Isaac Albéniz was born on 29 May 1860 in Camprodón, a small town in the province of Girona, Spain. The town lays picturesquely nestled in the Pyrenees, at the confluence of the rivers Ter and Ritort. Located just a couple of kilometers from the French border, it had been at the center of repeated territorial disputes between France and Spain.
Isaac’s mother, Dolores Pascual i Bardera hailed from the province of Girona, and his father Ángel Albéniz was born in Vitoria, in the Basque country. Working as a customs official, Ángel “was of short stature and walked with a slight limp. Intelligent, hard-working, and politically liberal, he was a tyrant at home and verbally abusive of his son.” In addition, he was a published poet, and he composed his own epitaph and one for his wife Dolores. They courted and married on 5 July 1849, and Dolores gave birth to her first child in 1850. The union produced two additional children before Ángel was appointed administrator of customs in the town of Camprodón in 1859.
Isaac Albéniz: Suite Española Nr. 1, Op. 47: Nr. 5 “Asturias”
On 29 May 1840, Dolores gave birth to her last child and her first boy. He was christened Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual, and within a couple of years, the family moved to Barcelona. It became immediately apparent that Isaac was a child prodigy, and he received his first piano lessons from his gifted sister Clementina. She claimed, “that he knew his scales and arpeggios by the age of 3, and that his playing was full of expression.” Sister and brother appeared together on stage at the Teatre Romea in Barcelona when Isaac was 4 years old. According to Clementina, Dolores “dressed her son in a Scottish-style outfit of velvet with a lace collar, in the manner of the sons of Prince Edward. A small mountain of pillows was placed on the piano bench so that he could reach the keyboard. After their four-hands performance, the public threw toys onto the stage, mostly colored balls, and the young pianist immediately started playing with them.”
Isaac Albéniz: Rapsodia Cubana, Op. 66
Isaac Albéniz: Rapsodia Cubana, Op. 66 (Miguel Baselga, piano)
Shortly after his rousing concert debut, Isaac began lessons with Narciso Oliveras, and apparently traveled to Paris in 1867 to study privately with Antoine-François Marmontel. He eventually took the entrance exam for the Paris Conservatoire, but according to Albéniz himself, “I did pass the entrance audition, but in my youthful excitement furled a ball at a mirror and shattered it.”
The examiners, although impressed by his talent, refused him admission because he was too immature. That story, like many other details of Albéniz’s early life, certainly has anecdotal value. A majority of sources claim that during the political upheavals in 1868, Ángel Albéniz lost his government job, and, “to earn money, took Isaac and Clementina on recital tours of the Spanish provinces.” Recent research, however, seems to confirm that Ángel was employed in Barcelona until January 1868 and subsequently took up a position in the customs office in Almería, on the Mediterranean coast in Andalusia.
Isaac Albéniz: Rapsodia española, Op. 70
Isaac Albéniz: Rapsodia española, Op. 70 (Miguel Baselga, piano; Tenerife Symphony Orchestra; Jia Lü, cond.)
Meanwhile, Isaac was studying in Madrid and getting ready for his enrollment in the Madrid Conservatory. A scholar writes, “His studies were constantly interrupted as he gave recitals in the provinces or wherever fate took him.” He did return to Madrid intermittently to study with Eduardo Compta and José Tragó. Apparently, Isaac made numerous attempts to run away from home. A popular myth reports that at the age of twelve, Albéniz stowed away in a ship bound for Buenos Aires. He then found himself in Cuba, then in the United States, giving concerts in New York and San Francisco, and then travelled to Liverpool, London, and Leipzig. This particular story does contain a kernel of truth, as Albéniz did travel the world as a performer, yet was always accompanied by his father. We do know that their travels took them to Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1875 before Isaac finally settled down to serious studies.
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