– an insider’s guide to Falla’s Tombeau –
No matter the level of your playing, there is every reason why you should familiarize yourselves, and scratch or bluff your way through great music. More so, if it is not difficult to play. By doing so, you can get to understand and appreciate music all the more, almost getting inside the composer’s head. And if you do not play and are a listener, youoo can also savour more deeply music’s magic with a little extra knowledge.
There is a small pile of such guitar music out there, shining like gold nuggets waiting to be picked. On great music, not difficult to play, is what I am going to begin to concentrate in this occasional series of articles. To start, please wheel in, with an imaginary fanfare, this great little piece: Manuel de Falla’s Tombeau: Hommage à Debussy.
For timing references open this link to Julian Bream’s recording on Youtube
Only about four minutes long the work manages to combine essential aspects of Spanish and French Impressionistic music, no easy feat. Falla interweaves them without any clash of idiom.
The “Spanish” sound is based on the medieval Phrygian mode, which is all the natural notes (no sharps or flats) starting on E. The second note in the scale is F. All of the first 18 notes in the melody consist of just these two notes alternating.
Having established this “Spanish flamenco” sound, Falla then throws in a C#. This note is straight out of a whole tone scale starting on F, and belongs to the world of Claude Debussy, (the dedicatee of the work). Play the scale F – G – A – B – C#, and you’ll hear it straight away.
The next surprise is the B flat against a G bass, giving it a minor feel. This, together with the C# breaks the French spell and brings us back to the Spanish mood. A truncated reprise of the 18 note opening follows.
The F is altered to an F#, thus neatly transforming the opening phrase from Spanish to French. But The D, C#, B flat, A. shape of the melodic line that follows creates a Moorish feeling paving the way for the next development.
An abrupt change of rhythm takes us to a Spanish taverna and an improvised sounding flamenco riff which quickly winds down and brings us back to the opening two-note alternation.
A brief recap of the opening material sounds even more like a lament after the rhythmic interlude.
This breaks off suddenly to reveal a fragment from Debussy’s Une Soirée en Grenade for piano solo. The Debussy quote contains musical elements evident in the rest of the Tombeau. These include the rising scale pattern and the basic habanera-style rhythm.
3.55 – 4.03
The piece ends as it started with the melancholic Spanish two-note figure, dying away to nothing.
Falla made an arrangement of this, his only guitar piece, for solo piano, and also for orchestra, so he must have been pleased with it. So should we be, its stark beauty a challenge not to virtuosity but to our ability to communicate its melancholic essence and mixed musical language – the work of a master composer.
23rd August, Londonderry, Northern Ireland