Before his death in May of 2002, Xavier Montsalvatge was among Spain’s most eminent composers of the twentieth century. His works for orchestra, string, piano, and voice, as well as some 20 ballets, often drew upon his native Catalán musical traditions or borrowed from the West Indies. “Many of his works included an almost folkloric lyricism with melodies that suggested the simplicity of folk songs even if they were not actually based on them,” noted New York Times obituary writer Allan Kozinn. Paul Horner, writing about Montsalvatge for Contemporary Composers, also commended his body of work: “His style is deft and witty, exquisitely polished and usually of good taste.”
Montsalvatge hailed from a banking family in Spain’s distinct Catalán region. Born in the years just before World War I in the northeastern city of Gerona, he was given a violin for Christmas at the age of eight and played it for a number of years before entering the Barcelona Conservatory. There, he studied with important Catalán composers of the era, including Luis Millet, Enrique Morera, and Jaime Pahissa, but he came to realize that he lacked the mettle to succeed as a professional concert violinist. He began writing music instead and won student prizes at the Conservatory for his “Suite Burlesca” and Tres Impromptus, a work that dates from 1933. In the years before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he earned money as a music critic for El Mati, a Catalán daily.
In the 1940s, Montsalvatge began writing ballets for the Goube-Alexander Company in Monte Carlo. His compositions from this era were influenced by modernist Russian-American composer Igor Stravinsky and by a group of French composers, Erik Satie among them, known as “Les Six,” who rose to prominence in the years following World War I. By the end of the 1940s, however, Montsalvatge had turned to the music of his native Catalonia. His Cinco Canciones Negras (“Five Black Songs”), a cycle dating from 1945-49, began when the singer Mercedes Plantada, a friend of his family, asked him to write something for her. He composed “Cancin de Cuna para Dormir a un Negrito” (“Lullaby for a Little Black Boy”), and its enthusiastic response prompted him to write more. With its African-Caribbean stylings, Cinco Canciones Negras became standard in the repertoire of Plantada and internationally renowned sopranos like Marilyn Home.
Montsalvatge wrote the first of his three operas during this period as well. El Gato con Botas (“Puss in Boots”), a children’s musical, was first staged in Barcelona in 1948. During the 1950s, he began to earn an international reputation with such works as his string quartet, Cuarteto Indiano, first performed publicly in Madrid in 1952. No matter the medium, Montsalvatge was renowned for the clarity in his works. The composer once said, according to his obituary in the London Independent newspaper, “The most difficult thing is to write something simple.” Another of his maxims, as quoted in the Times, held that “the performer is more important than the author… If there is no performer, music is just writing on paper.”
In the 1960s Montsalvatge’s style took a different turn. He began to use the 12-tone scale and experimented with more avant-garde musical themes. The 1969 work Cinco Invocaciones al Crucificado is emblematic of this shift, but his style continued to heed many voices. “Montsalvatge’s music lies on a continuum between Joaqun Rodrigo’s evocative Spanishry, with its frequent, piquant bitonal clashes, and Maurice Ghana’s more explicitly modernist, but still audibly Spanish, idiom—although he was adamant that he was neither a Catalán nor a Spanish nationalist,” noted the Independent.
A one-act opera, Una Voz en Off, was first performed in Barcelona in 1962. His third and final work for the stage, Babel-1948, dates from 1968. In all, Montsalvatge wrote eight works for a string orchestra and several works for the piano and string. His Sonatine pour Yvette, dedicated to his daughter, is considered exemplary of his style. Its “three movements are a memorable and extremely taxing essay in virtuoso pianism,” wrote Horner in Contemporary Composers, who also termed it reminiscent of the work of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Many of Montsalvatge’s piano works became signature pieces for pianist Alicia de Larrocha, whose career was boosted in the early 1950s with one of Montsalvatge’s earliest compositions, the Concierto Breve, for piano and orchestra.
Montsalvatge’s works were once scarce in recorded form. As he entered his eighties, his music from past
Born Xavier Montsalvatge i Bassols on March 11, 1911 (some sources say 1912), in Gerona, Spain; died on May 7, 2002, in Barcelona, Spain; married Elena Perez Fernández, 1947; children: Xavier, Yvette. Education: Studied at Conservatorio Superior Municipal, Barcelona, late 1920s-early 1930s.
Began career as music critic in Barcelona working for newspaper El Mail, early 1930s; piano work Tres Divertimentos first performed in Barcelona, 1941; worked as editor of Barcelona newspaper Destino, 1942-70; first choral work, Cinco Canciones Negras, performed in Barcelona, 1945; wrote ballets for Monte Carlo’s Goube-Alexander Company, 1940s; opera El Gato con Botas/Puss in Boots staged in Barcelona, 1948; Concierto Breve for piano and orchestra first performed in Barcelona, 1953; worked as writer for Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia, 1968-95; wrote film scores; taught at San Jorge Academy and Destino Seminary; professor of composition, Conservatorio Superior, Barcelona.
Awards: Paxtot Foundation, Rabell Prize for Tres Impromptus for piano, 1933; Chevalier de I’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1957; Cross of St. Jordi, 1983; Premi d’Honor de la Musica Catalán, 1991; honorary doctorate from Free University of Barcelona, 1985.
Member: Reial Academia Catalán a de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi; Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Madrid); Hispanic Society of America.
decades was rediscovered and released in CD format by labels such as Columna Musica, ASV, and Marco Polo. Piano Music, performed by Benita Meshulam and released in 1998, includes the Sonatinepour Yvette as well as some children’s songs based on the story of Noah’s Ark. American Record Guide critic Jack Sullivan liked the latter works, calling them “exquisite miniatures that are playful but sophisticated.”
Montsalvatge continued to serve as a critic and editor for a number of years for various Barcelona newspapers. He also became a professor of composition at the city’s Conservatorio Superior. His last work, Tricronomia Sobre un Pastoral de Invierno, for a string orchestra, was finished just four days before he died in May of 2002. An obituary in the Independent deemed him one of the leading figures in Catalán music of his generation. “Montsalvatge was well suited to the role: a tireless worker who continued to speak his own voice throughout the stylistic upheavals of the 20th century, a consummate craftsman, a respected teacher and critic.”
Cinco canciones negras (soprano, piano or orchestra), 1945.
El gato con botas (opera), 1948.
Simfonia mediterranea (orchestra), 1948.
Cuarteto Indiano (string quartet), 1952.
Concierto breve (orchestra, piano solo), 1953.
Partita (orchestra), 1958.
Cant espiritual (chorus, orchestra), 1959.
Una voce in off (opera), 1961.
Desintegracion morfologia de la chacona de Bach (orchestra), 1962.
Sef-paragrasis (clarinet, piano), 1968.
Serenata a Lydia de Cadaques (flute, piano), 1969; also for flute and orchestra, 1974.
Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado (soprano, three flutes, piano, harp, cello, five percussionists), 1969.
Laberinto (orchestra), 1971.
Sonata concertante (cello, piano), 1972.
Homenaje a Manolo Hugue (soprano, orchestra), 1973.
Sum vermis (voice, two pianos, two percussionists), 1974.
Reflexus-obertura (orchestra), 1974.
Serenata a Lydia de Cadaques (orchestra, flute solo), 1974.
Parafrasis concertante (violin, piano), 1975.
Concerto capriccio (orchestra, harp solo), 1975.
Concertino 1 + 13 (violin and chamber string orchestra), 1975.
Concierto del Albayzin (orchestra, harpsichord), 1977.
Questions and Answers (brass quintet), 1979.
Metamorfosis de concierto (orchestra, guitar), 1982.
Cuadrivio para tres Stradivarius (string trio), 1984.
Fantasis (guitar, harp), 1984.
Musica per a un diumenge (band), 1984.
Fanfarria para la Alegria de la Paz (orchestra), 1985.
Simfonia de requiem (orchestra), 1985.
Trio (three pianos), 1989.
(With Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) Concertos from Spain, London, 1977.
(With Orquestra de Cambra de I’Empordà; Música per a Orquestra de Corda, Audio-Visuals de Sarrià, 1991.
(With Alicia de Larrocha) Spanish Serenade, RCA Victor Red Seal, 1994.
(With Madrid Symphony Orchestra) Concierto Breve, Marco Polo, 1995.
(With Barcelona Symphony Orchestra) Partita 1958, Cant Espiritual, Colomer/Auvidis Valois, 1995.
(With Benita Meshulam) Piano Music, ASV, 1998.
(With Alicia de Larrocha) Favorite Spanish Encores, Decca, 2001.
(With Spanish Radio/TV Orchestra) Concerto del Albayzin, RTVE Classics, 2001.
Kuhn, Laura, Dennis McGovern, and Nicolas Slonimsky, editors, Baker’s Dictionary of Opera, Schirmer 1999.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, Editor Emeritus, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Schirmer, 2000.
Morton, Brian, and Pamela Collins, editors, Contemporary Composers, St. James Press, 1992.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Volume 3, Macmillan/Groves Dictionaries of Music, 1992.
American Record Guide, November-December 1994, p. 110. p. 250; November-December 1998, p. 179.
Independent (London, England), May 16, 2002, p. 20.
New York Times, May 17, 2002, p. C13.
Times (London), May 27, 2002, p. 34.