The music of the Spanish exiles: a means of national reconciliation?

Published on: Author: Eva Moreda Rodriguez Leave a comment

Dr Eva Moreda Rodríguez is Lecturer in Music and specializes in the political and cultural history of Spanish music in the 20th century.

By a rather fortunate coincidence, the publication of my book Music and Exile in Francoist Spain with Ashgate last month coincided in time with the launch of three separate CDs containing music of Spanish composers exiled as a result of Francisco Franco’s ascent to power in 1939. November 2015 saw the launch of Samuel Diz’s Impresiones y paisajes. Como el primer libro de Lorca, including works for solo guitar by Rosa García Ascot, Salvador Bacarisse, Rodolfo Halffter, Roberto Gerhard and others. In the last few weeks, pianist Paula Ríos, in collaboration with soprano Eva Juárez, has released Viento de Plata, featuring the complete songs and solo piano music of García Ascot and her husband, Jesús Bal y Gay. Jorge Robaina, also a pianist, offers in El piano olvidado a rendition of Salvador Bacarisse’s 24 preludios, together with works by Julián Bautista and Gustavo Pittaluga.

Cover of Samuel Diz's Impresiones y paisajes. Como el primer libro de Lorca
Cover of Samuel Diz’s Impresiones y paisajes. Como el primer libro de Lorca

As someone who tends to get puzzled looks when asked the inevitable question ‘What’s your area of research? Any composers I might have heard of?’, I cannot help but rejoice at the perspective of more unknown music by Spanish composers being recorded (often for the first time) by a new generation of musicologically aware performers. Indeed, Diz, Ríos and Robaina are not the only musicians dedicated to researching, performing and recording the works of Spanish exiled composers. Other names which come to mind include mezzo-soprano Anna Tonna, pianist Aurelio Viribay, conductor José Luis Temes, the Cuarteto Bacarisse, and clarinettist Joan Enric Lluna.

It is often the press, music critics and sometimes musicologists rather than the performers themselves who have often tried to present this renewed interest in the music of the exiles as a further manifestation of the so-called memoria histórica: the grassroots movement which, from the early 2000s onwards, has sought reparation – either material or symbolic – for the victims of Francoism. Nevertheless, such an interpretation has often left me uneasy: in particular, there are three tropes of the memoria histórica discourse do not always sit comfortably with the careers and aspirations of composers in exile.

Paula Ríos's Viento de Plata
Paula Ríos’s Viento de Plata

The first trope concerns the assumption that the Spanish Civil War, the Franco regime and the subsequent diaspora were an anti-natural interruption of Spain’s modernization process, which is thus largely regarded as teleological. This trope is most obvious the multiple ‘what if’ stories that have proliferated under democracy, or what Hispanist Ángel Loureiro has called ‘the memory of what didn’t happen’: it is assumed, and often fictionalized in a remarkable depth of detail, that, had the exiles stayed in Spain, Spanish cultural life would have been very different because it would have followed, as it were, its natural course. The same goes for music: I have read more than one music critic or journalist speculating about what Bacarisse or Gerhard would have written had they been able to stay in Spain. Although, on a general level, it seems reasonable to assume that culture and the arts in Spain would have developed very differently had the Franco dictatorship not happened, the issue is that such ‘what if’ stories seem to regard the biographies and careers of the exiles as an organic, inevitable and necessary process rendered impossible only by the start of the Franco regime, rather than as contingent on a number of factors other than the political situation.

The second trope assumes that this interruption can be partially made up for by reintegrating the exiles, even if only symbolically, to Spanish political and cultural life. According to this discourse, the exiles and their work should be reintegrated into Spain not simply because they created good cultural products, but because there is something exemplary and even morally superior about them which can help with modernizing processes such as democratic and national regeneration; this is pretty much the starting point of José Luis Abellán’s extensive and well documented El exilio español de 1939 (Madrid: Taurus, 1976), published hardly a year after Franco’s death. This trope, though, regards political and artistic modernity as equivalent, which is deeply problematic. And we could also ask ourselves, as Sebastiaan Faber does, what exactly is exemplary or morally superior about the exiles.


The third trope posits that the reintegration of the exiles needs to be undertaken from within Spain because, after the Civil War, the exiles were rendered unable to contribute to the modernizing process of Spain and thus do not have any agency. Such depictions of the exiles are consonant with the ‘defeated-as-victim’ trope which has characterized the discourse on the victims of Francoism from 2000 onwards, as well as the cultural products (films, fiction books, collections of testimonies, etc.) borne out of it, as pointed out by Jo Labanyi and José María Naharro-Calderón. Yet I find it difficult to regard exiled composers solely as victims, and indeed many of them were able to reflect on and manage their contributions to Spanish culture while still in exile: Julián Bautista and Roberto Gerhard declined opportunities to contribute, whereas Salvador Bacarisse made his own.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t expect the renewed interest in the music of the exiles to impact positively on national reconciliation and democracy building? Perhaps not (and it occurs to me that, for someone who dedicates her life to reading, thinking, writing and talking about music, I am remarkable pessimistic about its social and political potential). We should certainly rejoice at the perspective of Spanish performers making unknown music available for the first time (instead of, say, attempting the umpteenth rendition of Chopin or Beethoven). And we might hope that this might lead a few to reconsider what they know about Spanish music – about issues such as modernity, nationalism, the canon, all of them ubiquitous, implicitly or explicitly, when the music of Spain is discussed in public fora. If the music of the exiles being more widely available leads somehow to a more refined understanding of Spanish history and national conflict and, as a result, an improvement in the quality of Spanish democracy, then that would be a nice bonus, but no more than that.

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