Remembering Nights in the Gardens of Spain

There are many fantastic concerts happening at Orchestra Hall here in Minneapolis, as the Minnesota Orchestra launches into its annual summer festival, Sommerfest. But there is one concert that has a particular resonance for me… a particular and personal resonance: the performance of Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s Noches en las jardines de España (“Nights in the Gardens of Spain”) taking place July 18.

Allow me share my story with you.

* * *

Years back, as soon as I graduated from high school, I went to Spain for the summer. As part of the trip I spent a couple weeks traveling around the central and southern parts of the country, before ultimately going to live with a host family in the city of Córdoba.

Córdoba, located in the region of Andalucía, was a magical place steeped in history—it served as the capital of Roman Spain and the Islamic caliphate of Al-Andalus, and was an important religious and economic trading center during the Renaissance. While near-by Seville captures much more attention and is certainly flashier, Córdoba completely captured my heart.

Córdoba, with the Roman bridge in the foreground, and the mountains in the distance.

Córdoba, with the Roman Bridge in the foreground, and the mountains in the distance.

Part of the charm was, of course, the wonderful family I lived with. They could not have been more welcoming and gracious.

But man… those first few days with them were rough.

I’m sure I’m not the first one to point out that years of classroom language instruction only lightly prepare you for actually living in a foreign country… and more specifically for the task of living with real people and trying to converse with them every hour of every day. This was especially true in a place like Córdoba that had its own peculiar accent—on my first day, my family laughingly told me that no one in Spain understands them when they talk. They weren’t kidding. And in truth, I don’t think I understood a single word the elderly matriarch of the family spoke to me the entire time I was there.

Like I said, that was rough. It wasn’t just that the communication barrier itself frustrating, but that it was beginning to take a serious toll on my ego. Was I just plain stupid? How was I going to make through this?

One day, my host father grabbed the car keys and said, “Vamanos.” “Let’s go.” Normally, this phrase caused a twinge of panic, as I only ever had the vaguest sense about what was about to happen. With some difficulty I was able to understand that he wanted me to go with him into the mountains overlooking the city; he wanted me to see a particular shrine and to gather plants to make herbal tea. So off we went.

When we got to the shrine, he made due reverence, and then led me into the paths around it. At one point he stopped and looked toward a leafy patch, and said “Romero.” At first I was confused. “Romero” was their last name, but I had no idea what he was getting at, and was feeling the familiar wave of frustration at being so utterly clueless. Was he saying they owned this particular land? Did I have their name wrong? Was I mis-hearing a verb tense and he was asking me to do something?

I think he knew exactly what I was thinking, as he gave me a warm smile that was compassionate without any hint of being condescending. Without speaking a word, he broke of part of a nearby plant, then took my hand. He laid the plant in my palm, closed my fingers around so I was making a fist, and then quickly pulled the stem out. He repeated this gesture with his own hand, then raised his palm to his nose and indicated I should breathe in.

I did so. And scent, sense and memory flooded my mind. Rosemary. The unmistakable sent of Mediterranean food and of summer. We had never grown it ourselves while I was growing up, so I had never seen a living plant… but there it was. Rosemary. Wonderfully unmistakable.

“This is romero,” he repeated. “It’s like us. Our name is Romero, too. We’re rooted here too, just like this plant.” With that, he made a broad sweep of his hand, and I realized that from our mountain perch I had a near picture-perfect view of the city below us… an ancient, self-contained world his family had called home for generations. He companionably grabbed my shoulder, and his smile got noticeably bigger. “Ah, I think you understand now. And I think now you know us a little better, ¿no?

He was right. I did understand, perfectly… Spanish and all. Better still, it was the realization that I didn’t have to translate word-for-word to understand.  That scent… romero.  My family, Romero.  I understood instinctively rather than intellectually.  That recognition was like a thunderbolt, and released a wave of emotions. You, know… I could do it.  I could understand. It was a glorious moment of insight and inspiration.

And it is a moment that has stayed with me ever since. Every single time I have breathed in the scent of rosemary, I am transported instantly to that perfect, sunlit afternoon in the mountains overlooking Córdoba, and a breakthrough moment of perfect communication with my Spanish host father.

* * *

It should come as no surprise that I love Spanish music, but I have a particular fondness for Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain—the third of its three movements is a vivid depiction of those very same mountains overlooking Córdoba. It is a fitting finale to a remarkable work that captures not just the music of Spain but the sound of Spain.

The Nights is a set of three nocturnes for piano and orchestra—not so much a concerto, but a series of “symphonic impressions.” In structure and harmonic language, the Nights closely resembles the contemporary masterpieces of Debussy and Ravel. De Falla hit upon the idea of marrying French impressionist techniques with Spanish music, later remarking that “the melodies in this composition are based on the rhythms, modes, cadences and ornamental figures that distinguish the popular music of Andalucía. The music has no pretensions to being descriptive—it is merely expressive.”

Take for example, the opening of the work, “At the Generalife.” To portray this legendary, Islamic-style garden surrounding the Alhambra in Granada, de Falla uses a peculiar harmonic structure that’s traditional to Moorish music, and survives to a degree in flamenco. But more than that, he has the orchestra evoke the sound of a guitar in a variety of ways—not just in the pizzicato notes in the strings, but also in the quivering tremolos of the violas that imitate the rapid strumming technique traditionally used by flamenco guitarists.

In the second movement,Distant Dance,” is more subdued; the themes are brief and simple, the rhythm and harmonies again evoking flamenco. The dance gradually increases in volume and tempo before receding again into the distance. The piano leads without interruption into the third movement, “The Gardens of the Mountains of Córdoba.” Curiously, de Falla has the pianist take the role of the singer of cante jondo, a vocal Flamenco style in which a florid melody in the high treble sings over a throbbing bass. The movement begins with an explosion of energy, but gradually falls back into half-remembered nostalgia.

Although Nights in the Gardens of Spain is a particular favorite of mine, there is a great deal more to this Spanish-infused program, including Capriccio espagnol, Boléro, and music from Carmen. Visit the Orchestra Hall box office, and don’t miss it!

* * *

P.S. I can’t help myself… It’s not on the program, but I’m sharing a clip of my favorite evocation of my Spanish hometown. Isaac Albéniz’s Córdoba, written for solo piano but often played in a guitar transcription, is a stunning little jewel of Spanish impressionism, and was for many years one of my signature piano pieces. Enjoy!


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