Melody. Lyricism. Passion. If these are some of the qualities you look for in music, I recommend to you the music of Enrique Granados, in my opinion the greatest of the Spanish Romantic composers.
Granados is one of those great masters of his art who had the misfortune, at least as far as criticism goes, of having lived and worked near the end of the Romantic era. These creators, the ranks of whom include the likes of Edmond Rostand in drama, Joaquín Sorolla in painting, and Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint Gaudens in sculpture, have been cruelly ignored by twentieth-century critics, who have exulted in the triumph of non-representational painting and sculpture, serial music, free verse, and the anti-hero, and who have spurned all art that does not fit with their vision of modernism as the historical telos of art. Yet there was great and worthy art created in the decades before things fell apart after World War I -- decades that concided with the rise of modernism, and that therefore are most subject to modernist art-historical revisionism of the kind the Communists used to inflict in politics (even up to the literal erasing of characters from the historical record). Granados was one of their victims.
As a composer, Granados dedicated himself almost exclusively to the piano, as Chopin had done before him. Indeed, Chopin was a great hero to Granados. And there is some truth in calling Granados "the Spanish Chopin", for his music possesses a Chopinesque passion and tenderness, as well as some of the same virtuosity. But Granados brings something new to music: a specifically Mediterranean joy in living, a musical analogue of the kind of sunshine that you can see in paintings by Joaquín Sorolla. For me, the music of Granados, even when tinged with melancholy, is a music of almost pure joy. Granados did not express this joyous sense of life with the raw directness of Spanish folk music, however: he sublimated it, worked it over, and through his prodigous art forged it into something deeply refined.
We are fortunate in our day to have an pianist who is the interpretive equal of this aristocratic music in its compositional color and sense of life: the Spanish pianist Alicia De Larrocha. What Artur Rubenstein was for Chopin, De Larrocha has been for Granados (and for the music of the Spanish Romantics generally): the one who saved the composer from his interpreters, who showed that the pieces were not salon trifles but compositions of rare depth and power. My recommendation to you, if you want to hear the music of Granados at its best, is to listen to the recordings of his music made by Alicia De Larrocha, many of which are readily available.
You might start with the "Danzas Españolas", four sets of dances that are quite immediately accessible. Other beautiful collections include his "Seis Piezas Sobre Cantos Populares Españoles" and his "Escenas Romanticas". Probably the one consistent virtuoso favorite from among his works is the "Allegro de Concierto", a fiendishly difficult piece that nonetheless is available in many recorded versions. Granados' crowning achievement is his suite "Goyescas", written in the period 1912-1914 and inspired by his lifelong love of the paintings of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya. On completing this extraordinary suite he was just beginning to find his true voice in music, and soon afterward was quoted as saying "I have a world of ideas. I am filled with enthusiasm to work more and more."
Unfortunately for us, he was to create little else. On a visit to America in 1916, he was asked to stay on and play for the President. He cancelled his return passage and arranged for later travel. After safely crossing the Atlantic, he boarded the S.S. Sussex for passage across the English Channel. En route, the Sussex was torpedoed by a German navy boat. According to witnesses, Granados did make it onto a life raft, but saw his wife struggling in the water and leapt in to save her. He drowned in the attempt to save his highest value, and the world lost a great composer. Despite his cruel demise at an early age (all too often the fate of great composers, it seems), we at least can appreciate the works he was able to create in his lifetime, and marvel at what more he might have written. Listen and enjoy!
I highly recommend the following works by Granados. If you are having trouble finding these recordings, you can use the links below to purchase them through Amazon.com (these links open in a pop-up window).
Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Essays