By Ray Schultz
On Thursday, my wife Andrea and I had one of those rare experiences at Carnegie Hall: A piano recital by the young Spanish pianist Jose Menor. The concert was devoted to Enrique Grenados’ Goyescas, a suite of piano pieces inspired by Goya’s sketches of everyday life in Spain. And in transporting the audience on this hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death, Menor showed that he may be a worthy replacement for the late Alicia de Larrocha as the leading interpreter of Grenados in our time.
But my purpose here isn’t to write a piece of musical criticism. It’s to tell you a very personal story.
The time was Labor Day Weekend in 2001. Idly browsing in Barnes & Noble, we bought a Pablo Cassals CD titled Legendary Casals Performances, Early Recordings 1925-1928. It featured pieces by Chopin, Saint-Saens, Popper, Bach and Debussy, all played in that rich, warm, golden tone that only Cassals achieved on the cello, with piano accompaniment.
We played it once or twice, then forgot about it. Who had the time? A week later, planes flew into the World Trade Center, and the buildings came crashing down. Notwithstanding that a neighbor was killed in the event (Glenn Winuk, a lawyer and volunteer fireman who tried to save others and had, in fact, done the same thing during the 1993 Trade Center attack), we were a mile or two away, and could make no claim of suffering. But we were depressed and anxious, as were most people in New York (and, we suspect, the rest of the country).
Drawn back to dead European men, as they say, we returned to the Cassals CD. And the seventh piece on the CD reduced both of us: On the CD cover, it was titled, simply, Spanish Dance, although it’s really Spanish Dance No. 5. Written by Granados, the selection starts in a minor key. Then, switching from cello to piano, it ascends to a sixth major chord, and then up to the seventh, before eventually returning to the minor.
Neither of us is well-educated in music. But when the piece swooped upwards and hit those major chords, we felt that life, however fragile, would go on for a time, and that we had to enjoy these moments. I often think of that epiphany when spreading cream cheese on a bagel on Sunday morning.
Yeah, I know, a cynic shouldn’t indulge in this kind of sappiness. But we tend to forget what it was like in the aftermath of 9/11. Wusses that we are, we got emotional over very little. And Grenados helped bring us around. Maybe it was the tinny sound of the almost 80 year-old Cassals recording. How could you not think of your grandparents and the world they lived in?
The months passed. And as we returned to shopping (as commanded by our president), we decided to delve into Enrique Grenados. We learned that he was born in 1867 in Spain, and was a piano virtuoso and a varied composer, bringing a touch of modernism to his particular Spanish music.
Born in 1923, the renowned pianist Alicia de Larrocha grew up hearing about him, although she didn’t play the “real Grenados” until after the Spanish Revolution. “He was a very sensitive, very romantic man, with big eyes and…well, you know that kind of man in that period of history,” she said in an interview with David Dubal for his classic book Reflections from the Keyboard. “Very romantic, very sensitive, and poetic—yes, and a very good-looking man. Very good-looking. Beautiful eyes. So he had many, many romances and many, many women fell in love with him. And, I wouldn’t say my mother was really in love with him, but she had some admiration and something for him that was very strong.”
Dubal asked de Larrocha to compare playing Goyescas and Issac Albeniz’s Iberia.
“They are so different,” she answered. “Goyescas is very difficult but it requires a different technique. You have to adapt your technique for Goyescas and forget Goyescas when you go to Iberia. But in a way, perhaps Goyescas is more pianistic. Grenados was a great, great pianist and it was easy for him to play. Albeniz, at the time he was writing Iberia, was not playing, so it was more intellectual.”
Thus inspired, we bought several more Grenados CDs, most by de Larrocha, went to concerts, and achieved at least a passing understanding of Grenados’ catalogue. And we mourned de Larrocha’a passing in 2009.
But we learned something very strange about a year after 9/11. And there’s no way to make sense of it. It was that Enrique Grenados died in 1916 when a ferry boat he was on in the English Channel was torpedoed by a German U boat. He drowned trying to save his wife.
How very strange that Grenados perished in a military attack on civilians, an act of terrorism by a state, if you will. And here we were, cluelessly using him to comfort us after a terrorist attack in New York.
What does this coincidence mean? Most likely, as R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural says to Flakey Foont, it “don’t mean sheeitt.” But it has strengthened what will be a lifetime devotion to Enrique Grenados.
And we wonder: Did Grenados have any kind of premonition when he wrote those chords in Spanish Dance No. 5 in 1890? What would have he have made of the Spanish Civil War, which he could have well lived to see? We’ll never know. But Spanish Dance No. 5, and the rest of Grenados’ body of work, has sustained us through good and bad times ever since. Is it any mystery that we feel what can only be described as gratitude?
Note: The particular recording we cherish doesn’t seem to be available on YouTube. But here’s a 1916 version by Cassals—and an identical arrangement.