Liner Notes:  Silent Music - Mompou's Musica Callada / Jenny Lin
Federico Mompou’s Música Callada – “silent music” – consists of four books containing 28 pieces of piano music composed between 1959 and 1967. The longest of them barely cracks the four-and-a-half-minute mark, and one piece, Semplice (Book 1, No. VIII), doesn’t even achieve a full minute’s duration. The entire hour-long set seldom arises above the volume level of piano, and its style emphasizes simplicity, economy and purity over complexity and conspicuous technical display. The harmonic language – which may superficially, at first contact, remind the listener of the spare and enigmatic idiom of Erik Satie – is tart and modal, and the music seems to operate in a kind of suspended time, avoiding conventional developmental devices, yet moving in its own sense of inexorability.

One would think – given the excellent craftsmanship and highly original qualities of Música Callada – that the response to this work would have been especially enthusiastic, and it was premiered in 1974 by a piano virtuoso of the first caliber, Alicia de Larrocha, to whom the fourth volume is dedicated. However, the response to Mompou’s “silent music” was itself deafeningly silent; in a musical world caught up in the relentless pursuit of innovation for its own sake, Mompou’s own rather low-key innovation was ignored. Nevertheless, recognition of the achievement Música Callada represented came almost immediately following Mompou’s death, with New York Times reviewer John Rockwell writing in Mompou’s obituary, “An early minimalist, he sought to achieve deep emotional effects through the sparest of musical means.”

“An early minimalist.” That phrase gives one pause; how could a composer steeped in the language of Debussy and Ravel, composers who contributed some of the blackest pages to the classical repertoire, be regarded as a minimalist? Certainly Mompou gained nothing from the ultra-concise twelve-tone idiom of Anton Webern, as pioneering figures in minimalism such as La Monte Young had, nor does his music have any relation to Indian classical music, a primary source of inspiration for Philip Glass. A key to understanding Mompou’s connection to minimalist style comes from the legacy of Erik Satie, whom Mompou knew well and deeply admired; Satie’s natural tendency was to express himself in the simplest terms possible, nakedly and without decoration. One aspect of Satie’s heritage that Mompou does not share – at least in Música Callada – is Satie’s broad and bold sense of humor, which compelled him to sprinkle his scores with irreverent instructions, such as “[play this] like a nightingale with a toothache.” In contrast to Satie, Música Callada is serious business, and is the very model of musical reverence, unfolding almost like a ritual.

A clue is offered by one instruction Mompou allowed himself in the score of Música Callada that appears at the top of Lent (Book 1, No. II). It is the last two lines of Paul Valéry’s poem, Les pas, which appeared in Valèry’s 1922 collection Charmes: “For I have lived to wait for you / and my heart was only your steps.” Mompou felt a special kinship with Valéry; by coincidence Mompou’s own unrelated set of piano pieces entitled Charmes appeared just one year before Valéry’s same-titled volume was published. Although Valéry is routinely identified as belonging to the French Symbolist poets, he was also a pioneer in the philosophical school of thought known as constructivist epistemology, whereby scientific knowledge is perceived as subjective, created by scientists, and not necessarily reflecting actual things in the natural world; as he once stated, “We have always sought explanations when it was only representations that we could seek to invent.” Many of Mompou’s own sentiments reflect this principle; in regard to the advanced compositional techniques of the mid-20th century, Mompou said “Music must cease to be a laboratory product and acquire the lyrical and evocative qualities which spring from personal experience and meditation.”

Mompou often derived musical inspiration from multiple literary sources, and the work of sixteenthcentury Spanish poet St. John of the Cross had a decisive influence on Música Callada, down to the very title of the set. In his Spiritual Canticle, written while he was imprisoned in 1577, St. John of the Cross refers to “the silent music / the murmuring solitude” in a section of the poem dealing with the marriage of Christ to his faithful flock. St. John’s poem is rich in allusion and internal references to Biblical passages and was in itself a paraphrase of the Song of Solomon, revised into a Christian context. In his introduction to the work, St. John states “Mystical wisdom, which comes through love and is the subject of these stanzas, need not be understood distinctly in order to cause love and affection in the soul, for it is given according to the mode of faith through which we love God without understanding him.”

This relates directly to Mompou’s method and intentions in Música Callada. Once asked about his method, Mompou replied, “Ah, the inspiration. That’s the secret. I don’t know from where it comes, but that’s one of the secrets of art. It’s a form of medium in the spiritual world. I receive the messages, but I don’t know where they come from...they come at unexpected moments. You must learn to wait. It demands a great patience.” This quality of patience transfers effectively to Música Callada; it never feels rushed and operates within its own, special time frame.

While Música Callada occupies its own space well, one can hardly resist including on disc an “Easter egg” in the form of an appended track, Secreto, which is taken from Mompou’s earliest piano set, Impresiones intimas (1911-14). But shhh! Don’t tell anyone! It’s a secret.

— David N. “Uncle Dave” Lewis

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