Method: Whether You Call it ‘Leyenda’ or ‘Asturias’ or ‘Prelude,’ Albeniz’s Expressive Piece is a Test for Guitarists

BY RHAYN JOOSTE | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

Prelude (better known as either Asturias or Leyenda) by Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909), is probably the best-known virtuosic guitar piece not originally written for guitar. This lesson will explore its expressive use of the Spanish Phrygian mode, selecting editions, right-hand speed, and left-hand legato.

 

OVERVIEW

Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual was a Catalan by birth, and a true Romantic with a penchant for self-promotion. By the time he was in his mid-teens he had already forged an international concert reputation as a pianist. He went on to establish a career as a conductor, critic, and composer with works for piano and stage. His compositions, based on his émigré experience, culminated in his last great piano work, Iberia. His lasting musical legacy, however, is defined by his more diminutive piano pieces. These celebrate Spain and the Andalusian spirit of flamenco; the guitar’s resonance is eternally connected to his early and middle-period works. Albéniz was considered an authentic Spanish composer, as he didn’t copy folk music per se. As Debussy commented, “He absorbed it,” leaving little trace of the edges. His inventiveness made full use of his knowledge of the guitar (which he could play), along with a love of flamenco and its rhythms, to craft new melodies and stylized pieces.

Leyenda is a stylized malagueña: the repetitive idiomatic guitar riff in the tenor and bass registers; cante jonde (deep song) section, with its call and response melody between a cantaor (singer) and a guitarist; and its use of the Spanish Phrygian mode all are hallmarks of the flamenco tradition.

RIGHT HAND

Micro Study 1 utilizes open strings to practice the four RH patterns in the A section. Aim to be able to: first, play each bar on its own; and second, switch between the patterns at speed. Once secure, add in Albéniz’s bar 1 melody and practice it again for coordination. The use of planting is essential to secure these (See CG Summer 2018).

A common question concerning this piece is, how fast? Albéniz was explicit about this in his original: Allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too fast); eventually a BPM of 115–125—anything more destroys the character of the opening and makes it difficult to accurately place the chords in time.


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RIGHT & LEFT HAND

This piece is in ternary form, and structured A-B-A, with a coda. Micro Study 2, based on section B, develops a series of octaves across the fretboard. Aim for a legato-sounding melodic line; achieve this with up-to-tempo shifts (at a slow speed) at first. Highlighted here are three finger shapes, for octaves, as well as the mordent from the prelude. The octaves move from E harmonic minor (bars 1–2) to the B Phrygian dominant scale (bars 3–4), also known as the flamenco Phrygian scale. It will help get its sound in your ear. This scale is ubiquitous in flamenco, klezmer, Middle Eastern, Indian, and even neo-classical rock. It has a very distinctive sound due to the flat second interval, which is followed by an augmented second. This scale, like the blues, has extra possible colors, its flat third and raised seventh allowing for richer chords and dissonances—Albéniz described them as “out of tune.” These colors are exploited fully in the Prelude, and signaled with the D# and Dn, the A#  to An.

Micro Study 3 addresses two challenging shifts in this piece, bar 24 and 37, and two key LH techniques: anchor and guide fingers. It should be viewed as a template to help tackle other similar changes. These two bars ought to be practiced slowly to get the extra LH movements cemented, the prepared 4th finger and then the 2nd finger guide. Then aim for: first, LH placement, and second, agile (clean) changes. Once secure, practice with the extra rhythms to strengthen these changes.

LEFT HAND

Micro Study 4 is a chordal workout that utilizes most of the chord shapes found in this piece, and presents a few different options for the Prelude’s Phrygian augmented 6th chord. It begins simply, in order for the shapes to be assimilated. Each chord pair—see brackets—should be practiced back and forth, as well as each measure. This seemingly simple micro study will go far to helping you get this legendary piece up and running, and help familiarize some of its harmonic colors and cadences.

EDITION

It is important to check which edition your guitar transcription is based on. There were two early piano prints of the Prelude and unfortunately, the second source, Hofmeister Edition (1911) is erroneous. It is easy to tell them apart—the correct editions have allegro ma non troppo at the start, and cantando largamente ma dolce for the B section. Keep in mind the original piano version did not have running sextuplets (an early 20th century guitar innovation by Severino García Fortea), so for a thorough overview, with various arrangement options, please see the Stanley Yates Series book Isaac Albéniz: 26 Pieces Arranged for Guitar (Mel Bay).

FINAL REFLECTION

Since his death, Albéniz’s fame has justly rested in the hands of guitarists and their arrangements of his works. There is no doubt this is a challenging piece, but do not let that put you off. It offers a wonderful glimpse into a Romantic master’s flamenco inspiration—and it is a doorway into improving all areas of your technique. According to biographer Walter Aaron Clark, Albéniz was the first modern Spanish composer to “secure a niche in the pantheon of European composers.” His influence and generosity were felt by his contemporaries Granados, de Falla, and Turina, and he also greatly affected later composers such as Rodrigo and Morena Torroba.

Albéniz himself best suggested any approach to this impressionistic work: “Less of the grand idea, but more color, sunlight, [and the] flavor of olives.”

Click here to download a PDF of Rhayn Joosts’s complete arrangement of Prelude.