Love – what a strange sensation! What a delightful mystery! What a dangerous endeavor! What a perfect subject for an Andalusian ballet. Between 1914 and 1915, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla wrote “El Amor Brujo” (Love, The Magician). A short piece, barely lasting an hour, originally scored for a mezzo-soprano voice, actors and a chamber orchestra.
Here is the story: The gypsy girl Candela is in love with Carmelo, but as a child she had been promised to another man. After her husband’s death, she is free to date Carmelo, but at night, she is haunted by the ghost of her husband. The ghost forces her to dance with her as a sign of their eternal bond. A nightmare! But it gets even worse. Through village gossip, Candela finds out that her deceased husband had betrayed her with another woman, Lucia.
Candela and Carmelo seek help, and Candela is advised to dance the “Ritual Dance of the Fire” with the ghost to break the spell. Since that does not help, Candela lures Lucia to her house at night under the pretext to introduce her to Carmelo. She dances the macabre dance with the ghost and when the latter is ready to leave, she pushes Lucia into the ghost’s arms, who takes her away. Isn’t that fabulous?
Pulsating rhythms with a Moorish touch
The story is one thing, but you have to listen to de Falla’s music. Take the first song “Cancion del Amor Dolido” (Song of the suffering love) – pulsating rhythms, suffering, a tragic fate! It’s all there in this Andalusian cante jondo, the “deep song” from the family of flamenco music. And then, the “Danza del Terror”: I imagine that ghost sliding into Candela’s bedroom with a cruel grin on its face, summoning the terrified woman to dance. “El Circolo Magico” gives the listener a little relief together with the very short “Media Noche” (Midnight) until the “Danza Rituerl del Fuego” sets in, taking up the theme and the rhythm of the preceding “Dance of Fear”. The clarinet adds an Moorish touch.
A famous flamenco dancer, Pastora Imperio, had commissioned “El Amor Brujo”, however it did not convince the audience at the premiere. In 1916, de Falla wrote a shorter version for a larger orchestra, some 30 minutes long: He removed the dialogue and reduced the vocal part to three short songs only. I came across a very nice recording by London’s Philharmonia and Victoria de Los Angeles. Much later, in 1924, de Falla transformed the piece into a one-act pantomime ballet, the version that is best known today.
“Distinct Andalusian essence”
In 1994 the Victor Ullate Ballet presented a new production with de Falla’s ballet music (promotional video clip here), and here is how the work is characterized by the ensemble: “With a distinct Andalusian essence, the piece explores the gypsy mystique and approaches love in its most primary and essential form… The choreography contains fragments of astounding beauty, such as the ‘Cancion del Amor Dolido’, the ‘Romance del Pescador’ (Fisherman’s Romance) and the ‘Cancion del Fuego Fatuo’ (Song of Wildfire). It should also be mentioned that this version includes three popular songs written by Manuel de Falla: “Nana”, “Polo” and “Asturiana”, as well as an adaptation by Paco de Lucia for “José, the Eternal Lover”.
Manuel de Falla was born in Argentina in 1876 and studied the piano at the Madrid Conservatory. He first tried to establish himself as a writer of zarzuelas*, but failed with his productions. Between 1901 and 1904 he took composition lessons from his friend Felipe Pedrell, who “was working his way towards a specifically Spanish style based on folk music. Pedrell introduced de Falla to polyphonic music. De Falla wrote a short opera “La Vida Breve” (The Short Life), which was warmly received in France and in Spain.
Through his friendship with Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel he caught up with musical developments in Paris and married French Impressionism with a Spanish imitation of Moorish music in his Piano Concerto “Nights in the Gardens of Spain”, written shortly before “El Amor Brujo”.
© Charles Thibo