Hidden Gems – A Guide to the Music of Federico Mompou

Federico Mompou (1893-1987) was an exceptionally reclusive composer with an output of exceptionally introspective music. Though influenced by Chopin, his miniatures bear an unmistakable personal stamp and Spanish style. He frequently employed sounds of his native Barcelona: church bells tolling and gulls crying. I’ve played my way through much of Mompou’s piano music and encountered, again and again, some of the most magical harmonic turns I’ve ever heard.

It’s hard to choose the best entry point into this music, but I know my favorite is his Variations on a Theme of Chopin. I loved this piece enough that I learned and performed it. The theme is Chopin’s short Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7. As with most variation sets, there’s a sense of suspense at the beginning of the first variation: where is the composer going to take us first? In Mompou’s case, the first variation is almost identical to the theme in form, melody, and rhythm, but the harmonies are already sparkling brighter. You get the sense that this is going to be a really special journey…and your intuition turns out to be true. Through twelve variations, Mompou brings the best of his nostalgic, intimate style to a variety of moods. Variation 5 is a mazurka, in a further tribute to Chopin. Variation 8 is one of my favorites, a plaintive melody over gently plodding eighth note chords. The music is full of pent-up emotion, finally letting loose in a bittersweet catharsis at the end. In Variation 9, Mompou quotes Chopin directly, from another piece: the Fantaisie-Impromptu. But here, the familiar second theme from that piece is transformed into a moment of heartache. Mompou reaches a surprisingly energetic climax in Variation 12, and then an absolutely haunting, time-stopping Epilogo that somehow finds still more harmonic magic to mine out of the theme. I really can’t recommend this piece highly enough. It’s one of those musical encounters that leaves you grateful, satisfied, and full of wonder.

For some of Mompou’s most intensely inward and sad music, check out Música Callada. Listening to some of these pieces, I imagine Mompou sitting at the piano on a quiet afternoon as hazy light streams in. No. 19 (Tranquillo) is so depressing that I usually have to listen to something else immediately after to shake off the mood. That said, the whole hour-long set is quite beautiful and creates a sustained lonely, melancholy atmosphere like nothing else I know.

If you want a smaller sampling of Mompou, you could try any one of the Cancions y Danzas. Each piece pairs a songlike melody with a dance, mostly based on Catalan folk tunes. I’m a fan of No. 7 in particular, based on the songs Muntanyes regalades and L’Hereu Riera.

From a performance standpoint, Mompou’s music can look deceptively simple on the page, but while sightreading you may encounter some obstacles related to the distribution of notes between hands. I had to mark up my score for the Chopin variations quite a bit, adding brackets to remember which hand was taking which notes in a given chord (especially Vars. 9 and 11 – yikes). Sensitive pedaling is another important aspect, necessary to clarify the delicate harmonies. Aside from these concerns, it’s really rewarding to play.

Where to find this music:

50600417 Mompou: Works for Piano (This collection includes pretty much everything you’d want to explore)

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