Conference Paper

Tenebrism: Manuel de Falla, and the Guitar of the Noche Oscura

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Abstract

Manuel de Falla’s only piece for guitar, the Homenaje pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920), is well known for its impressionist character. However, its uniqueness lies in a bifold inspiration, springing from both Falla’s admiration for Debussy’s music—especially those works exoticizing Spain—and his interest in the Andalusian cante jondo. I argue that, with the Homenaje, Falla unknowingly introduced a new and ground-breaking stream into the modern guitar repertoire, by establishing an innovative poetic antithetical to the dominant nineteenth-century idea of the guitar as a merely entertaining and lyrical instrument. In Falla’s view, the guitar has duende, emanating from the wood, the vibration, the halo of resonance, the timbric palette, and it is intrinsically an instrument “of the night,” evoking a dark and magical world. Astonishingly, when such composers as Britten, Petrassi, Ohana, or Martin decided to write for guitar, they all—independently—approached the instrument from this point of view, envisioning a guitar of the noche oscura (e.g.Petrassi’s Suoni Notturni, Britten’s Nocturnal). I maintain that such new poetic, which the composer Angelo Gilardino has recently labelled tenebrism, has consequently generated a tenebrist line in the history of the guitar repertoire. For too long, despite its “popularity,” the guitar has been relegated to second-rate status in twentieth-century music discourse, especially due to many performers’ biases toward an exoticizing late-Romantic aesthetic. I argue that is time to acknowledge the existence and importance of tenebrism, as the most relevant and original contribution of the guitar to the music repertoire of the twentieth century.

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