Hiraeth: a new solo guitar work to celebrate 100 years since Manuel de Falla's Homenaje a Debussy

Professor Ken Murray performs Hiraeth by Stephen Goss the Ian Potter Southbank Centre. Image supplied.
Professor Ken Murray performs Hiraeth by Stephen Goss the Ian Potter Southbank Centre. Image supplied.

A century to the day since Spanish composer Manuel de Falla's iconic Homenaje a Debussy enjoyed its first major performance, Ken Murray performs a new companion piece composed by guitarist Stephen Goss.

By Associate Professor Ken Murray, Head of Guitar at the University of Melbourne

Like so many events in 2020, the Melbourne Conservatorium's in-person Guitar Perspectives Winter Celebration was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the event – by necessity – moving completely online. One of the main themes of the concerts and accompanying musicology conference was to be marking the 100th anniversary of the composition of Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje a Debussy, one of the most significant guitar works of the first half of the 20th century.

Head of Guitar Ken Murray. By Giulia McGauran.

The conference was to be be led by the Conservatorium's Associate Professor Michael Christoforidis, a world leader in scholarship on Manuel de Falla. Renowned Welsh composer, guitarist and academic Stephen Goss was invited to give a conference keynote and to write a new work for solo guitar to be played as a companion piece to Falla’s Homenaje.

Here, finally, is the first performance of Stephen Goss’ Hiraeth, which segues into Falla’s Homenaje. The release of the recording is timed to mark the centenary of dedicatee Miguel Llobet’s first major performance of the piece in Madrid on 8 March 1921. To give some background and context for the piece, Michael Christoforidis and Stephen Goss kindly agreed to answer my questions about Falla’s piece and the new piece, Hiraeth.

Associate Professor Michael Christoforidis, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music

What are some of the reasons Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje a Debussy (1920) is such an influential piece?

I think that there is a confluence of a few factors. It was a radically new (and arguably modernist) work for the Spanish guitar, just on the cusp of the international proliferation of the instrument between the two world wars via performers such as Llobet, Segovia and a host of others.

This inter-war period also coincided with Falla’s greatest international acclaim as both a cosmopolitan nationalist and a modernist – a time when he was often compared to Stravinsky and Bartók. The Homenaje served to encourage many Spanish and non-Spanish composers (particularly those aligned with Parisian modernist trends) to compose for the instrument.

Manuel de Falla in1919. Wikimedia Commons.

In what respects is the piece distinctly Spanish?

While it does pay homage to Debussy and aspects of his musical language (and even quotes from the “La Soirée dans Grenade”), the work is distinctly Spanish in the way it is conceived (in quite a radical way) around the guitar [another reason for its popularity among guitarists] and its harmonic possibilities. This was not an accident, as Falla had been fascinated by the instrument over the previous two decades and could probably play it in a very rudimentary fashion.

Michael Christoforidis. By Giulia McGauran.

Just before composing the Homenaje, Falla had completed work on his most extensive piano work, the Fantasia Baetica, a work that draws extensively on his study of flamenco and flamenco guitar scores. There are very distinct echoes of flamenco and its guitar manifestations in the Homenaje as well, ranging from harmonic progressions and chord spacings, to specific guitar techniques and figurations, and even aspects of the way in which the work is structured.

How do we account for the many, varying interpretations of the piece?

I think that the most obvious reason for the variety of tempos associated with the guitar interpretations is that it was published in the early guitar editions with the subtitle “Le Tombeau de Debussy” (which denoted the collection of pieces it was drawn from and not the title given by the composer, which was simply Homenaje or Homenaje a Debussy). This has made some guitarists feel that it is something akin to a funerary dirge rather than a nostalgic habanera – and given them licence to take the piece at a much slower tempo than the one indicated by the composer (crotchet = 60).

Also, I think that many of the early guitarists who performed the piece were much more attuned to a Romantic (or even an impressionist) sensibility and style of performance, that does not fully align with Falla’s more modern conception of the work. These performers also tended to seek more colouristic effects rather than the austerity of tone and use of open strings that typified flamenco performers (and had formed part of the conception of Falla’s work).

Professor Stephen Goss, University of Surrey, UK

Why is the Homenaje for guitar is such a significant piece in the guitar repertoire?

Homenaje is the first piece written for the guitar by a non-guitarist composer that really engages with the idiom. Falla uses the instrument and its culture to generate his musical material: the Phrygian relationship between F and E, the harmonic underpinning from the two lowest open strings, E and A. But Homenaje’s longer term significance is, to a large extent, accidental. It’s a tiny piece, yet it's an Atlas bearing the entire weight of the modern repertoire on its shoulders. Later repertoire by non-guitarists didn’t interrogate the guitar’s unique idiom in such a forensic way.

Banner image: Stephen Goss. Photo by Luca Sage.

Falla’s collaboration with guitarist Miguel Llobet focussed on body-instrument interaction, treating the guitar as a creative prosthesis at the intersection of technique and technology. Segovia’s collaborations, by contrast, were more concerned with translating abstract compositional ideas so that they might be effective for the guitar after some intermediary work. Consequently, the Segovia composers often wrote at one remove from the idiom. Falla’s Homenaje focusses on what the guitar does best: working with its history and folkloric roots, rather than against them; celebrating its idiosyncratic open strings, rather than apologising for them.

Very few (if any) composers of Falla’s standing and reputation wrote for the guitar in the first half of the 20th century. And Falla wrote just this one, three-minute miniature. Its rarity, its quality, its clarity, and its concision all contribute to its significance.

The downside of this importance is a misplaced profundity that has led many performers to play the piece far slower than the metronome mark suggests, and with a rubato that undermines the rhythmic integrity of the habanera and the distinct characters of the varied musical gestures.

What were the key musical and extra-musical ideas that influenced the writing of Hiraeth?

Hiraeth is a Welsh word suggesting a deep longing for home; a home that is no longer or perhaps never was. A yearning and grief for people and things long gone. The recent writings of  Eco (2002), Boym (2002), Hatherley (2017), Riley (2009), Bauman (2017) and others, point to an epidemic of nostalgia in many aspects of today’s culture and society – a yearning for a "return" to a comfortable Arcadian retrotopia. In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym posits two polarities of nostalgia – reflective nostalgia and restorative nostalgia. Hiraeth is about a reflective, internalised, and personal nostalgia. I present this as an antidote to the far more destructive restorative, external, and societal nostalgia represented by national and nationalist revivals all over the world.

Hiraeth explores nostalgia and melancholy as topics. I imagine Falla's yearning for an ideal Granada, while spending his final years in self-imposed exile in Argentina. This is depicted by a recurring sighing figure in the music, a slow glissando from F to E. Hiraeth also includes some Arcadian diatonic harp-like material that alludes to the Robert ap Huw Manuscript – a 14th century Welsh collection of bardic harp music.

How do the musical quotations from Falla and Debussy in Hiraeth relate to the Homenaje?

Hiraeth contains both direct quotes and allusions. Some features of the Homenaje are amplified or put under the microscope for closer consideration. The semi-tone F to E sigh figure becomes a trope that underpins Hiraeth. The 6th string is tuned to F for most of the piece, finally resolving to E in a retuning gesture that becomes the focal point of the piece. The semi-tone figure also suggested the quotes from the Romance del Piscador (from Falla’s El Amor Brujo), presenting the figure in a contrasting harmonic context.

Llobet transcribed this piece for guitar in a version approved by Falla, so it seemed apt to include it. Homenaje quotes from Debussy’s Soirée dans Grenade (from Estampes) in its closing section – in Hiraeth, I quote the opening of Debussy’s piece, blending it with material from Falla’s Homenaje in a tonally ambiguous phantasmagoria that prepares the ear for the complete quotation of Homenaje which concludes Hiraeth.