SEPARATING MYTH FROM FACT

by Graham Wade

Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is one of the miraculous compositions of the 20th century. My library of recordings contains over a hundred versions, yet the work retains its freshness and spontaneity however many times I hear it.

One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of the miniature score signed with a sweet inscription by the composer and dated April 6, 1993. Some guitarists have ventured to criticize Rodrigo’s scoring, though it would be difficult for them to tell what they would put in its place. Such criticism is like finding fault with the perfect action of a Swiss clock that has been keeping accurate time for half a century, or seeing imperfections in a painting by the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Of course, various mythologies have spun themselves around the creation of the Aranjuez—charming but highly questionable. One familiar fable, for example, is that Rodrigo and his wife Victoria de Kamhi spent their honeymoon in Aranjuez, Spain, and that was a large inspiration for the piece.

What happened was that the couple married on January 19, 1933, and the next day traveled to Madrid to set up their first home. Victoria’s diary gives the facts:

After the wedding banquet, Joaquín and I went for a long walk along the beach . . .The following morning we set out for Madrid by automobile . . .The first months in Madrid passed tranquilly. We had rented a furnished apartment on Castelló Street . . . . On sunny days we made excursions to Aranjuez, Alcalá de Henares—how sick I was after eating tripe there—to El Escorial and to Toledo.

Such “excursions” were not languid stays in hotels, for the couple was without money or employment. These were day-trips by train (hardly what could be called a “honeymoon”). Aranjuez, it should also be remembered, is often a miserable place in winter, with cold winds and desolate spaces.

But when Rodrigo completed his new composition in 1939, he was in need of a title. He may have considered a resonant name from among the places the couple had visited five years previously. After Victoria’s experience of eating tripe, the concierto could hardly be named Concierto de Alcalá de Henares. Moreover, Concierto Escorial would celebrate a historical monument, but the place is formidably grim, different from the musical atmosphere evoked. Concierto de Toledo at that time would be too clearly political, following a famous siege there during the Spanish Civil War.

These days, Concierto de Aranjuez sits harmoniously on the Spanish tongue (though not easy for foreigners to pronounce!). Since the naming of the concerto and its extraordinary fame, a kind of cult has arisen round Aranjuez. The town is now presumed (especially by those who have not been there) to be the most enticing paradise in Spain. Yet an English writer, John Lomas, writing in 1902, commented that if the Spanish court were absent, Aranjuez was an “otherwise dull and monotonous place.”

In summer, the Aranjuez gardens are beautiful, indeed. But such is the lure of Rodrigo’s music that nowadays one cannot walk through its leafy avenues without thinking of the Aranjuez. The composer has mesmerized the world with his wonderful inspiration, and made Aranjuez his very own. (Maestro Rodrigo’s magnificent tomb can, of course, be found in the cemetery, commemorating for all time the symbolic power of his music.)


Another pervasive myth is that the slow movement was a cry of pain written concerning Victoria’s miscarriage in the spring of 1939. Many tears have been shed ’round this myth and much passion expended. But the story contradicts information in a letter Rodrigo wrote in 1943.

The writing of the Aranjuez was sparked by a dinner in Santander in September 1938, a pleasant evening shared by Rodrigo, guitarist Regino Saínz de la Maza, and the Marqués de Bolarqué. During this occasion, it was suggested Rodrigo should compose a guitar concerto, to which he agreed.

On October 11, 1943, Rodrigo wrote:

I remember also (I don’t know why, but everything relating to the Concierto de Aranjuez remains in my memory), that one morning, two months afterwards, I found myself in my little study in the rue Saint Jacques, in the heart of the Latin quarter [in Paris]. Thinking vaguely about the concert . . . I heard the complete theme of the adagio singing inside my head, all at once without any hesitation, and almost identical to that which you will hear. And then immediately, with hardly any transition, came the theme of the third movement, exactly the same as appears in the work . . .

If the adagio and the final allegro transported me as if by inspiration. . . . I came upon the first movement by way of reflection, calculation, and willpower. This was the last of the three to be written, so I ended the work where it actually began. For that I had no more awareness than that I was just writing a movement, the first.

Two months after the Santander dinner would be November 1938, not the following May (when Victoria suffered the miscarriage). If Rodrigo could retain in his memory everything relating to the Aranjuez, it would seem strange that the loss of a child was not mentioned.

That Rodrigo himself may have helped to perpetrate myths about his own masterwork is not surprising. He was the supreme poet of 20th-century Spanish music, the maker of songs and legends. Rodrigo was not a man who would let crude facts interfere with a good fable. Whatever the accretions of mythology, the music itself bears testimony to his genius.

The Concierto de Aranjuez remains the immortal final statement of the great traditions of Spanish romanticism.