Monday, 9 April 2012

Memories Of The Alhambra

The second in a series looking at some of my favourite music and showing how they represent a hybridization of different cultures resulting in a thing of great beauty.

Here I look at a wonderful piece of classical Spanish music written in 1896 for the guitar by Francisco Tárrega called Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of the Alhambra). This, more than any other piece of music, is the one I want played at the celebration of my life after it has ended and my body have been suitably recycled.

This music was inspired by the Moorish Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. If you have never been there, go. It is one of the world's most beautiful and tranquil places, spoiled only slightly by a lumpen and ugly Christian building plonked triumphantly in the middle of the gardens by the conquering Catholic King Carlos V as a act of pure vandalism.

The Alhambra had been built in the 14th century by the Moorish rulers of the Emirate of Grenada in al-Andalus, as the Arabs called Andalucia. It is situated on a hill overlooking the city of Grenada in the foothills of the Sierra Blanca. It represents a high-point in Islamic architecture and abstract decoration which had come from North Africa with the Arab invaders some 700 years earlier.

So, Islamic traditions from Arabia, modified by passage across North Africa and fusion with Berber traditions from the Atlas Mountains, had come into Andalucia where it mingled with local styles, culminating in the beauty of the Alhambra.

Now enter the Guitar. The history and evolution of the classical guitar is unclear but historians believe it has several ancestors. The first mention is that of a Spanish writer, Juan Ruiz in a poem entitled El Libro de Buen Amor (The Book of Good Love) in which he mentions a guitarra latina (Spanish guitar) and a guitarra morisca (Moor's guitar). Some think the word 'guitar' is from the Andalucian Arabic gitara which is probably from Latin cithara which may itself be from old Persian tar (string). So, by whatever route and whatever its ancestry, the guitar was in use in Spain by at least the 13th century.

So we have Arabic/Islamic/Andalucian architecture as the inspiration; the multi-parented guitar as the instrument. All we need now is the musical form to complete the picture.

Spanish music has a history almost as complicated as that of the guitar. Spain owes its cultural heritage to Basques, Celts, Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigothic Germans, Romany, the distinct Southern French Occitan, Arabic-influence Berbers (Moors) from North Africa and later French, Italian and European Baroque music. This is reflected in the wide diversity of musical styles and traditions found in the Spanish regions like Galicia, Castellón, Catalonia and Andalusia. By the time Francisco Tárrega was studying music in Barcelona and then Madrid in the 1860s musical notation in Spain was European as was the basic structure of the harmonic cords and time signatures, so, for example, flamenco music, originally Moorish/Gypsy, was played in European harmonics and time signatures.

This was the musical tradition within which Tárrega wrote Recuerdos de la Alhambra. A fusion of many cultural themes, musically and instrumentally, and inspired by an architecture also produced by hybridization of several cultural ideas, and of course, the geography and climate of Andalucia.

I have two versions of this music: one played by Andrés Segovia who must rank as one of the all-time greats of the classical guitar; the other by Julian Bream, the English classical guitarist and lutist who probably comes as close as anyone to Segovia's mastery of the guitar.
Sit back now, close your eyes and transport yourself to baking hot Andalucia in the cool shade of an Alhambran courtyard, and listen first to Julian Bream. Listen to the power of the thumb note as the music reaches its climax. This is incredibly difficult to do whilst keeping perfect time and volume with the three other fingers.
And now Andrés Segovia's version:

I really find it impossible to chose between these two versions. Incidentally, don't be fooled by the relaxed style: this is an extremely difficult piece to play well. I know. I practised religiously for two years, at least one hour a day, on the classical guitar and never rose above the the level of bad to embarrassing. Not being able to play a musical instrument well is probably my greatest regret but the sheer act of trying has enhanced my appreciation of music and musician like Julian Bream and Andrés Segovia beyond measure.

This piece of music is an example of the great things and of the beauty we can produce when we allow cultures to cross-fertilize and contribute. The product is always greater than the sum of its parts. This is what multiculturalism can produce if only is is given a chance and if we accept all cultural traditions as equally valid and worthwhile achievements of human cultural evolution.

The only thing which seems to be stopping us is the tendency of the memeplex of religion to find ever more ways in which to isolate itself to protect itself from dilution and present itself as the only thing worth preserving about our history. There is something wrong about a culture which is so insecure in itself that it is afraid of competition and infusion of ideas from another culture. If a culture is worthwhile it will stand the test of competition. If it cannot it is not worth hanging on to at the expense of one which can.

We do not need the poison of religion; we would be better off without it, in whatever variety it presents itself.

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