Manuel de Falla: His Piano Works and Spanish Nationalism

Spanish composer Manuel de Falla when child
Spanish composer Manuel de Falla when child
Manuel de Falla in the 1920s
Manuel de Falla in the 1920s
Manuel de Falla; Photo taken from the magazine "THE NATION, A Century in their columns."
Manuel de Falla; Photo taken from the magazine "THE NATION, A Century in their columns."
Statue of Manuel de Falla on the Avenida de la Constitucin de Granada
Statue of Manuel de Falla on the Avenida de la Constitucin de Granada
Spain, Franco, bank notes peseta, 100 peseta, later pattern
Spain, Franco, bank notes peseta, 100 peseta, later pattern

A Brief Biography

In 1876, a composer was born. He did not always want to be a composer—there was a time in his life when he found short stories appealing. His dream was to be an author, and in some ways he did become an author. Throughout his life he wrote articles and letters about his ideas and even some librettos for his own music.[1] But he never quite became the novelist he had hoped to be. That dream faded, and was replaced by another—musical composition.

Manuel de Falla was born in Cadiz, Spain. Both his mother and his father had deep Spanish roots and likely nurtured a love for Spanish culture in their young son. They also fostered in him a love for music. Falla’s mother gave him his first piano lessons, and later he was sent to a local teacher to continue his study.

It was not until the mid-1890s that Falla decided to make music his life. He began taking harmony and counterpoint lessons with a man named Alejandro Odero at the conservatory in Cadiz. At about the same time, Falla began performing some of his own works. Later, he earned several honors for similar performances while studying at the conservatory in Madrid.[2] By 1900 he and his family were living in Madrid, and he was able to support them through piano and harmony lessons.[3]

In Madrid, Falla came in contact with Felipe Pedrell, who had been an influential teacher for both Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. Pedrell and Falla remained friends, but the student eventually rejected the Wagnerian tendencies of his teacher.[4]

Spain had strict limitations on symphonic institutions during this time, and Falla had difficulty getting many of his works performed. In 1905, he won a contest for Spanish opera with his work La Vida Breve . The contest winner was supposedly guaranteed a performance of his or her work, but due to complexities within the system, La Vida Breve was not staged in Spain until years later.

Exasperated, Falla pursued a new route—he was to tour France as an accompanist. He enjoyed the country so much that he settled in Paris and lived there for the next seven years. While in Paris, he was introduced to men like Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Isaac Albéniz, Paul Dukas, and Sergei Diaghilev, many of whom had a great impact upon Falla’s music and career. Falla hoped to stay in Paris and wanted his family to join him there. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I put an end to this plan, and Falla was forced to return to Madrid in 1914.[5]

Falla’s return to Spain proved to be more satisfying than he could have expected. He was able to get his works performed more easily, and even La Vida Breve was staged. By the end of the war, Falla had written several more sizable works and had gained the attention of Sergei Diaghilev. Under Diaghilev’s recommendation, Falla turned one of his pantomimes into a ballet called El Sombrero de Tres Picos . The ballet was performed by the Ballet Russes in 1919 in England, where it was very well received.

When the ballet was brought to Spain a few years later, reactions were mixed. Some critics disapproved of “the ‘modernist’ portrayal of Spanish characters by a company of foreigners,” while others declared that “Falla’s ‘ironic’ adaptation of folk material, Massine’s extravagant choreography, and Picasso’s ‘cubist’ sets [were] a liberating influence on Spanish art.”[6] Diaghilev wanted to collaborate with Falla again, but the composer turned down the opportunity to do Pulcinella and went his own way.[7]

In 1920, Falla and his sister moved to Granada, where he spent the next nineteen years. That first decade in Granada is generally considered Falla’s Neo-Classical period. During this time he explored several older ideas, including monody and modality. Two of his most famous works from this time include El retablo de maese Pedro (a retelling of part of Cervantes’ Don Quixote ) and his concerto for harpsichord.[8]

The Second Spanish Republic was installed in 1931, creating an atmosphere of civil unrest. When anti-clerical legislation was instituted, Falla, who was a devout Catholic, rejected the new government. When the Nationalists heard about this, they tried to make Falla a figurehead for their party, but he was not interested and tried to remain as neutral as possible.

In 1939, Falla was offered a conducting engagement in Argentina, and he took the opportunity to leave the turmoil faced by much of Europe at this time. He stayed in Buenos Aires for a short time, then he and his sister moved to Alta Gracia. Away from the political pulls of Spain and Europe, Falla was able to relax and focus his efforts on a work that had consumed much of his life, Atlántida . This work was inspired by Spanish literature, and tells the inspirational story of the Spanish nation “rising from the ruins of Atlantis” and going “forth under the banner of Christ to the New World.”[9] Atlántida was the nearest the composer ever came to writing sacred music. Unfortunately, it was never finished, because Manuel de Falla died in 1946.[10]

Compositional Style

Manuel de Falla’s compositions have an oddly cosmopolitan quality to them. While many have an intensely Spanish nature, just as many incorporate elements French and Russian music, like Impressionism and Primitivism.[11] Falla started with a very traditional tonal language for the nineteenth century.

One of the most obviously Spanish elements, Falla first incorporated the Gypsy “canto jondo” or “deep song” style into his opera, La Vida Breve. He hoped to elevate Gypsy music while maintaining its primitive elements.

Though Falla always had an interest in French music, his tonal language did not expand to incorporate many French elements until after the composer had moved to Paris. Here he began the use of “non-functional seventh and ninth chords, whole tone chords, and remote key relationships.”[12] In Paris, Falla struck up a friendship with Debussy, who often gave him advice on his compositions, which may be the source of these new harmonies.

Falla later continued his mixture of Gypsy and art music with the ballet El Amor Brujo. Later he wrote a work for piano and orchestra, Noches en los Jardines de España, which incorporates certain “impressionist effects” and a stretch into modality. Falla jumped into a more pure Spanish nationalism with his ballet El Sombrero de Tres Picos, which lacked the “debussismos” and “ravelismos” for which he had been criticized.

During his Neo-Classical period, his harmonic language expanded to include “octatonic structures, strict modality, and quartal harmonies,” alongside his diatonic writing.[13] Finally, Falla moved away from the traditional nationalism of his earlier works. He rejected the “Phrygian melodic turns, guitar based sonorities, [and] flamenco style,” and instead turned to subtler references and allusions to communicate his heritage.[14]

Some of this evolution in Falla’s tonal language, as well as various nationalistic or cosmopolitan elements, can be seen in his works for piano.

Works for Piano

Falla was renowned as a pianist, and so it is surprising that he wrote so few works for solo piano. These pieces include a few early works, such as Nocturno (1896) and Cortejo de gnomos (1901), as well as some written in honor of influential people in his life, Pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas (1935), and his two best known solo works, Pièces espagnoles (1906-1909) and Fantasía baética (1919). A few others exist in the form of transcriptions from other works, including his most famous piano work, Danza del ritual del fuego (Ritual Fire Dance) from the ballet El Amor Brujo.[15]

Despite the fact that the solo works for piano are so few, it can be said that Falla’s “works that include piano comprise the majority of his output,” especially if you consider some of the piano and voice scores used for his operettas.[16] Falla wrote several chamber works that include piano, a few theatrical works (including La vida breve), and at least one major work for piano and orchestra.[17] Falla used other keyboard instruments as well. He is particularly known for his Harpsichord Concerto, but he also enjoyed experimenting with the pianola and the harmonium.[18]

The two works most often mentioned in a discussion of Falla’s piano compositions are his Pièces espagnoles and the Fantasía baética.[19] He wrote the Pièces espagnoles (which include four pieces with geographical titles: Aragonesa, Cubana, Montañesa, and Andalusia) over the course of four years, and dedicated them to another Spanish composer—Isaac Albéniz, whom he had met in Paris.[20]

The Fantasía baética was written when Falla was back in Spain and just as the World War was ending (1919). This piece was commissioned by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein who was traveling through the country at that time.[21] As a result, the work is more virtuosic then others by Falla. Rubinstein only performed the piece a few times, because he claimed that “it was too difficult for his audiences to understand.”[22] Both of these works demonstrate several of the elements of Spanish music that Falla liked to incorporate, as well as including instances of outside influences.

Developing a National Style

Andalusia, the last movement of the Pièces espagnoles, differs from the previous three in formal structure. While Aragonesa, Cubana, and Montañesa, are all in some sort of ternary form, Andalusia consists of an A section, a B section, A’, and B’, which alternately modulate between A minor and A Phrygian, a mode which is typical of Andalusian music.[23] This fourth movement, like the others, incorporates a variety of Spanish elements:

“In this piece we find all the characteristics of Andalusian music: dance rhythms; guitar figures; modal cante jondo melodies; harmonic treatment of modal scales; tonal ambiguity resulting from numerous false relations; techniques such as modulating in the final cadence to a key which is a minor third lower than the tonic; successive fifths, frequent seconds and unresolved appoggiaturas; metric complexity through frequent changes of time signature and use of different rhythms simultaneously; and unorthodox chords—especially those involving the open strings of the guitar, E, A, D, G, B, E.”[24]

The dance rhythms mentioned include allusions to the buleria de baile, a traditional Andalusian dance, and the zapateado, which involves dancers who percussively stamp their boots.[25] The guitar figures are evident throughout and involve several different techniques, including the melodic morisca and the strummed Latina.[26] There are two sections in Andalusia that mimic the cante jondo idea with a flowing melody played on top of a “guitaristic accompaniment.”[27] These guitar-like qualities are also used in several non-thematic sections, like the prelude and coda.[28]

Interestingly, as intuitively Spanish as Andalusia appears to be, it betrays Falla’s French influences. The use of extreme dynamics (like a ppp in one section) was not common in the work of Falla’s Spanish contemporaries, but was used by some of his Parisian friends. Additionally, “the open fifth chord with spacing in opposite registers of the piano indicates Falla’s use of a texture found in many of Debussy’s piano compositions.”[29]

The Fantasía baética marks a change in the composition of Manuel de Falla. In it he harkens back to an even more ancient native sound than he has previously. Like the movements in the Pièces espagnoles, the Fantasía is given a geographical name. “Baetica” was the Roman name for what Falla’s audiences knew as “Andalusia.”[30] The change in his music can be described as a shift from Falla’s “Andalusian” style to his “Castilian” style, which “reaches further into the harmonic language of the twentieth century and becomes international in scope.”[31]

The Fantasía takes on a prolonged ternary form. Like Andalusia, it includes many of the Spanish or Gypsy elements like “guitar figurations, percussion effects, and ‘cante hondo.”[32] Again, Falla includes the rasqueado (Latina) and punteado (morisca) guitar techniques.[33] But as discussed, the Fantasía has even deeper roots than the Andalusian Gypsy music. Falla incorporates rhythmic ideas that, unlike the dance rhythms in Andalusia, have an intensely primitive nature to them. These, along with a variety of tonal clusters, are reminiscent of composers like Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky.[34] In fact, Fantasía baética has often been compared to Bartók’s solo piano work, Allegro barbaro.[35]

David Cooper attempts to describe the changes seen in Falla’s Fantasía:

“At its deepest levels there is a purity, a hardness and inflexibility in the emotional content that reflects a northward current in Falla’s creative impulse. At the same time, this music recalls the brazen and harsh characteristics of Andalusian music with its bitter-toned cante jondo; its constant sense of tragedy so much a part of the Andalusian soul.”[36]

There is no doubt that Manuel de Falla was interested in portraying a Spanish national identity within his music. However, the way in which the composer went about creating this identity causes some confusion. There were not a whole lot of options for Spanish nationalistic composers of the time. While the use of Gypsy and flamenco music are modernly associated with Spanish nationality, during Falla’s time, these cultures were considered primitive and exotic, even by the Spanish people.[37] But these were the elements that composers like Falla and his Spanish contemporaries, as well as outside composers like Debussy and Stravinsky, chose to employ. Besides this already exotic element, Falla continued to draw on a variety of nationalities. He was influenced by the French (Debussy, Ravel, Dukas) and the Russians (Stravinsky, Ballet Russes), and even drew upon the Oriental themes that were an ancient source of Andalusian music.[38] Watkins explains this disconnect in this way:

“Although Falla had become a serious student of this native vocal style [cante jondo], it became increasingly clear that it was his primary aim to attempt an ‘imaginary folk art’ wherein the rhythm and sonority of his native Spain would be projected via the French and Russian orchestral traditions.”[39]

Whatever Falla’s intentions, the work that he did has helped to establish what modern listeners now hear as distinctly Spanish music


Chang, Chin-Chuan. Nationalism in the Piano Works of Manuel de Falla. (DMA diss.) Manhattan School of Music, 1992.

Christoforidis, Michael. “Manuel de Falla, flamenco and Spanish identity.” Western Music and Race. Edited by Julie Brown. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 230-243.

Cooper, David C. A Survey of the Solo Piano Works of Manuel de Falla. (DMA diss.) University of Kentucky, 1991.

Harper, Nancy Lee. Manuel de Falla: His Life and Music. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2005.

Hess, Carol A. “Falla (y Matheu), Manuel de.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Volume 8. 2nd edition. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2001.

Gordon, Stewart. A History of Keyboard Literature: Music for the Piano and its Forerunners. New York: Schirmer, 1996.

Kirby, F. E. A Short History of Keyboard Music. New York: The Free Press, 1966.

Powell, Linton E. “Guitar effects in Spanish piano music.” Piano & Keyboard 30/180 (1996): 33-37.

Watkins, Glenn. Soundings: Music in the Twentieth Century. New York: Schirmer Books, 1995.


[1] Hess, “Falla,” 529 [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid., 530. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid., 531. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid., 532. [9] Ibid., 533 [10] Ibid. [11] Kirby, A Short History of Keyboard Music, 435. [12] Hess, “Falla,” 530. [13] Ibid., 532. [14] Ibid. [15] Harper, Manuel de Falla: His Life and Music, 174-175. [16] Ibid. [17] Ibid., 175-176. [18] Ibid., 164. [19] Gordon, A History of Keyboard Literature, 410. [20] Chang, Nationalism in the Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 49. [21] Ibid., 31. [22] Cooper, A Survey of the Solo Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 108. [23] Chang, Nationalism in the Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 61, 99. [24] Cooper, A Survey of the Solo Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 98-99. [25] Ibid., 62, 102. [26] Ibid., 65. [27] Powell, “Guitar effects in Spanish piano music,” 35. [28] Chang, Nationalism in the Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 66. [29] Cooper, A Survey of the Solo Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 106. [30] Chang, Nationalism in the Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 31. [31] Cooper, A Survey of the Solo Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 107. [32] Gordon, A History of Keyboard Literature, 410. [33] Powell, “Guitar effects in Spanish piano music,” 34. [34] Cooper, A Survey of the Solo Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 121. [35] Kirby, A Short History of Keyboard Music, 435. [36] Cooper, A Survey of the Solo Piano Works of Manuel de Falla, 107. [37] Christoforidis, “Manuel de Falla, flamenco and Spanish identity,” 230. [38] Watkins, Soundings, 422; Christoforidis, “Manuel de Falla, flamenco and Spanish identity,” 232, 233. [39] Watkins, Soundings, 423.

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Comments 5 comments

John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Great hub - "Noches en los jardines de Espana" for piano and orchestra is my favorite....


elfishflea profile image

elfishflea 5 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks! Yes, I'm liking Falla's music more and more every time I listen to something new.

MichaelStonehill profile image

MichaelStonehill 5 years ago

A great hub, especially the part on developing a national style. De Falla's music is more Andalusian than Castilian. It's a different temperament. Here's how De Falla's music should be played:

Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

A very interesting hub.

elfishflea profile image

elfishflea 5 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Eiddwen. Glad you enjoyed.

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