Posted by: rbbadger | February 26, 2012

Frederic Mompou

Around 2001, I first became aware of the music of Frederic Mompou i Dencausse (1893-1987), the great Catalan pianist and composer.  Born in Barcelona to a Catalan father and a French mother, Mompou showed a great proclivity towards music at a very early age.  His mother, Josephine Dencausse, hailed from the Dencausse family who once were famous for their bells.  He could have been a great pianist, performing the world over were it not for his extreme shyness.

In the early 20th century, he journed to France hoping to study with the great French composer Gabriel Fauré.  He bore a letter of introduction from another great Spanish composer, Enrique Granados.  Unfortunately, his extreme shyness prevented him from approaching the great Fauré.  Nevertheless, he did study with Isidor Phillip, Ferdinand Motte-Lacroix, and Marcel-Samuel Rousseau at the Paris Conservatoire.  He never did acquire the sort of technique that was thought to be required of all composers.  His own work eschews counterpoint, thematic development, or large forms.  In fact, when he did write a ballet in the 1950s, his friend Xavier Montsalvage had to do the orchestration, as Mompou was not really skilled at this sort of thing.  Rather, most of his work is for the piano.  Most of it features simple forms and is quite brief.  Like Chopin, he had something of an instinctive feel for harmony knowing exactly the right chords to use.

In 1957 at the age of 64, he married the Spanish pianist Carmen Bravo, then 30 years his junior.  He remained in Barcelona for the rest of his life.  His music draws heavily on the popular culture of his native Catalonia, as well as on the music of Erik Satie, Gabriel Fauré, and Claude Debussy.  Spain is a country with a number of different cultures and languages.  While Spanish in its Castillian form is official, Basque, Catalan, Galician, and Valencia are recognised and used as the primary language of education in their respective autonomous communities.  However, everyone must study Spanish as well.  In the Spanish parliament, debate may be conducted in any of the five languages.  Mompou loved and celebrated his Catalan heritage.  All of his works bear Catalan titles and many of them quote Catalan folk songs.

One of his most important cycles is that of his Cançons i danses (Song and Dances).  All of them, except for Cançó i dansa no. 15 are for piano.  The composition of this cycle took place from 1918 until 1962.  Mompou, like Chopin, was an extremely self-critical composer.  He spent a large amount of time refining his compositions before publishing them.  After the death of his wife Carmen Bravo de Mompou in 2007, about 80 of his unpublished works were discovered.  These have been since recorded by the Catalan pianist Jordi Masó on the Naxos label.  It was Masó’s recording of the Cançons i danses on Naxos which introduced me to Mompou’s work. 

He also wrote one piece for organ, the last of the cycle of Cançons i dansas.  Speaking as an organist, it’s a great pity he didn’t write more for the king of instruments.


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