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Andalucían culture features prominently in my recent novels, Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy, especially in relation to music and dance, which is characterised by a single emotion: passion. As Salvador tells Alexandra in Indiscretion:

‘Spanish flamenco is the embodiment of passion. Some people say that music is at its best when wild and unleashed. Flamenco is often like that, heels stamping, castanets clicking, skirts of the dancers whirling.’

He goes on to explain that not all flamenco music is performed in this way – it can be still and poignant – but of course Salvador has described here the vision of flamenco that most people conjure up, of which castanets is an integral part.

In fact, while castanets are used in some flamenco dances, they are not traditional to all flamenco. They are more commonly played as part of other folkloric dances, like the Sevillana and the balletic Escuela Bolera. Here is an example from my novel Masquerade; a raw, spirited performance by my character Marujita:

‘The older gitana took up her castanets and stalked into the space, twirling her hands like proud birds. Now the true queen had taken the stage for all to see. With mesmerizing nobility the gypsy danced, her head held high, hands and arms moving with a power and beauty that were breathtaking. Every movement, while exaggerated in its twists and turns, was fluidly graceful; then she dipped and twirled aggressively like an Amazon warrior, her castanets clattering like gunfire. Marujita’s black eyes shone like some terrifying goddess as her arms swooped up like wings about to take flight.’

‘Castanets’ is derived from the Spanish word for chestnut (castana), but in Andalucía the instrument is known as palillos, which translates to saucers. The instrument isn’t, in fact, Spanish in origin. In various forms, it can be traced back more than 10,000 years, beginning with the Phoenicians and then being taken up by the Iberians, who brought it to Spain.

The simplicity of the instrument and the ease with which it can be played to create a rhythmic percussive sound has helped it to stand the test of time. Modern castanets are formed from two shell-shaped clackers held together by a string or leather tie. Hardwood produces the best sound: granadillo, rosewood, ebony, pomegranate or oak.

Don’t let the simplicity of castanets fool you, though, that they are easy to play! It takes years of practice to play with speed and mastery. Remember, the castanets player is not merely a dancer or musician, but must be both at once. Accomplished players can coax from the castanets a range of sounds. The right hand holds the hembra (the higher-pitched ‘female’ of the pair) while the left holds the macho (the lower-pitched ‘male’ set). This video shows a skilled castanets player in action, accompanying the Berlin Opera Chamber Orchestra as they play Georges Bizet’s Carmen:

When it comes to castanets playing, the most important artist is Antonia Mercé y Luque. Born in 1890 to professional Spanish dancers, she was destined for the stage, but she grew up to have strong opinions on what she performed there. Essentially, she developed her own dance style, based on Spanish folkloric dancing, which would prove hugely influential, and castanets playing was an important element of that. La Argentina, as she came to be known, laid the foundations of all modern castanets playing: her way of playing become the definitive way of playing.

La Argentina took castanets beyond the borders of Spain, notably to the US, which she toured six times, and to France, where she was especially popular in Paris. There, Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted a work he considered one of his most important, called ‘Dancing Girl with Castanets’ (1909). I will leave you with this artwork, which I think perfectly encapsulates the emotion and intensity of the castanets player.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Dancing_girl_with_castanets

After all the vibrancy and jubilant cacophony of December, January always feels a quiet month to me: the silence of a snow-covered field, the gentle crackle of logs on the fire, the scratch of my pen moving over the paper, and – most notably – the lulling melodies of classical music playing on the stereo.

This week, I have been rediscovering the works of composer Manuel de Falla. Here is one of my favourites; it’s a nocturne called ‘Noches en los jardines de España’ (Nights in the Gardens of Spain):

Beautiful, don’t you think? So passionate and arresting. Falla described this work as ‘symphonic impressions’; it was inspired by three gardens in Spain, one of which is the jasmine-scented garden at the Alhambra, Granada, as described in my novel Indiscretion.

In fact, Falla was a great inspiration for me for all the books of my Andalucían Nights series, which is why, as a nod to him, I named the heroine of Indiscretion Alexandra de Falla.

Manuel de Falla was born in Cadiz, setting for Masquerade and Legacy, in 1876, but it was at the Real Conservatorio de Música y Declamación in Madrid that he learned his craft: piano from José Tragó and composition with Felipe Pedrell. Pedrell was particularly important, instilling in Falla a passion for Andalusian flamenco music, which would inspire his later classical compositions.

Travel broadened Falla’s horizons, and in Paris he was influenced by composers like Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky. His rising star caught the attention of King Alfonso XIII, who gave Falla a royal grant to remain in Paris, but when World War I broke out he had to return to Spain. What followed was a fertile creative period, during which he wrote Noches en los jardines de España and other works that entered the annals of classical music history.

When Franco came to power after the civil war in Spain, he offered Falla a sizeable pension to work in Spain, but Falla preferred exile. He chose Argentina as his home, and lived out the last few years of his life there, teaching and composing. He died in 1946, and the following year his remain were repatriated to Spain, and he was laid to rest in the beautiful crypt at Cadiz Cathedral (pictured below).

catedral-crypt

Picture credit: Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA

Falla’s musical legacy is a body of musical work that continues to define a time and place, and to inspire so many other artists and music lovers. He is also honoured as the namesake of the Gran Teatro Falla in Cadiz, setting for all manner of artistic performances, including those that are integral to the annual carnival in the city.

falla

Where better for my heroine of Masquerade, Luna, to spend the evening watching the opera Carmen? Here is Luna’s first glimpse of the theatre:

A first night at the Gran Teatro Falla had a charm of its own. Standing in the Plaza Fragela in the north-west quarter of the Old Town, the grand and atmospheric theatre welcomed its visitors with beckoning mystery, like a magician inviting one to step back in time. The century-old coral brick building, with its distinctive red- and white-banded arches wrapped around three vast keyhole-shaped doorways, was filling up when they arrived. There was a festive atmosphere about the place and the lobby was buzzing with different languages. The audience was a mixed assortment of Spaniards and foreigners, an attractive, cheerful crowd made up of distinguished-looking men and women, all of them united by their love of opera.

Ultimately, that unity is the lasting legacy of any great composer like Falla. All over the world people from all walks of life can listen to his music, and be transported to a dimension where they are connected by their mutual appreciation for the sound and the emotions it stirs.

I hope you will give Manuel de Falla’s music a try, and ‘meet’ me in those jardines de España.

La-Nina

The young gypsy took his place in the middle of the circle, which the previous performers had left vacant. His long, copper-tanned fingers began thrumming his guitar. The prelude continued for some time and the shouts, clapping of hands and stamping of feet worked his audience up to a state of rhythmic excitement. Suddenly, in a convulsive movement, his features contracted into a mask of agony. He closed his eyes and lifted one hand to his forehead as he broke into a long, tragic high-pitched cry – ‘Aye … Aye … Aye … Ayeeeeee!’ He repeated this lament a few times against the frenzied accompaniment of his guitar, the open strings of which he played with the other hand. Then he began singing in a deep masculine voice as if telling the world of his sorrows and misfortune. He sang in Caló, the language of the gypsies, which Luz did not understand. Despite the tension of feeling in the full, vigorous notes, he sang with an air of dignity that the young woman had never witnessed before and she had listened to many Flamenco singers in the clubs of Cádiz.

Like the rest of the audience Luz stood breathless, spellbound, stirred to her innermost fibres. Tears in her eyes; the music awakened a fierce impulse that sent her heart hammering. He sang one song after the other, seemingly oblivious to his audience and of anything save the notes, which formed themselves in the air before him as if independent of his body. Some of the songs were passionate, heart-wrenching ballads about faithless or separated lovers, unending longing, death, prison and revenge, which he appeared to be improvising. Those few songs in Caló remained frustratingly mysterious to Luz but the words of his closing song she understood, though she found them strange. He sang in a kind of trance, as if reaching deep down into his soul to uproot the pain, drawing out the final notes in a prolonged, descending strain, with seemingly never-ending turns and tremolos. It was a haunting sound, so poignant Luz had great difficulty in controlling her urge to reach out to him.

This is an excerpt from my latest novel, Masquerade, and it brings forth an important theme in the book: the music of the gitanos – gypsies – of Andalucía. Since I first visited Andalucía as a young woman I have been entranced by songs such as these, and none more so than those performed by the queen of Flamenco, Pastora Pavón Cruz.

Here is a glimpse of her musicality:

So beautiful and moving, don’t you think?

Pastora was born in the Alameda de Hércules in Seville way back in 1890 with music in her blood. Her siblings and her aunt were very involved in the Flamenco scene, and Pastora made her debut at the Seville Fair aged just eight (when her brother got inebriated and she had to replace him on stage!). Her family was impoverished, and so Pastora sang for their supper in Seville, and then in Madrid and Bilbao, in cafes dedicated to showcasing singers.

Early on, Pastora acquired a new name: La Niña de los Peines. It means ‘The Girl of the Combs’, and was inspired by lines she sang referring to her hair combs. Although she never loved the name herself, it stuck and that is how she is remembered to this day, along with two other names: the Empress of Cante Flamenco, and The Fierce, which was what the great Flamenco singer Chacón called her.

Pastora built a very inspiring career in Flamenco. In 1922 she was one of several professional performers invited to sing at the Concurso de Cante Jondo, a festival that went along to promoting and reimagining Flamenco. Federico García Lorca, director and poet, later said of her: ‘This woman’s voice is exceptional. It breaks the moulds of all singing schools, as much as she breaks the moulds of any built music.’

Through her long career, Pastora sang with many of the greatest Flamenco artists of her time, and she married one, Pepe Pinto. She died in 1969, and has been revered ever since as the most iconic and influential Flamenco singer of the 20th century – a ‘sombre, agonizing angel, who surpassed all measure, who embraced all emotions’ (Álvarez Caballero) and ‘the incarnation of flamenco singing, as Bach was of music’ (Ricardo Molina).

While writing the gitano scenes in Masquerade, I often played the following CD in the background. I had to work hard to concentrate on my writing, though, because Pastora’s singing is so arresting! I pictured my gypsy queen Marujita sounding like an older Pastora, with a wonderful richness and huskiness of tone.

La Nina CD art

When I was a little girl, nothing was more exciting than a trip to the theatre. Dressing up in my Sunday best, travelling across town with my parents, gazing up at the architecture of the theatre, mingling with the crowds, taking my seat and then… the lights, the music, the spectacle. Encore! To this day, I love the theatre, that place where all is sensational and romantic and breathtakingly dramatic.

I love plays. I love musicals. I love ballets. I really love operas. Carmen is one of the most well known in the world, of course, but it is genuinely one of my favourites also. In fact, it was one of my inspirations for my novel Indiscretion.

First, a little about the opera. The story is set in Seville and tells of a soldier, Don José, who falls in love with a gypsy, Carmen. She is so seductive that José leaves his sweetheart and deserts the army in order to be with her – only for Carmen to scorn him and declare her love for a toreador, Escamillo. In a jealous rage, as Escamillo conquers the arena, José stabs Carmen: one of the most powerful theatrical death scenes of all time.

Carmen was composed by Frenchman Georges Bizet back in the 1870s, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. It was not initially well received; the immorality and murder and sensuality were controversial for a stage show at the time, and Bizet did not live to see it be acclaimed. Only once it began to find audiences outside of Paris, where it was debuted, did the opera build a reputation, so that by the early 1900s people all over Europe were humming the ‘Toreador Song’.

For me, what stands out in Carmen is the passion and stark emotion in every line of dialogue and every verse of song. Carmen’s song is her weapon of seduction, from her habanera on how love is untameable…

… to her seguidilla about dancing with her lover. Carmen is the perfect tragic heroine: beautiful, alluring and yet cruel, as fatally flawed as naive Don José, driven mad by his possessive love for her so that he descends from honourable soldier to vagabond to, ultimately, murderer. Each of the characters so aptly characterises elements of the Spanish spirit; although the opera is in French, there is no escaping the very Spanish flavour when you watch it.

I have watched Carmen many times, on stage and on this DVD version, which stars Placido Domingo, Julia Migenes, Faith Esham and Ruggero Raimondi, and was filmed on location so has an amazing backdrop:

carmen-dvd

Watching Carmen and listening to the opera on CD were the perfect activities to get me in the mood for writing my novel Indiscretion. The book is set in Spain, in the same area as the story of Carmen takes place ­– indeed, Salvador and Alexandra spend a day in the city of Seville. Indiscretion also includes a swaggering toreador, and a stunning, seductive gypsy girl with a manipulative streak; these are the characters who would wreak tragedy on the hero and heroine and their blossoming love. There the similarity in setting and characterisation ends, but I hope that I have infused in Indiscretion something of the stirring passion and intrigue and edge-of-the-seat drama that is to be found in Carmen. I so love gripping, emotional stories!

If you have not seen Carmen, I recommend the DVD. But if you can see the opera live, so much the better. For those in the UK, Carmen will run from 19 October to 30 November of this year at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The Royal Opera promises to ‘capture the sultry heat of the Spanish sun, while ranks of soldiers, crowds of peasants, gypsies and bullfighters bring 19th-century Seville to life’. More details are available at http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/carmen-by-francesca-zambello.

carmen1

A very happy Christmas to you!

The radio station I listen to while pottering around at home waited until the 1 December this year before digging into its Christmas archives, but since then I have heard plenty of seasonal tunes. But only one makes me stop what I’m doing and listen. It’s so hauntingly beautiful, it gives me tingles, and the more I hear it, the more I think it’s the most romantic of Christmas songs. Here it is:

‘The Power of Love’ was a December number-one hit for the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood back when it was released in 1984, but it is Gabrielle Aplin’s version (number one exactly 28 years later) that really moves me.

First, I like the fact that this isn’t overtly a Christmas song. The connection to Christmas comes from the release date of the original song and the nativity theme in its original video, and a certain quality to the emotion of the song; as the song’s writer Holly Johnson put it, ‘there is a biblical aspect to its spirituality and passion’. The store John Lewis harnessed the Christmas spirit embodied in the music by making it the theme for its sweet Christmas advert in 2012.

But for me, it’s the lyrics of the song that earn it my vote for most romantic song.

Feels like fire
I’m so in love with you
Dreams are like angels
They keep bad at bay, bad at bay
Love is the light
Scaring darkness away

I’m so in love with you
Purge the soul
Make love your goal

The power of love
A force from above
Cleaning my soul
Flame on burn desire
Love with tongues of fire
Purge the soul
Make love your goal

I’ll protect you from the hooded claw
Keep the vampires from your door
When the chips are down I’ll be around
With my undying, death-defying
Love for you

Envy will hurt itself
Let yourself be beautiful
Sparkling love, flowers
And pearls and pretty girls
Love is like an energy
Rushin’ rushin’ inside of me

The power of love
A force from above
Cleaning my soul
Flame on burn desire
Love with tongues of fire
Purge the soul
Make love your goal

 

This time we go sublime
Lovers entwine, divine divine
Love is danger, love is pleasure
Love is pure, the only treasure

I’m so in love with you
Purge the soul
Make love your goal

The power of love
A force from above
Cleaning my soul
The power of love
A force from above
A sky-scraping dove

Flame on burn desire
Love with tongues of fire
Purge the soul
Make love your goal

The language is so carefully chosen for effect. Active, emotive verbs: feel, purge, desire, protect. Nouns that encapsulate all it means to fall in love: dream, angel, light, darkness, soul, power, flame, energy, danger, lover, pleasure. Descriptions that bring imagery to life: undying, death-defying, beautiful, sparkling, sublime, divine, pure.

The result is a song that conveys the message that Holly Johnson later said he wished to share: ‘Love is the only thing that matters in the end.’

What do you think? Do you like this song? Is there another song you put on the stereo to create a romantic mood at Christmas time? Please do share if you’d like to.

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