By JAMES GALLANT.1
THE KALEIDOSCOPIC DREAMS generated by morphine shots reminded Albéniz of improvising at the piano. But he was awake at the moment. There were voices from an adjacent room. “On the recommendation of Debussy, Dukas, and myself,” his friend Enrique Granados said, “the French government is going to confer on Isaac the Croix de la Legion d’Honneur.”
Snippets of conversation and rustling papers suggested that his wife Rosina, anxious lest anything be excluded from the final catalogue of her husband’s works, was entrusting Granados with manuscripts of his unfinished piano pieces. Albéniz envisioned some earnest musicologist years hence pouring over those half-baked inventions, contemplating erasures and crossings-out, and hypothesizing about late tendencies in the oeuvre. Had he been physically capable of laughing aloud, he would have.
There was both humor and pathos in people surrounding music with prizes, textual analyses, commentaries, histories, and biographies—attempts to dignify and rationalize the obscure, fleeting pleasure they found in it. (A “life” of a composer or performer—a person likely to have spent most of his or her existence, certainly the best part, in semi-conscious states—was nearly a contradiction in terms. A man who had thought to write a biography of Scarlatti once told Albéniz that as best he could determine his proposed subject had not had a life.)
An oval of brilliant golden light out ahead defined the shape of the dark subterranean tunnel through which Albéniz was drifting. Musical phrases were bubbling up in mind. When they congealed into a piece with beginning, middle, and end, he regretted not having a piano. However, a farmer’s wife in Ohio seated at her piano had just realized how tired she was of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” when she performed Albéniz’s new work start to finish. It was a shame, Albéniz thought, that she had abandoned her girlhood dream of becoming a concert pianist in order to be fruitful and multiply.
Now he was in a formal garden with emerald leaves and a balmy, rosy hothouse perfume. Gold-tinged light radiating from flowers and fruits reminded him of lustrous figures of saints and angels painted over gold leaf in medieval Byzantine art.
A buzz of voices drew his attention to a crowd of people in the distance, in the midst of which he glimpsed the faces of his father and mother. He thought they had seen him, too, and he was grateful that they turned away, because meeting them again would have been awkward.
An abrupt shift of venue. Had it occurred in music, it would have been notated subito or attacca: He was in the vestibule of the Estació de França in Barcelona. He had spent time enough waiting trains there to have memorized its sparse details: the enormous wall clock with its Gothic numerals, the long oak benches, the marble floor, the barred ticket windows. There was the usual echoic murmur of voices and footsteps, people toting luggage across the room to the tracks in one direction, the city streets in the other.
But there was an anomaly. People entering the depot from the street were making their way slowly along a walkway defined by black velvet ropes past an open casket on a bier surrounded by abundance of flowers. Albéniz realized with a start that the figure in the casket was himself! There lay his bearded, rotund sausage-, cigar-, and cognac-loving hulk with its diseased kidneys, smoked lungs, and diarrhea. It was a chrysalis he had evacuated?
He was experiencing the afterlife?
When had the dreaming stopped and the postmortem life begun?
What he and his most enlightened contemporaries had supposed, that death was just a blank, an absence, was obviously incorrect. But the Church with its absurd doctrine of bodily resurrection at the end of time was nearly as wide of the mark. Resurrection was evidently simultaneous with death, and what was resurrected wasn’t the physical body, but a separable spiritual body. Whatever the differences between him and Jesus Christ, their resurrected states appeared to be similar.
Titles of many of his compositions— “Cordoba,” “Sevilla,” “Granada” “Mallorca,” etc.—acknowledged that travel, as a means of escaping the melancholy seemingly rooted in him from birth, had been as valuable to him as improvisation at the piano and cigars. His friend Granados understood this. Knowing it would please Albéniz to make his final public appearance in a train station, Granados must have arranged this wonderfully bizarre scene.
Albéniz discovered that he could widen or narrow the focus of his attention. He zoomed in closer to the casket. His other half wore the dark blue suit, the one from which Rosina had complained the smell of his chain-smoked cigars could not be cleansed. Little cards attached to the flowers around the bier identified senders: conservatories in Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris; city councils and politicians of various European cities; university faculties, and organizations of writers and painters. Albéniz had lusted after fame in his youth, imagining it to be a cure for his melancholy. Having achieved what he had strenuously sought, he had become aware of its illusions. The flowery tributes from such a variety of sources were charming nonetheless.
His fame as a composer rested mainly on his early, richly melodic, piano pieces he had long regarded as trifles—all emotion and no brain, and as such a match for Spanish sensibility. Concert audiences loved them, and he and other pianists had often performed them. Fairly easy, they were also marketable as sheet music that had made its way into bourgeois homes.
In his youthful quest of celebrity he had represented himself as the pan-Iberian composer, and he had once written an article purporting to characterize the musical sympathies of his countrymen: “The ancient, sweet melodies that have lulled your sorrowful soul during the terrible combat that we have borne throughout our existence, the sorrows and longings that have passed, have left a profound imprint on your heart; and after such sweet sufferings, a gigantic wave of enthusiastic hope will invade your being.”
Actually he had only described his own musical psychology. The “ancient sweet melodies” that had moved him profoundly were from the flamenco tradition of Andalucia. He had loved them from the time he first heard them played on the guitar by his boyhood gypsy friend Pali. The sight of Pali’s shapely older sister Tasaria dancing flamenco to her brother’s guitar—her spiraling spine and rolling hips, the impatient staccato clapping of her hands, the alluring circular motions of her hands—had inspired some of Albéniz’s earliest sexual feelings. But the elements of flamenco—gypsy, Arab, and Jewish—had been imported from elsewhere, and it was scarcely “pan-Iberian” music.
The Archbishop of Barcelona had recently condemned flamenco dancing in nightclubs as decadent individualism, recommending in its stead the traditional, wholesome Catalan folk dance, the sardana. Albéniz had seen sardana danced at festivals, and it was, indeed, unlikely to stir either individualism or sensuality. While cobla bands with their whiny oboe-like shawns performed jaunty tunes, dancers arranged in folky circles, male-female-male-female, performed steps and little hops possible for nearly anyone but a cripple. In the sardana there was no duende—no soul.
NOT MUCH IN Spanish culture appealed to Albéniz. Paroxysmal Spanish religiosity repelled him; so did the violent see-saw of tyranny and anarchy of Spanish political history; and for residences, he preferred Paris or London to Barcelona or Madrid. Once as he sat at a piano developing an Andalucian-inspired piece, Big Ben chimed the hour, stirring in him an exhilarating sense of being absolutely nowhere.
But he had represented himself as the pan-Iberian composer. He had detected in his youthful pursuit of fame an affinity between music and lying. Either allowed one to pretend to be and feel anything one wanted. He had told some lies or half-truths so repeatedly, with so many variations, over the years, he was no longer sure himself what the truth had been. As illustrated by the case of Don Quixote, self-deceptions could build character.
Albéniz had kept a diary in his youth that was essentially a work of fiction. When it was published—he had felt sure it would be eventually—it would redound to his glory. Among the tales related there was the one about a meeting with Liszt during which his fluent piano improvisations on an Hungarian theme astounded the old master. He claimed to have run away from home at the age of nine (or was it ten?) to perform as a piano soloist in southern Spanish towns. He had performed in the South when he was twelve, not nine or ten, but he had not run away from home in order to do so. His father, a Mason out of work and in need of income, had arranged concerts for his son at Masonic halls in Granada, Malaga and Almeria.
In another quasi-fictional musical adventure Albéniz claimed to have stowed away on a steamer bound for the New World at the age of eleven (or was it thirteen?) and thrilled audiences in the Greater Antilles. He had actually shipped first-class from Cadiz with his father recently appointed Inspector-General at Havana, and his father’s residence in Havana served as a home base from which he had ventured elsewhere in Cuba and Puerto Rico to perform.
The diary described an amour with a beautiful Turkish girl in Vienna, a fantasy spun out of an exchange of glances on a railway platform.
LAUGHING, TALKING PEOPLE continued to flow into the Estació de França and past his blue-suited hulk all afternoon and far into the night. The atmosphere was festive. Many of these people had probably never heard his music, Albéniz thought. They had just read in the papers of a dead celebrity on display in a train station—a spectacle for which they would not have to pay admission—and they had not wanted to miss it. Fruit and candy vendors had abandoned travelers crossing the vestibule to the trains and were concentrating their sales efforts on the people come to gawk at the corpse. They seemed to be doing a brisk business.
After midnight two policia assigned to the scene approached the bier.
“Never saw a corpse that stank like an old cigar,” the one remarked.
“Maybe they didn’t embalm him, they smoked him.”
The other laughed. “If you can smoke a ham, you could smoke a man.”
“Take a while to smoke a fellow with hams on him like this one.”
They were laughing as the one officer lowered the hinged lid on the casket. “Good night, old ham.”
Albéniz threw his voice from within the casket, “And a good night to you, sir.”
The officer blinked.
Albéniz could see that his newfound powers as a deceased person were going to enhance production of the practical jokes he loved. Maybe he could materialize before his friends, like Jesus with the disciples, and play the piano for them? Or while remaining invisible make a piano play his rhapsodic “Leyanda”? That would be a good one!
So much to explore now that he was out of body. He sensed wonderful travel potential in his new state, and had the funeral proceedings not held his interest, he would have begun toying immediately with his ability to be anywhere in space he wanted. He might visit the South Pole with many fewer inconveniences than Shackleford and his crew had experienced recently.
A CLOUDY, WARM June morning.
A pair of dray horses hitched to a hearse with glassed sides stood on the flagstone plaza before the Estació de França. Nearby the mayor of Barcelona and the governor of Catalonia were chatting. There were other government officials, some newspaper reporters, and a few priests for whom Albéniz’s music had apparently excused his atheism.
Albéniz’s would-be young biographer Deledicque had cornered Rosina. Albéniz gathered from what he was overhearing that Deledicque had detected his subject’s fondness for lying, and was trying get the truth about certain matters from Rosina. She was shrugging and saying, “Maybe,” and “Possibly–I don’t know.”
Albéniz spotted the prematurely aged face of his wayward alcoholic son Alfonso. Albéniz had been conscious at times through the years of having failed to assist Alfonso develop a masculine ego useful in the world. Musical precocity had made it unnecessary for Albéniz to develop such a self, and he would have had no idea how to go about developing one in someone else, even had his incessant need for the emotional rewards of music had left him time and energy for the task.
The mounted troops of the Barcelona municipal guard arrived on the plaza. They flew the city flag trimmed in black crepe. Right behind them came the Barcelona city band. The pallbearers, issued from the station with the casket which they lifted it into the hearse. They packed flowers around it and closed the window. The band struck up Chopin’s Funeral March, and the procession moved off from the station toward the cemetery at Montjuïc where the burial was to occur.
Along the way Catalan flags flew at half-mast. Albéniz noted with pleasure black crepe decorating the façade of a Catholic newspaper that had once condemned flamenco influences in his music. From balconies in the narrow winding streets of the old city people rained roses and carnations on the hearse. The procession paused in front of the municipal music school for students to pile flowers atop the hearse, and a little further on a line of riflemen at a military installation raised their weapons and fired a salute.
The procession’s progress up Montjuïc was too slow for Albeniz’s tastes, and he flew ahead to examine the cemetery which lay about halfway up the mountain between the old fortress on the pinnacle, and the Mediterranean harbor below. Multi-storied stone mausolea running along terraces on the mountainside resembled apartment buildings, with close-set square niches for the deceased instead of windows.
Wealthy Barcelonan families entombed their dead more stylishly in miniature stone chapels with stained glass windows and wrought iron gates. At the entrance to one, a stone angel misinformed about the resurrection leaned on a cross to await the trump of doom and the restoration to life of the bodies stored there. It was going to be a long and fruitless wait. A sentimental stone spirit, wings folded, pressed a sorrowing face to the lid of a marble crypt.
There is no music in what does not move, the philosopher Boethius had said, and the abundance of stones and cypresses on Montjuïc repelled Albéniz. Three oversized, thick crosses side-by-side caused his attention to stray below to a more pleasing sight in the Mediterranean: an evanescent cross generated by the frothy white water trails of two ships passing near one another.
AT THE BURIAL SITE, the mayor of Barcelona was concluding his eulogy in front of the several hundred people assembled there. “The glorious labor of this illustrious composer, one of our city’s most distinguished sons, is itself a monument that will immortalize his name. However, it would be fitting, if a statue of this important figure in our cultural life were to be erected here. I have appointed a citizen’s committee to study the possibility of raising funds for such a memorial.”
There was applause from his audience, but the idea of a stone replica of his tubby former self being erected among the angels did not appeal to Albéniz. He was very happy to be done with his body.
His attention shifted below again. He had experienced some of the happiest moments of his boyhood in the company of his gypsy friends Pali and Tasaria in the Romani ghetto, Somorrostro, along the waterfront. Thought of Somorrostro delivered him there. Little seemed to have changed. Same slant-roof shanties hammered together wall-to-wall from whatever materials the gypsies could find or steal. Same shabbily dressed, dark-skinned adults padding around barefoot on the pebbly, sandy soil. Same naked kids. A blacksmith pounded on an anvil.
The sound of someone performing flamenco riffs on a guitar in the distance had just reminded Albéniz of Pali when there materialized before him a smoky gray male presence with a deeply etched dusky face that was, and was not, familiar. The guitar strapped over the figure’s one shoulder prompted Albéniz to say, “Pali?”
The man smiled sadly and raised a hand in greeting.
“I died,” Albéniz said.
Pali nodded. “Yes, I know. I too, am deceased, or we would not be aware of one another.”
“We are together again in Somorrostro!”
“That is not where we are.”
“But you have your guitar. Do you still play?”
“Sometimes, if the pain is sufficient.”
“She is of our fellowship.”
“Is she still dancing?”
“You know, once when I was a kid her dancing made me have an erection.”
“It always had that effect on men. Still does.”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“It’s so amazing that nothing important in life is lost in death—and so much is gained!”
“That is how it always seems in the first stage.”
James Gallant is an independent scholar, the Fortnightly’s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and the author of The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta and Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil? (forthcoming from Vagabondage). Because Isaac Albéniz’s piano music is remembered today mainly in transcriptions for guitar, Gallant has included this story in his unpublished short story collection, Guitarists, in which characters are mainly historical classical guitarists, real or imagined. His “From the Diaries of Francesco Roberto”— from that collection — was published earlier in The Fortnightly Review.
- “Albéniz, admired by Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré, later by Olivier Messiaen and Francis Poulenc, was the first Spanish composer of modern times to gain a secure niche in the pantheon of European composers.”
—Walter Aaron Clark, Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic (JG) ↩