The music of Catalonian-Spanish composer Frederic Mompou (1893–1987) is radically simple, spare, mystical, and utterly unclassifiable as to style—all this in a century that favored intellectual feats on the part of composers who classified themselves into schools and "isms." The work he regarded as a summation of his life's efforts was given the quizzical title Música callada —(music that has fallen silent).
Family Background Included Bell Maker
Mompou's full name was Frederic Mompou i Dencausse. He was born on April 16, 1893, in Barcelona, Spain. Barcelona is in Spain's Catalonia region, a culturally distinctive area with its own language, Catalan (a blend of Spanish and an old southern French dialect), and a range of indigenous folk music traditions that differ from those heard elsewhere in Spain. Music critic Wilfrid Mellers suggested that Mompou was influenced by these regional traditions. He wrote in the study Le Jardin retrouvé: The Music of Frederic Mompou, "Even today, when we listen to or play one of the piano pieces he calls Cançó i dansa [Song and Dance] we should remember that they are not mere parlor pieces but recollections of activity that is also ritual." Mompou used both the Catalan (Frederic) and Spanish (Federico) forms of his first name. His last name is generally pronounced as in French (mom-POOH), but Mompou told an interviewer that in Catalonia it would properly be pronounced mom-POH-oo, with all the vowels sounding.
Another major influence on Mompou's creation of his magically simple sound was bells. His maternal grandfather was a member of a French bell-making family that had been in the profession since the 1400s; he had come to Barcelona to set up a bell factory. Mompou himself spent time at the factory, worked there briefly, and learned to tune his ear to the subtle sounds of bells. A unique harmony in his music, known as the metallic chord, was derived from the sound of ringing bells.
Mompou was close to his parents, and they encouraged his interest in music. Friends and extended family often came to the Mompou home to sing and dance, and Mompou was given lessons after he showed talent on the piano. He attended the Conservatorio del Liceo music school in Barcelona and made rapid progress, giving his first concert at age 15. But the severely shy Mompou never really enjoyed performing. He quickly changed direction after hearing pianist Marguerite Long, with the great French composer Gabriel Fauré in attendance, play a concert of Fauré's music the following year. The concert was, he told Dorle J. Soria of Musical America, his first encounter "with contemporary music of my time and it gave me a great desire to compose." His first published work was a set of piano pieces called Impresiones intimas (Intimate Impressions), written between 1911 and 1914. "It already had his personality," Mompou's wife, Carmen, told Soria, and music historians have agreed, finding the characteristic simple, almost naive quality of Mompou's adult music already present in the early Impresiones intimas.
Like most of the other young Spanish composers of his day, Mompou decided to study music in Paris, where French composers had written nationalistic Spanish music before Spanish composers themselves began to do so. He arrived at the Paris Conservatory in 1911 with a letter of recommendation written by the leading Spanish composer Enrique Granados, but, typically, was too shy to show it to the admissions committee. Nevertheless, his music stood on its own merits, and he studied piano and harmony at the Conservatory for two years. Remaining in Paris until 1914, he returned home when World War I broke out and became involved in a Catalonian arts movement called Noucentisme, which rejected the confrontational spirit of the avant-garde and emphasized a return to classical values of balance.
Influenced by French Composers
Mompou had the knack of absorbing influences from various composers while writing music that was quite dissimilar to theirs. Despite his shyness he interacted with other musicians and became acquainted with the leading edge of French music of the early twentieth century. He admired the iconic composers of Paris during the years of World War I, and took something from each of them. Like Claude Debussy, he eschewed any strong sense of directional motion in music, preferring to paint musical colors on an almost static background. Like Maurice Ravel, he was fascinated by the world of childhood and the musical creativity that seemed to reside near its surface; he had a gift for melodies that seemed unassuming, but haunted listeners, who responded to his unique language. From the unconventional, ironic Erik Satie he inherited a belief that radical simplicity had its place, and he showed the same tendency to go his own way rather than follow the prevailing musical fashion. The harmonic stasis of Mompou's music was matched by an absence of strong rhythmic drive; he frequently wrote his music without bar lines separating one rhythmic unit from another.
Stimulated by the Parisian scene, Mompou returned to Paris in 1921 and remained there for 20 years. The period from World War I through about 1930 was Mompou's most productive, and he published such piano works as Suburbis (Suburbs, 1917), Scènes d'enfants (Scenes of Children,1918), the Cants mágics (Magic Songs, 1919), and the first four of his Cançós i dansas (Songs and Dances, 1928), along with the beginnings of a small but influential group of French-language songs. His Comptines of 1931 were songs based on children's number rhymes. Mompou's lifetime output was slender, amounting to about 200 mostly short pieces collected into a few dozen sets. In the highly competitive and polemical Paris atmosphere, Mompou rarely gave concerts, although he liked to perform for small groups of artists and writers. He lived alone and stayed out of the headlines. Yet a select group of observers were captivated by his music. Critic Emile Vuillermoz wrote of Mompou, in a famous newspaper article quoted by Soria, that "in the Middle Ages the people would have condemned to the stake an artist gifted with such powers." The argument was an apt one, for Mompou aimed not just at simplicity but at what he called a recommencement, a new beginning that would put music back in touch with its aboriginal power. Mompou was a friend to the French composers Francis Poulenc and Georges Auric, but declined to join the composers' collective Les Six (The Six), of which they were members.
The 1930s were a melancholic period for Mompou and he stopped composing almost completely between about 1931 and 1937. He reemerged in 1937 with a piano work called Souvenirs d'exposition (Souvenirs of the Fair) and began working on another piece, Variations on a theme of Chopin, that would occupy him for many years. In 1941 Mompou fled the war in France and returned to Barcelona. While judging a piano competition there he was impressed by the performance of a young woman named Carmen Bravo, 30 years his junior. Several years later they married, each for the first time. Mompou joined with a group called the Independent Catalan Composers Movement and reconnected with his musical roots, while still maintaining contact with friends in France.
With these stimuli working in his favor, Mompou began to compose again, continuing to work until he was slowed by a stroke at age 87. In the post-World War II era, dominated by the complex serialist or 12-tone system and its harsh dissonances, Mompou was completely out of fashion—and completely unconcerned. "I am in revolt against the excessive cerebration of our age," he was quoted as saying by Soria. "Music must cease to be a laboratory product and acquire the lyrical and evocative qualities which spring from personal experience and meditation."
Wrote Vocal Works
Mompou branched out beyond piano music after World War II, writing a number of Catalonian-language songs and pairing them with texts by poet Josep Janées i Olive. These included the widely recorded Suite compostelana (Compostela Suite) for guitar (1962), and various works for chorus, including the Cantar del alma (Song of the Soul) to a text by the Spanish mystic and ascetic, St. John of the Cross (1542–1591). Mompou was fascinated by St. John of the Cross and borrowed a phrase from one of his writings for the title of the major work of his later years, Música callada.
The 28 pieces in Música callada (four albums, 1959–67), never move faster than a moderate tempo; in free rhythms, they are unassuming yet strangely powerful. This music, Mompou was quoted as saying by Isabelle Leymarie in the UNESCO Courier, "is heard internally. Its emotion is secret, and becomes sound only by reverberating in the coldness of our solitude." The work, completed in 1967, was premiered in 1972 by Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, to whom it was dedicated. A host of recordings of the work appeared in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Mompou wrote an oratorio—an unstaged dramatic work—called Los improperios (The Ungrateful Ones) in 1963; although it was his only work to feature a full symphony orchestra, it showed no lack of skill in handling that medium. The text of the work dealt with the Good Friday speech of the crucified Christ rebuking the crowd for its ingratitude, and Mompou set it in a spare style comparable to that of his piano music. Well into his ninth decade Mompou wrote more choral music and a work for cello and piano, El pont. Admirers of Mompou expanded the collection of his works by arranging some of his piano music into two ballets, The House of Birds and Don Perlimpin. Mompou died at age 94 on June 30, 1987, and his popularity only increased following his death.
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