España is a colorful and energetic rhapsody on traditional Spanish music, composed in 1883 by the French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. Chabrier, who lived from 1841 to 1894, was encouraged by his family to be a lawyer, and in fact worked for 18 years in the Ministry of the Interior. His primary devotion, however, was always to music; he composed two operettas and many other minor works while in his post. Eventually in 1880, he quit his job to devote his full attention to music composition. Geoff Kuenning described him as "a quintessential Frenchman, obsessed by all things sensual." He loved Impressionist art, and delighted in the Romantic exoticism that inspired much of the music of his era. This trend of exoticism idealized the unfamiliar, seeking to induce the atmosphere of far-off lands through rhythm and melody, a technique that Chabrier would use to create his masterpiece. Possesing a jovial disposition and a love of the theater, he wrote many comic operas that brought him some minor celebrity. It was España however which brought him lasting renown.
Chabrier and his wife toured Spain for 5 months in 1882, from July to November, enthusiastically exploring the central and southern regions of the country. Chabrier was fascinated and inspired by everything he saw and heard there, taking careful notes of traditional Spanish melodies and rhythms from each locality. He wrote a multitude of letters to friends recording his impressions during his travels. These letters detail his studies of regional styles and dance forms, and provide extensive notated examples. Besides being intoxicated with Spanish music, Chabrier was also enraptured with Spanish women. He write in one letter, "Since coming to Andalusia I haven't seen a really ugly woman... I won;t let on what these women display, but they display it beautifully." In another, he comments on the dancers which commonly accompanied musical performances in cafes. "If you could see them wiggle, unjoin their hips, contort, I believe you would not want to get away! At Malaga I was compelled to take my wife away..." This sensuality would become a key element of España, in which Chabrier combined the Spanish music he heard with his own French compositional style. Upon his return to Paris, he vowed to friend and conductor Charles Lamoureux that he would write a Spanish-themed piece that "will arouse the whole orchestra to a feverish pitch of excitement; and you too will feel obliged to hold [your assistant] in your arms, so voluptuous will be my melodies."
Though the piece was originally written as a piano duet, Chabrier developed it into a full orchestral work between January and August of 1883. Having changed the name from Jota to España, the piece was first performed on November 4th 18833, at the Théâtre du Château d'Eau for the Société des Nouveaux Concerts in Paris. Conducted by Lamoureux, to whom it was also dedicated, the first performance was a huge success, propelling Chabrier to stardom and establishing him as a serious composer. España was well received not only by the public, but also by critics and other composers. De Falla praised it for its authenticity, while Ravel's claim that "all of contemporary French music stems from [Chabrier's] work" is echoed by Mahler's statement that España was "the start of modern music." In response to such praise, Chabrier humbly characterized the work as "a piece in F and nothing more."
The piece inspired many other French composers to produce Spanish-styled music, including Debussy and Ravel. Stravinsky is thought to have borrowed from the central trombone theme in his 1911 work, Petrushka. The main melody was even borrowed for a 1950's American pop song called Hot-Diggity. Though Chabrier's work is not as universally revered in Spain as in other countries, "for the outsider, it remains a perfect description of 19th-century Spain, as captivating as the subtle pastels of the Impressionists who shared Chabrier's perspective on the world." (Kuenning).
España is a single movement written in sonata form, in the style of Spanish dances. The triple meter (3/8) time signature provides a springboard for Chabrier's rich use of hemiola, a form of syncopation in which an abnormal pattern of rhythm or articulation is applied to the written notes. In this case, a duple pattern is superimposed upon the triple time of the piece, resulting in a polyrhythm known as "2 against 3". This rhythm provides the suggestion of a strummed guitar, like those played by the musicians Chabrier saw in the cafes of Spain. The tempo is marked Allegro con fuoco, meaning quick and animated. The work is inspired especially by three forms of Spanish music and dance, the zarzuela, thejota and the malagueña. The zaruela is a genre of Spanish theater that utilized popular songs and dances. The jota is a song and dance form in triple meter known throughout Spain, and is distinguished by complex rhythms performed with heels and castanets. One of the traditional styles of flamenco, the malagueña is known for rich melodies embellished with lively flourishes.
After a short introduction, the exposition opens with the main theme on muted trumpets and bassoons representing the turbulent jota. The motive is repeated by solo horns, and then the full orchestra. By means of repeating hemiolas, this theme seems to be constantly changing from triple to duple meter, providing a captivating and unexpected combination of rhythm and melody that immediately draws in the listener. This is followed by a short, heady phrase played by the horns which I have termed "main theme B" because it will be combined with the main theme in the recapitulation. Following a brief jaunty bridge, the second theme contrasts the the first with a flowing, lyrical malaguena motive, which builds to conjure up resplendent visions of knights and noble conquests.
The short but stirring development begins by bringing down the dynamics and frenetic rhythm for a calming effect. A new motive is introduced by the trombones, punctuated by the main theme; a combination that produces a dreamy feel, and a welcome respite from the previous excitement. The recapitulation which follows continues this trend for a while, starting out with the strings playing a soft and sweet version of the main theme. This time, however, the motive is overlaid with main theme B played by the horns, at last fulfilling the full rich texture which was only hinted at in the exposition. A shorter bridge leads to a more developed 2nd theme, extended from its original bounds. The coda brings back the trombone theme and the main jota motive, which builds in a crescendo to the invigorating and joyous conclusion. Though the piece is short, with only a few themes and little development, its remarkable energy, captivating rhythms and rich orchestration serve to make España an important and well-loved classic.