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Federico Mompou: Recomençament, Primitivism, Bell Sounds

Frederic (Federico) Mompou at the piano Chassaigne Colita in 1978, editing the sheet music of Musica Callada

Frederic (Federico) Mompou

All the drama of my life is developed in the maximum depths of me and that's how it created.

Frederic Mompou i Dencausse (Barcelona, 16 April 1893 – 30 June 1987), also known as Federico Mompou, was a Spanish/Catalan composer and pianist. Mompou may be particularly known for his piano compositions but he also wrote for voice and piano, ballet, choir and orchestra, and the guitar.

Mompou's music is heartfelt, spontaneous and profound. Simple yet sophisticated, Minimalist yet Romantic, empirical yet wise, archaic yet modern, and traditional yet universal... All these paradoxical properties were digested, recreated and translated into music by Mompou in his solitude, resulting in his output being authentic, magical and timeless.


Recomençament (to start afresh) and Primitivism:

I make music like this because art has reached its art is a return to the primitive... no, not even a return, it is to begin again

Young Frederic (Federico) Mompou at the piano in 1920 (aprox.)

Mompou was strongly influenced by French composers such as Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, and Gabriel Fauré. However, instead of simply following the impressionist tradition or joining new trends such as of Stravinsky or Schönberg, Mompou decided to start afresh from the origin of music history.

Mompou called this musical style "primitivism". He sought his inspiration in the past (eg, Gregorian chant and/or Catalan folksongs). He often abandoned the use of elements such as musical development, key signature, time signature and bar lines (in this case, Mompou was a successor of Erik Satie) to achieve the maximum simplicity.

It is clear that the utmost objective of the composer was a pursuit of the purest expressiveness, emotion, and sonority of his inner voice: authenticity.

Mompou was quoted as saying:

The best word is the unspoken word, as you know, I am a man of few words and a musician of few notes.

The music is written for the inexpressible, I wish it seemed that it comes out of the shadows to return back into it. I am obliged to find new ways, I think I would never be able to lock my music in a world too correct.


Bell sounds:

Mompou a la fabric de campanes barcelona 1915Bell-like ringing sonorities are one of the most prominent characteristics of Mompou's music. Mompou's maternal family the Dencausse, of French origin, was a well-known Bell maker for many generations. The sound of the bell that Mompou used to observe in his childhood made a huge impact on his aesthetic. Mompou's extraordinary sensibility and interest in the quality of ‘individual notes’ (compared to the structural composition style which would give more attention to a mass) is remarkable — it is almost as if he had been fine-tuning each bell!

Audio Sample:

Federico Mompou: Angelico from Musica Callada (Arr. Kazu Suwa)

This music has no air or light. It is a weak heartbeat. It's not supposed to reach beyond a few millimeters in space, but indeed, the mission is to penetrate the great depths of our soul and most secret regions of our spirit. This music is quiet because his hearing is internal. Self control and reserve. Its emotion is secret and it only take on their sound form in its own resonances under the great cold dome of our loneliness. I desire my Silent Music, this newborn child, to bring us a new warmth of life and expression of the human heart, always the same and always renewing itself



Mompou and the "Zeitgeist (spirit of the age)":

It is true that existentialism was in the air at the time I entered the University—it was precisely the year they gave Albert Camus the Nobel prize—, but my interest was not limited to books. I was fertile ground for the growth of those ideas(...)

Clara Janés, Antología personal (1959–1979)

Clara Janés (Barcelona, 6 November 1940—) is a Spanish/Catalan poet, writer, and translator. She is the author of one of the most complete biographies of Mompou 'La vida callada de Federico Mompou (The Silent Life of Federico Mompou)'. Clara’s father Josep Janés i Olivé was a Catalan poet and one of the most influential publishers of the 20th century in Spain. The Janés family (Josep and his wife Esther Nadal Sauquet) and the Mompou (Frederic and his wife Carme Bravo) were close friends. They exchanged a wide range of artistic ideas at the cultural gatherings that were taken place at Janés's house.

The Zeitgeist is a concept from German philosophy, translated as "spirit of the age". It refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch in history.


Inner Solitude:

Mompou's interest in inner solitude is evident throughout his works and his own words. Inner solitude is different from loneliness, it is rather spiritual and artistic protection for creativity and ideal against the outside world or situation that he didn't agree with. The situation in Europe and Spain (e.g. conflicts, wars and violence) at the time also affected the philosophy and arts.

Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (4 December 1875 – 29 December 1926) is well-known for his obsession with solitude. I quote below Rilke's own words that represent the Zeitgeist.

Your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes, far in the distance.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


Before ending this essay, I'd like to share a beautiful poem by Rainer Maria Rilke which I think goes in harmony with the music of Federico Mompou.

Rilke had a strong admiration for music, to the extent that he felt frightened that music could be more powerful than poetry.



Music: The breathing of statues. Perhaps:
The silence of paintings. You language where languages
end. You time
vertically above the direction of mortal hearts.

Feelings for whom? O you the transformation
of feelings into what?—: into audible landscape.
You stranger: Music. You heart-space
grown out of us. Our inner most self,
which, transcending us, forces its way out,—
holy departure:
when the innermost point in us stands
outside, as the most accomplished Distance, as the other
side of the air:
no longer habitable.


Images: Courtesy of Frederic Mompou Foundation