Oscar Esplá – Music in Context Some artists seem to be inextricably linked to places. Henry Moore’s legacy is in Leeds, where he studied, but was not born. Barbara Hepworth’s is in Wakefield, where she was born but did not live. And what about Picasso? There is Malaga, when he was born, Barcelona where he lived, but what about Paris, where he did much of his memorable work? Nuremberg equals Durer, South Kensington is Lord Leighton, a Paris suburb is Gustave Moreau, Zaragoza is Goya, Figueres is Dali, Stockholm is Milles, perhaps. The list includes the better known juxtaposed with the less familiar, deliberately.

All the examples above are painters or sculptors. What about writers? There are many associations, but not so many museums dedicated to a life and its work. Spain, for example, has Blasco Ibañez in Valencia and Miguel Hernandez in Orihuela, sites chosen here for their geographical and contemporary relevance.

But what about composers and musicians? Again, there are associations, but only a few dedicated museums. There is Puccini in Lucca, Tartini in Piran, Beethoven in Vienna and Mozart in Salzburg, for instance. Bayreuth is more Wagner’s memorial rather than record. Perhaps the relative paucity of permanent exhibitions dedicated to non-visual artists reflects the fact that painting and sculpture occupy space, whereas writing and music occupy time. The dramatist Shakespeare is a crossover who occupies both space and time, and he has a museum of sorts, but Shakespeare is always a special case.

In Alicante, the main road linking the waterfront to the centre of town is called Avenida Óscar Esplá. I had walked the street many times before I realized it was named after a composer. He was born in Alicante and lived there as a youth, before heading off to Barcelona to study engineering. He then turned to philosophy and finally music. But as an adult in the nineteen thirties, like many other Spaniards, he fled Franco’s internationally tolerated brutality. He was a dedicated teacher and active composer, but, as the Zaragoza pianist, Pedro Carboné, pointed out in his discussion of the composer’s work at this week’s concert, even in his hometown one would be hard-pressed to identify recognition of his achievement, apart from the name of that street. After decades of neglect, a week of concerts in Alicante’s ADDA concert hall offered the chance to hear his music and perhaps to reassess the significance of this neglected composer. Pedro Carboné gave the first of these concerts, alongside an extensive discussion of the man and his work. Pedro Carboné is himself a noted exponent of Esplá’s music, having recorded volume one of Esplá’s complete piano works for Marco Polo in 1998.

The music must precede the life. The achievement must be the starting point of any discussion of the man. As Carboné explained, Óscar Esplá was a deceptively complex composer. A surface gloss of apparently conventional harmony, simple lines and miniature forms initially suggest populism. Anyone who listens, however, knows within seconds that this first impression is quite false. Óscar Esplá’s principal inspiration probably did come from folklore, the folk music of the region which is Alicante. It is known throughout Spain is the Levante region, the place where the sun rises, known for its brilliance, its light, its colour and, significantly, its contrasts, mountain to sea, near desert to tropical garden, remote campo to sophisticated cities. For those outside Spain, incidentally, Alicante is a long way from what is generally termed ‘flamenco’. That was the inspiration of Manuel de Falla in Andalusia. Now Esplá and de Falla are near contemporaries, with de Falla the senior by ten years. They both started composing in their teens, and even began their careers with similarly inspired impressionistic piano pieces.

Superficially, there is a similarity between the unexpected features of flamenco and the scale that Esplá developed to use as the basis of the folkloric Levante. What they share is the almost blues-like modification of a couple of notes in the diatonic scale, changes that confuse the ear between conventional major and minor keys, classifications that actually don’t apply unless your aural expectations are fixed in what you already know. Others at the time did similar things elsewhere. Bartok used a Bulgarian scale in his early work, Debussy his whole tones, Vaughn Williams his modes and Schoenberg his everything equally. The scale, for a composer, has a similar effect to a painter’s palette, and throughout history there have been individual painters and schools associated with particular groups of colours and their use. Music, though it is often overlooked, has the same colouristic characteristics and these, sometimes, are based on the scales used to express the musical language.

In Valencia, when we think of colour and painting, we automatically think of Sorolla. His principal museum might be in Madrid, and he may well be known outside Spain for the work he created for New York, but Sorolla’s oeuvre is of Valencia, of the same Levante coast that extends south to Alicante. At first sight, Sorolla and the style he founded may appear sweet, rather populist, trite, somewhat kitsch and sentimental. But that would be a misinterpretation.

Impressionism is always close by, but so is expressionism in a form where the dreams are pleasant, never frightening. But there is also the simultaneous realism and experiment of Singer Sargent. The subject matter, however, remains folkloric, domestic in its Spanish outdoor form, depicting a long-suffering but apparently docile peasant contentedly living alongside comfortable middle classes and usually less than ostentatious aristocracy. Anyone who knows Spanish history will understand both the ironic and illusory nature of this apparent harmony. This art has a surface gloss, and apparent ease, but the vivid contrast of colour reflects not only the quality of Levantine light, the montane and plane, the arid and the lush, but also a potential for spontaneous combustion in the social tinderbox, where the traditional equals poverty and insecurity and the modern implies capital, exploitation and wealth for the already well shod, though, it must be admitted, this political dimension is never explicit in Sorolla’s work

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