as theritardandi and affretandi.

Nevertheless, I sometimes question Falla’s (or his editor’s) choices. For example, I have always felt that the metronome marking of a quarter note equaling 60 printed in parentheses was too fast. I tend to play it more around 50 beats per minute — or, perhaps, a touch faster. If the tempo is too slow, one loses the feeling of thehabanera. If it is too fast, it does not sound sad and calm as he suggests in his overall description next to the tempo marking.

To my knowledge there exists three published editions of this work — the one that was originally published in Le Revue Musicale in 1920; the edition edited by the legendary Catalan guitarist Miguel Llobet; then there is the 1986 edition by the English composer and teacher John Duarte. In addition, there is also a manuscript that offers particular insights into Falla’s expression. I urge students to look at not only all three of the guitar editions but the piano score and Falla’s own orchestration of the work.

I have chosen to play from the Llobet version. Miguel Llobet was one the great guitarists in the history of the instrument. He had an uncanny understanding of the instrument. More importantly, he worked with Falla on the score, making his edition the one I most resonate with.

What you hear in the video is my third recording of the Homenaje. My first recording of the work was just too slow. During the recording, I had been absolutely hell bent on a very slow and sad interpretation. After a few listenings, I decided it was horrible and was more a dirge than a habanera.

I then went back into the studio and recorded it at a faster tempo. This time, I was so concerned with the tempo and achieving the habanera feeling throughout that I neglected to do the numerous affretandi with any authenticity.

A month later, I had just taught the piece in a master class on Maui. That same night I checked out my second take. I was horrified at what I heard — I wanted to weep (I think I did!!).

I immediately emailed the recording to my friends John Dearman and Fred Hand for their opinion. The following day, they both urged me to find a way to record it again in Honolulu. The video shoot was only days away. I was freaked! Luckily, Darin Leong came to my rescue and allowed me to record it at the eleventh hour in his studio in Honolulu. This is the version you hear on the video.

Homenaje sur Le Tombeau de Debussy (its full title) is a piece that generates much discussion amongst guitarists and will for generations to come. We can go into great detail talking about issues such as, how long to hold the “x”-marked notes or what the correct tempo — or, for that matter, should one be equally “sad” and “calm” or “calm” and “sad” in interpreting the notes on the page.

Still, even with all of Manuel de Falla’s markings, the piece offers the performer a remarkable level of flexibility in its interpretation. The choices one makes under such circumstances may seem sometimes arbitrary, the music is so beautiful that it demands of the player decisions of an almost spiritual nature.

The Homenaje is a work I have come to admire at every level of perspective, from every point of perception. I hope that what you hear in the video reflects the always changing, ever-growing admiration and love I have for this masterpiece.

Suggested Reading: Sacred Passions: The Life and Music of Manuel de Falla by Carol A. Hess (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Special thanks to Jackson Braider, Simon Powis and Julian Gray.