26 August 2007

Manuel de Falla, Spanish music and El Cid

I have discovered the joys of quality headphones attached to my laptop. At the moment I am listening to Manuel de Falla's La vida breve. He's one of my favorite composers. Falla was greatly influenced by native Spanish music and his interpretation of these themes virtually created the image of "Spanish" music for all time. A few bars of his music and your mind automatically pictures Spain in a type of aural iconography. We instantly know what it is supposed to mean. The composers of movie scores would have almost nothing to work with if such iconography didn't exist. Carlos Saura made a great movie of Falla's El Amor Brujo* that probably could have been performed actors without sets or costumes and the music itself would have set the scene.

That is why Miklos Rozsa's music for "El Cid" is so brilliant. He took snatches of genuine medieval Spanish music, mostly from one source, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, jazzed them up with some Falla-esque touches, added a full symphonic orchestra, et voila. An "authentic," thoroughly "Spanish" score, or at least so our ears tell us without the need to think.

Although laughable today, "El Cid" the movie was arguably the best, and certainly the most intelligent of the great Hollywood epics of the 50s and 60s. As virtually all movies set in the Middle Ages (and most novels) do, it invents its own private Mediaevalia that has little to do with reality. Still, it is impressive. I think its success owed as much to Rozsa's music as to Charlton Heston's clenched teeth or Sophia Loren's - well, everything.

And after all, while professional medievalist might do a much more accurate job of reconstructing the late 11th century, we would not get it right either, and our version would be almost incomprehensible to the audience. So stick with the Hollywood version if only for the sake of the music.

* and if you like flamenca, you should see each of Saura's trilogy: "Blood Wedding," "Carmen," and "El Amor Brujo."

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