Concierto pastoral for Flute and Orchestra

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            For composers not of the ranks of the immortals it is rare to have the privilege to create the one composition that--almost alone of their works—seems to take on a life of its own, and becomes cherished by the whole world.   We can think of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, for example, and perhaps Alford’s Colonel Bogey March, for another.  Certainly, Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for solo guitar and orchestra falls into this category.  Rodrigo, of course, is not an unknown, for during his lifetime he became one of the most honored composers that Spain has ever produced, along with Albéniz, Falla, Granados, and Turina.  Born in Valencia, he contracted diphtheria when he was three years old and permanently lost his eyesight.  He studied piano and violin early, and then advanced subjects at the conservatory in Valencia.   In 1927 he moved to Paris where he became a composition student of Paul Dukas.  He also studied musicology, which prepared him for his career in Spain as a professor of music history, as well as that of a music critic.  He and his wife lived in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland until the events leading up to World War II forced their return to Spain, where they settled permanently in Madrid.  For the rest of his life he was active as a composer, and was showered with honors and recognition.  His musical style is steeped in traditional Spanish harmonic and melodic elements, and deep evocations of Spanish cultural elements.  His education in Paris exposed him to Ravel, and the sophisticated subtleties of his own style reflect this.   There is a sheen and beauty to his music that stems directly from his melding of French and Spanish characteristics.

            In addition to his evergreen Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar, Rodrigo wrote ten other concertos.  Nearly as popular as the iconic Concierto de Aranjuez is his Fantasía para un gentilhombre—also for solo guitar and orchestra, written in 1954.  The latter served as a springboard for the Concierto pastoral.  The distinguished Irish flute virtuoso, James Galway, taken with the composition, asked Rodrigo for permission to transcribe it for flute.  Rodrigo responded by composing a flute concerto for Galway, who gave its world première in 1978.

            Cast in the familiar three movements, the composition is a tour-de-force for flute virtuosity.  All three movements, while clearly rooted in twentieth-century modern musical idioms, cannot escape the strong flavor of native Spanish traditions that so thoroughly characterize most of Rodrigo’s work.  The first movement is a dizzying showcase for the flautist’s technique—right from the opening; it’s a high wire act all the way through this frenetic scamper. Seemingly nonstop wild arpeggios and dashing scales in the flute—with the lightest of orchestral accompaniment—are a showpiece for the performer.  Leaping, pointed intervals and ambiguous harmonies dominate the opening section, but eventually yield to a rather bucolic evocation of a folk tune with a simple rustic rhythmic accompaniment.  The flute and various woodwinds “trade” the material back and forth.  Soon the solo French horn seems to sound a village coach horn call.  But, inevitably, the hyperactive madness returns, and careens to the abrupt end—interspersed with the simpler, rustic elements.

            The middle movement is another kettle of fish, entirely.   In his best lyrical voice—and reminiscent of his other concerto slow movements—Rodrigo crafts a meditative opportunity of rare beauty for the soloist.  Over shifting minor harmonies, the flute spins out a long, reflective lyrical line.   Various members of the woodwind section engage in a dialogue with the flute as the spacious movement takes its time to unfold.  Harmonies that suggest Rodrigo’s native Spain support plunging and soaring scales that seem right out of flamenco guitar style.   The middle, contrasting section is in a brisk, rather galloping tempo, and the “chugging” accompaniment again suggests rustic native dances.  Slowing down, the episode develops new, bucolic ideas—the title of the whole work really finds in origin in this movement, for it is nothing if not pastoral in mood.  An impressive cadenza ends this pleasant diversion into what surely is the Iberian countryside, capped off by a brief return of the opening ideas.

The Rondo last movement is a happy dance, and, as in all rondos, is fundamentally an alternation between a main idea and a parade of new and interesting, contrasting ones.   So, there’s a constant change in ideas, textures, colors, and moods as we go along.  Unlike the first movement, this last fast one is much less frenetic and more lyrical, despite its dancing along to an abrupt end.  Supremely difficult, yet with a charm and appeal that is familiar from Rodrigo’s other works, the Concierto pastoral reminds us that there’s far more to Rodrigo than the Concierto de Aranjuez.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan