script-letter-m-402608Dial M for Mompou

Whenever I introduce the under-championed Federico/Frederic Mompou (1893-1987) to friends, the reaction is often, “he doesn’t sound particularly Spanish”. This is somehow a requirement of Spanish composers; I’ve yet to see similar charges brought against, say, Boulez for faint Frenchness, or Pärt for evincing insufficient Estonianism. It could simply be that Mompou’s Catalan origins explain this phenomenon, but Albéniz was also Catalan. The difference is that he sought out Andalusian and Castillian flavours, whereas Mompou seemed more contentedly Catalan. Three Catalan folk songs, El Noy de la Mare, El Testament d’Anelia & Canço del Lladre open his ‘Canço i Danzas’ numbers 3, 8 & 14 respectively.

Mompou’s musical language? Thematic development didn’t really feature; variation fulfilled his dramatic needs. His harmony was unmistakably tonal, though you have to peer through lovely mists to site the tonic. Modes, pedals (frequently offbeat), chords built on fourths, widely spaced, extended ‘jazz’ harmonies all conspire to cloud the harmony of what is essentially simple and often innocent music.

The following example illustrates several of these points.

‘Tres Variacions’ has a short, almost childlike modal (and unbarred) Tema. The first variation, Els Soldats (The Soldiers) ends with a little fanfare whose last three notes are harmonised in fourths. Offbeat pedal notes add interest without compromising simplicity. The second variation, Cortesia has something of French Music Hall in its sad waltz gestures. I like the little pun in the score where the movement depicting ‘courtesy’ ends with the words “répétez, je vous prixe”. Mompou veers into much more modern harmony in the closing Nocturne, almost as though Keith Jarrett were paying tribute to Mompou’s beloved Chopin. The wide-spaced pianism seems to owe much to Chopin who, like Mompou, wrote mostly for piano. Notice how the appearance of a yearning inner-melody necessitates a third stave.

For more direct tribute to Chopin I heartily recommend this:

Or, again, does the subsiding nature of this remind you of a certain Prelude in E minor Op 28 No 4?

Pianists – a challenge: try to emulate the sound of bells while alphabetically avoiding Big Ben, Christmas carols, Ding-Dong etc. etc. Mompou worked in his fathers bell foundry and the resonant ratios rang on? Try the opening of this:

or the closing bars of this:

Mompou’s magnum opus is arguably his ‘Música Callada’ published in four volumes from 1959-67. The puzzlingly oxymoronic combo of silent music can be overcome simply by switching the notion of silence for stillness: ten of its twenty-eight short movements begin with a single note; ‘Calme’ and ‘Lento’ dominate tempo indications. My personal favourite is XIX Tranquilo. Its quiet yearning seems informed by that most searching of ‘jazz chords’ the minor with major 7th – all the more yearning here for the wide spacing.

Alan Coady

Further reading:
Le Jardin Retrouve. the Music of Frederic Mompou

Alan began his musical studies, aged six, on the piano and switched to guitar aged eleven. After studying at the then Huddersfield Polytechnic, Alan began life as a peripatetic guitar instructor for East Lothian Council (Scotland) where he remains to this day. Huddesfieldian modernism exerts a lasting influence and favourite piano listens include the works of Ligeti, Kurtág and Messiaen. Favourite pianists include Piotr Anderszewksi, Steven Osborne and jazz giant Brian Kellock.