Childhood & Early Life
Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual was born on 29 May 1860 in Camprodon, a small town in the Catalonian province of Girona. His father Ángel Lucio Albéniz y Gauna, originally from the Basque country, was a customs official in Camprodon. His mother Dolors Pascua I Bardera was from Figueres.
Isaac was the youngest child of his patents. He had three elder sisters; Enriqueta (birth 1850), Clementina (birth 1853) and Blanca (birth 1855). While Isaac was born a child prodigy, Clementina was also a talented musician who gave him his first piano lessons.
In May 1863, when Isaac was three years old, his family left Camprodon and moved to Sitges. After a few months, they moved again and finally settled in Barcelona. By then, Isaac had started learning piano from his sister Clementina and his progress was impressive.
Possibly in 1864, when Isaac was four years old, his sister Clementina took him to the newly-built ‘Teatre Romea’ in Barcelona, where he gave his first performance. During this period, he started studying piano with a local teacher called Narciso Olivares.
His eldest sister died of typhus in 1867; and shortly after that, his family left Barcelona. While his father remained in Spain, Isaac traveled to Paris with his mother, where he briefly studied under pianist Antoine François Marmontel, before appearing for an entrance examination at the ‘Conservatoire de Paris’.
Although he did exceedingly well in the entrance examination of the ‘Conservatoire de Paris’, he was refused admission, possibly due to his young age. Some biographers also believe that he secured an admission at the ‘Paris Conservatory’, but was expelled for breaking a glass pain while playing with a ball.
In early 1868, his family returned to Madrid. Accompanied by his father, Isaac went on a musical tour of Catalonia and was highly appreciated for his musical talent. Later in the same year, he enrolled in the ‘Real Conservatorio’ and started studying piano under José Mendizábal in the first year solfège.
Isaac wrote his first composition, the ‘Marcha miltar’ for piano, in 1869. He dedicated it to the 12 years old son of General Juan Prim, who was the Prime Minister of Spain at that time. The piece was published by Calcografia de Eslava in Madrid.
According to hearsay, possibly in 1870, Isaac ran away from home, supporting himself by performing concerts in various cities across northern Spain, during which he was robbed by the highway robbers at least once. It is not known why he left home or when he came back.
In early 1872, he left home once again, but it is likely that his father accompanied him in some capacity during this excursion. Around this time, he performed almost all over Spain before returning home in October 1872.
Although Isaac’s father expected him to focus on his academics, the young musician had different plans. According to legend, he once again ran away in early 1873 to not only perform in various towns across Spain, but also in Argentina, where he managed to reach by hiding in a ship. However, modern historians don’t accept this theory.
Isaac left home to go on a concert tour in 1873, but came back in November 1874 after his sister Blanca, also an aspiring musician, committed suicide in October. This time, he remained at home for the next five months, after which he left for the New World with his father.
His father got a posting in Cuba in 1875 after being appointed as an inspector general. When he left for the New World in April, he took his son along with him. In the same year, 15 years old Isaac gave successful concerts in San Juan, Mayaguez and Caguas in Porte Rico.
After a successful tour of Porte Rico, Isaac returned to Cuba, performing successfully in Havana and Santiago. He lived there at least until November 1875; and thereafter, he returned to Madrid.
On May 2, 1876, Isaac joined Königliches Konservatorium der Musik zu Leipzig for his formal training in music. However, he left the institution on June 24 due to the precarious financial condition of his family. Thereafter, he met Guillermo Morphy, the secretary to King Alfonso XII; and with his help, he secured a grant to continue his further education.
Armed with a royal grant, Isaac entered the ‘Royal Conservatory of Brussels’ on October 17, 1876. Here he studied piano with Louis Brassin, harmony with Joseph Dupont and solfège with Jan Lamperen.
In July 1879, Isaac participated in a piano competition in Brassin’s class. He tied up with Arthur De Greef for the first position. Thereafter, he terminated his studies at the Conservatory and returned to Barcelona, where he gave a concert at ‘Teatre Espanyol’ on September 12th.
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In late 1880, Isaac Albeniz went on a concert tour to the New World, reaching Havana in December. From there, he traveled to Santiago de Chile, where he had given concerts many years ago as a boy of 15.
By July 1881, he was back in Spain. He visited Granada to give recitals in the homes of some renowned citizens. Later in the fall, he performed in Santander and Zaragoza and concluded the year with a concert in Pamplona. Everywhere he performed, the audience was ecstatic, and the critics lavished him with praise.
Isaac entered a new phase in his music career in January 1882 when he composed his own zarzuelas, ‘Cuanto mas viejo’ and ‘Catalanes de gracia’. His first piece was successfully premiered in February, while the second one was performed in March.
He was back performing at concerts in May 1882, during which he visited a number of cities. He gave his last recital of the year in the salon of the Circulo Vasco-Navarro. His tour was a success, as everywhere he went, he received warm welcome from the audience.
Isaac settled down in Barcelona in 1883 and began teaching music there. In the same year, he also met Felip Pedrell, the well-known composer and musicologist. Isaac realized that he was yet to master the intricacies of composition; and therefore, he began to study with him.
Inspired by Pedrell, Isaac began to use Spanish folklores as the basis of his compositions. Thereafter, he produced a series of distinctively Spanish pieces for piano. His works were enthusiastically received by the audience, and most of them have since found a place in the repertoire for piano.
After the birth of his son in 1885, Isaac Albeniz moved to Madrid with his family. He started focusing on teaching music and composition, writing over 50 piano pieces by 1886. ‘Sevilla’ (1885) ‘Suite española for solo piano’ (1886) are two of his most significant works of this period.
In Madrid, he gave concerts for the royal family, the most significant of which was held on January 24, 1886 at Salon Romero. It proved to be very successful, and very soon, he began to get invitations to perform in various parts of the country.
The Queen Regent, who was impressed by his accomplishments, appointed him an assistant professor of piano at the ‘Real Conservatorio’ on March 30, 1886. Very soon, other honors began to pour in.
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Isaac stayed in Madrid until early 1889, after which he went on a concert tour throughout Europe. He first performed in Paris at the invitation of the Érard Company, a well-known instrument maker, in their own hall on 25 April 1889.
After Paris, he traveled to London, where his first known concert took place in the Prince’s Hall in Piccadilly on June 13, 1889. In the following year, he went on a tour across England and Scotland with a group of performers.
By 1892, Isaac had reached the apex of his career. He gave concerts in Berlin in February and then moved to Brussels, before returning to England for another tour of the country. Meanwhile, he continued to write music, which attracted the attention of Francis Money-Coutts, 5th Baron Latymer.
In 1893, Money-Coutts commissioned Isaac to write the opera ‘Henry Clifford’ for a projected trilogy of Arthurian operas, also providing the libretto. The celebrated musician worked on it for a year and completed it by 1894. Concurrently, he also wrote a zarzuela for Madrid.
In early 1894, Isaac decided to leave England because the climatic condition of that country did not suit his wife. Since he did not want to resettle in Spain, he moved to Paris around August 1894. Once there, he began focusing on music composition, while also giving concerts occasionally.
‘Suite Española’, consisting of eight pieces for piano, is one of Isaac Albeniz’s most well-known works. Originally, it consisted of four pieces; ‘Granada’, ‘Cataluña’, ‘Sevilla’ and ‘Cuba’, which he grouped together in 1887 in the honor of the Spanish queen. Later in 1912, his work was republished and ‘Cádiz’, ‘Asturias’, ‘Aragón’ and ‘Castilla’ were also added to it.
‘Tango in D’, originally written in 1900 for piano as part of ‘suite España’, is another of his important works. Later, it was transcribed for classical guitar by Miguel Llobet. Today, it has become one of most important pieces in the repertoire of classical guitar.
Family & Personal Life
Isaac Albeniz married his student Rosina Jordana Lagarriga on June 23, 1883. She was from an important Catalonian family. They had four children together; three daughters and a son. Their daughters, Blanca (born in 1884) and Enriqueta (born in 1889), died in infancy.
Their first surviving child was a son named Alfonso. Born in 1885, he was named after the Spanish king, who made Isaac’s music career a reality by providing a grant. After growing up, Alfonso became a diplomat. Their surviving daughter, Laura, who was born in 1890, grew up to be a painter.
In 1900, Isaac began to suffer from a kidney ailment known as Bright’s disease, which caused him extreme pain. In 1909, he moved to a health resort in Campo-les-Bains, where he died on May 18. He was 48 years old at that time. His mortal remains were buried in the Montjuïc Cemetery in Barcelona.
The Fundación Albéniz was founded by Paloma O'Shea, a patron of art, in 1972. Its goal was to promote Spanish music and encourage talented musicians. Based in Madrid, the foundation also acts as a research center for Spanish music and Isaac’s works.