The private music of Joan Massià

"I sincerely and humbly confess that, while throughout the whole of my life it has been a joy to me to compose, I had never thought of publishing my music, which for me is something private and spiritually necessary." With these words Joan Massià addressed the collaborators on the first edition, in 1953, of the collection of piano works "Notes d'estiu" ("Summer notes"). In his book "Contemporary Catalan Music" (1960) Manuel Valls comments on "the intimate and deeply sensitive atmosphere" of Massià's works. Perhaps it is this intimate nature of the music of Joan Massià, together with the unassuming and reserved air of the composer, which has made Joan Massià, in spite of being regarded as one of the most important figures in 20th century Catalan music, a composer who has yet to be discovered.

Born in Barcelona in 1890, he was trained as a violinist in Brussels with Alfred Marchot (famous pupil of the legendary Eugène Ysaÿe). He lived in Paris from 1907 to 1914, where he had the opportunity of meeting Granados, Albéniz, Ricardo Viñes and, especially Pau Casals, with whom he was to form a close, lifelong friendship. On returning to Barcelona, he alternated a vocational dedication to teaching with intense activity as a concert perfomer, forming a famous duet with the remarkable French pianist Blanche Selva, and, later, beside his wife, Maria Carbonell, also a pianist and dedicatee of a large part of his works. Massià was, in addition, an enthusiastic driving force in Catalan musical life, with initiatives such as the "Associació d'Amics i Deixebles de Joan Massià i Maria Carbonell" ("Association of Friends and Pupils of Joan Massià and Maria Carbonell") or the "Orquesta de Cambra Joan Massià" ("Joan Massià Chamber Orchestra"), consisting mainly of his pupils. Massià died in 1969, having received many honours from institutions such as the French State, the Ayuntamiento de Barcelona (Barcelona Town Council) or the Juan March Foundation, among others.

The creative output which Joan Massià has left us, while not very extensive, possesses a refinement and creative originality -but also technical discipline- that causes him to deserve wider recognition. To begin with, it is surprising that, although he was an excellent violinist, Massià only wrote four pieces for this instrument. These were pieces for violin and piano written a la manière of various composers of the past: an Amoroso derived from a melody by Franz Schubert, a Rigaudon inspired by Forqueray, the Intrata derived from Francesco Geminiani and, finally, a piece reminiscent of Paganini and Fritz Kreisler, the Allegro spiritoso. The four pieces are impeccable from the instrumental point of view -they could not be otherwise- but they do not reveal any personal language. More interesting are, without doubt, the Set cancions (Seven songs) written from 1949 onwards based on texts by Tomás Garcés. The songs not only show the characteristic traits of Massià, but in some cases are harmonically more complex and daring than any other of the composer's works.

But the greater part of Joan Massià's output is written for the piano, which may seem surprising for a violinist. In fact, Massià was also a notable pianist and a good improviser, according to those who were privileged enough to hear him. It seems that many of his works started off as improvisations which he later wrote down (although on occasions, because of lack of time or interest, some of these pieces unfortunately were never committed to score).

His first known piano work goes back to 1924, when he wrote "El gorg negre" ("The black pool"), the first piece in the collection "Notes d'estiu" ("Summer notes"), a suite of six pieces written during the summer holidays over quite a long period (from 1924 to 1943). Manuel Valls, in the previously mentioned work, speaks positively of the "Notes d'estiu", commenting that "they denote a cultivated temperament and a musical intuition translated into the most refined harmonic forms". Originally, "El gorg negre" fromed part of a suite depicting various places in Catalunya (like the Cerdanya by Déodat de Severac). Some of the pieces of this planned suite remained as sketches, and others are thought to have been completed but discarded by the composer himself, but only "El gorg negre" has remained. It is a small piece of undoubted charm, with a language akin to the late romanticism and melodic inflexions of Gabriel Fauré.

The next two pieces of "Notes d'estiu", "Dansa Catalana" ("Catalan Dance") and "Scherzo" were composed ten years later, in 1934, and present elements of Catalan folk music in an impressionist medium. The "Scherzo", perhaps the most ambitious of Massià's pieces, follows the model of the Scherzi of Chopin, written in brilliant, virtuoso style, with a central section -the Trio- which is more lyrical and calm. This Scherzo already displays some of the charactersitics which were to distinguish all of Massià's music: the use of empty fifths, chords with parallel fourths and fifths, fragments of polytonality, melodic phrases close to Catalan fok music and superb piano writing. The "Notes d'estiu" continue with two miniatures: the "Rondalla" of 1935 and the "Pastoral" of 1938. The former seems to evoke the intimate atmosphere of Schumann´s "Scenes from Childhood" and carries the subtitle of Cuento ("Tale") (and the music, without containing any programme or specific story, certainly has a distinctive narrative character). The "Pastoral" was originallly entitled Pastoral de Vano (Vano´s Pastoral), in reference to a song by Apel.les Mestres, a great friend of the composer and an artist which the young Massià always admired. The suite closes with "Ocell de pedra" ("Stone bird") of 1943, a worthy addition to the line of famous birds of Ravel, Mompou or Granados, and one of Massià's most sophisticated creations.

Written between 1952 and 1953, the "Tres Preludios" (" Three Preludes") are harmonically more complex, and reveal a composer with wider resources than in the "Notes d'estiu". The references are also much more diverse, although Massià's personal stamp is already very clear. Thus the first prelude, "L'ermita" (The hermit") shows clear influence of Mompou in the evocation of the sounds of tolling bells, but with harmonies which are at times harsher and more dissonant. The second prelude, "Líbèl.lula" ("Dragonfly"), combines the lightness of the "perpetuum mobiles" of Mendelssohn with the evocative harmonies of Ravel. "Líbèl.lula", apart from being perhaps the most difficult to play of Massià's pieces, is one of the most ingenious and attractive due to the constant rhythmic irregularity, of obvious descriptive intentions: the swift and unpredictable flight of the insect of the title. The third prelude, "Arcaïc" ("Archaic") in a more neoclassical style, is reminiscent of the modal works of Debussy and brings the cycle to a brilliant ending.

Except for the two notebooks of Apunts, the remainder of Joan Massià's pianistic output are individual pieces which do not form part of any suite. The "Impromptu en sol" ("Impromptu in G"), subtitled "Jorn de fiesta" ("Holiday") was written in 1957 and is a light hearted, monothematic, piece, in the form of a brilliant toccata. The "sol" of the title is not only the key of the impromptu (sol mayor = G major), but also a reference to the radiant sunlight of the day the music decribes ("sol" in Catalan also means "sun"). "El pla de les papallones" ("The plain of butterflies"), written in 1942 but published posthumously, is a quiet piece of considerable length which may remind one of early Debussy (such as the "Arabesques" and the "Suite Bergamasques"), but the central lyrical melody has a clearly Catalan character. "Intrada i Giga" ("Entrée and Gigue"), dedicated to the Basque composer José Antonio Donostia, is from 1951 and, together with the "Allegro" and the "Sonatina", constitute the composer's experiments with neoclassicism, which was then attracting composers of the time. The models, in the case of Massià, are the keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti or Padre Soler, with a dissonant harmonic language, especially in the "Intrada i giga". We do not know the date of composition of the "Allegro" and the "Sonatina", published posthumoulsy in 1985. Both pieces take the form of ingenious two-part inventions and were dedicated to the pianist Blanche Selva, Massià's companion on many concert tours.

Finally, the two collections of "Apunts" ("Sketches") show the more intimate, nostalgic Massià. The first notebook was for didactic purposes and includes five short, easy pieces which exploit the possibilities of the fixed position of the hand (as Igor Stravinsky did in his work "The five fingers" or Béla Bartok in his first volume of "Mikrokosmos"). The last two pieces of the notebook are for four hands-piano, with a very simple part to be played by the pupil and another more elaborate one for the teacher. The first of these pieces, "El petit Narcisó" ("Little Narcisó"), is dedicated to the composer Narcís Bonet, who was a child at that time. The second piece is a delightful lullaby entitled "L'angel somniador" ("The dreaming angel").

The second notebook of the "Apunts", in contrast to the first, has no pedagogical intent, but are short concert pieces written over a long period and collected together for publication in one single volume. The epigrammatic "Enyorança" ("Longing") opens the notebook, which continues with the "Cançó" ("Song") dedicated to the composer's mother and written in 1935 in the romantic style of "El gorg negre". Next are "El balanci" ("The rocking chair"), a further experiment in the subtle world of Mompou, written in 1945, and "Sesta" ("Siesta") of 1952. The collection closes with the "Estudi" ("Study") of 1945, which once more recalls the brilliant figurations of the music of Scarlatti.

Jordi Masó
June 2005
(Trans. Paul. Jutsum)

This text is an extended version of that published in the booklet of the CD "Joan Massià: Obra completa per a piano" published by Anacrusi (AC054). This new version appeared in the Revista Musical Catalana in April 2006.