The above interview with Joaquín Rodrigo is from 1961, filmed for a French TV show called ‘Music for You’. The clip is in French with English subtitles.
Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) was a blind Spanish composer and pianist. You may not know his name however its very likely you have heard his music. Rodrigo’s composition Concierto de Aranjuez (pronounced Con-Cherto Duh Aran-Weth) is one of the most performed musical works of the 20th century. Since Rodrigo wrote this three movement work for guitar and orchestra in 1939 it has been performed by the world’s leading orchestra’s and by many artists outside of classical music, musicians from Jazz icon Miles Davis to Japanese Electronic Music Pioneer Isao Tomita to Led Zepplin Bassist John Paul Jones. Leonard Cohen ranks Concierto de Aranjuez number 5 on his list of all time favourite pieces of music. The work can be heard in numerous films such as Finding Forrester and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It has also been used in TVs Mad Men series. It is amongst of the biggest selling works for sheet music sales, its transcription for clarinet alone has sold over 1.5 million copies, it also appeals to performers outside of music, in 2003 the world champion ice-skater Michelle Kwan won her World Championship title with a routine set to Concierto de Aranjuez.
Joaquín Rodrigo was not born blind, at the age of three he caught diphtheria which cost him his sight. However being blind didn’t seem to interfere with his mission as a composer. During his lifetime Rodrigo rose to the very top of his field. Rodrigo said later in life, without bitterness: ‘this personal tragedy probably led me towards a career in music.’
In his late twenties Rodrigo met a Turkish pianist of Sephardic origin named Victoria Kamhi, they married in 1933.
Rodrigo used a Braille Machine to write his music down, he would then use his Braille notes as reference while he verbally laid out each note of his compositions to a music copyist. This was a long process, taking much longer than the composing itself. After the copyist had transcribed Rodrigo’s braille notes into traditional musical notation Victoria would perform the work for Rodrigo allowing him to listen and to make changes if needed.
Concierto de Aranjuez was written for the Spanish guitarist Regino de la Maza. Regino de la Maza was a well known Spanish guitarist and one of the early exponents of the guitar as a classical instrument. This was an era when the guitar was not generally accepted by the classical music world, it was considered a folk instrument, not loud enough, not respectful enough to be included in the ‘legitimate’ list of classical music instruments. Rodrigo recounts how Concierto de Aranjuez was initiated:
In September of 1938, I was in San Sebastián on my return to France. It was during a dinner organized by the Marqués de Bolarque with Regino Sainz de la Maza and myself. We ate well and the wine was not bad at all; it was the right moment for audacious fantasizing. All of a sudden, Regino, in that tone between unpredictable and determined which was so characteristic of him, said:
“Listen, you have to come back with a ‘Concerto for guitar and orchestra’- and to go straight to my heart, he added in a pathetic voice: -it’s the dream of my life- and, resorting to a bit of flattery, he continued: This is your calling, as if you were ‘the chosen one’ “. I quickly swallowed two glasses of the best Rioja, and exclaimed in a most convincing tone: “All right, it’s a deal!”
Concierto de Aranjuez is comprised of three sections or movements, Allegro con spirito, Adagio and Allegro gentile. It is the Adagio or second movement which has become so popular. This movement is a slow, deep melancholy piece which draws the listener into the beauty of deep sorrow. The guitar plays along with the orchestra and the woodwind instrument the Cor Anglais performs some of the pieces most haunting melodies.
Below you can hear the the Adagio movement of Concierto de Aranjuez performed by Regino de la Maza and the Orquesta Nacional de España in 1948, the first recording of the piece, its the closest we have of the work from the era in which it was written.
The background of this work is extraordinary, in 1939 when this work was written Europe was about to plunge into WWII, Rodrigo’s own country Spain was just entering into Franco’s dictatorship after years of bloody civil war. The world was a bleak place, but for Rodrigo, a struggling composer things were even harder. The young couple was living in a small studio in Paris, money was very short and Victoria had a dangerous pregnancy which resulted in a miscarriage. Here are Rodrigo’s own words about the inspiration for the work:
I don’t know why but everything related to Concierto de Aranjuez has stayed in my memory, standing in my small studio on Rue Saint Jacques in the heart of the Latin Quarter, vaguely thinking about the concerto, which had become a fond idea given how difficult I judged it to be, when I heard a voice inside me singing the entire theme of the Adagio at one go, without hesitation. And immediately afterwards, without a break, the theme of the third movement. I realized quickly that the work was done. Our intuition does not deceive us in these things, it does not make mistakes. My wife Victoria, my faithful companion and collaborator, gave me the inspiration, strength and faith in myself and immense love. She dedicated her life to mine. She lit up my eyes.
Concierto de Aranjuez made its debut in Spain in 1940, slowly it began to get noticed outside of Spain, within a few years Rodrigo was an established figure in European classical music.
During the 1950s Concierto de Aranjuez was performed by orchestras around the world, this piece helped lift the guitar to its position of legitimacy in the world of classical music, oddly Rodrigo himself did not play the guitar but was able to compose for it capturing the instruments Spanish spirit. Rodrigo became a major composer on the global stage, composing all sorts of pieces, not only for the guitar but for harp, piano and multiple other instruments.
Concierto de Aranjuez began to attract interest beyond the sphere of classical music in the early 1960s when Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, while on tour in Europe, picked up an LP of Concierto de Aranjuez, he passed it on to producer Gil Evans who transcribed by ear the Adagio movement for Davis’s Sketches of Spain album.
Released in 1961 Sketches of Spain won grammy’s for Evans and Davis and today is considered a major work in the modern Jazz oeuvre. Listen below.
A lesser known interpretation of the the work, is an electronic version from Japan’s Isao Tomita. Listen below.
The American Singer Al Jarreau wrote lyrics to the tune for an album called This Time in 1980, the tune is clearly recognisable but its a far cry from Rodrigo’s original orchestral design. Listen below.
In Europe the tune has been turned into pop music as well, one of the first was done in 1967 by French pop singer Richard Antony he called his version Mon Amour. Listen below.
Other orchestral versions have also been done, some drop the guitar from the work and replace it with another instrument as with this one from Andre Rieu which used Church bells in place of the guitar. Listen below.
This list could go on forever… this final example was performed in 1990 by the late-great Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucia (1947-2014). Joaquín Rodrigo said ‘Paco plays it with a great deal of feeling, far more than is normally heard’. Listen below to the Adagio or click here to see all three movements performed by Paco de Lucia and the Orquestra de Cadaqués.
In 2009 Harmonia Mundi wrote that Concierto de Aranjuez was the most performed work in the classical repertoire, an impressive achievement for any composition let alone for one written on a braille machine.
It would be especially bitter, especially sad for those who, like me, have dedicated their lives to create, to think that everything ends with death.
When I write, when I write music, I feel that everything is fine, as the soul must remain. With creation, we act on immortality, we contribute.
In heaven, we will all be transformed into sound.
If you’d like to read more about Joaquín Rodrigo I recommend reading the book by his wife Victoria Kamhi, Hand in Hand with Joaquín Rodrigo, if you would like to obtain any of his sheet music the best place to go is Joaquín Rodrigo’s official website.
Photographs & Joaquín Rodrigo’s quotes courtesy of the Victoria and Joaquín Rodrigo Foundation. A special thank you to Ms. Cecilia Rodrigo for her help with this essay.