THE EXOTIC ESPAÑA
by John Axelrod ©2018
Before we can fully examine the theme of world music and its influence on classical music today, from Indonesian Gamelan to Afro Cuban Jazz, we must remember that for centuries in Europe, the main source of musical romantic exoticism was from one place, so close, but yet so far: Spain.
Why Spain? The 500 year Moorish Caliphate in Al-Andalus gave Spain a distinct non-European otherness. And Sevilla, the capital of this Andalusian region, and where I am the Artistic and Musical Director, is UNESCO’s 1st city of music. It is said there are over 250 operas set in Seville. Just ask anyone to name the most popular operas, and at minimum any 4 of them named are set in Seville. Don Giovanni. Marriage of Figaro. Carmen. And of course, the Barber of Seville, are among the many. And Flamenco, that indigenous form of Gypsy music, which has its roots traced back to the Moors, fostered a “Spanish sound,” and has received UNESCO’s intangible heritage status. This city was forged into a mercantile and naval empire during the Counter Reformation and varnished with Baroque gold and iconic images of angels and Heaven, even if obscuring the darkness of the Inquisition in the process. Sevilla, like Venice to the East, was powerful, imperial and rich and opened gateways to New Worlds. Sevilla supplied the Grandee and Gypsy characters that inspired French writers from Beaumarchais to Mérimée’s Carmen, creating an almost national identity of Spain through its exotic influence. Small wonder the majority of classical operas are set amongst these exotic alleys and gardens.
Even after the Spanish empire crumbled, for another 200 years, Sevilla continued to be the locale for stage and scene more than other more exotic foreign land. Sevilla was both European and not. It was familiar, yet seductively separate. It was this outsider element, this “otherness,” that maintained a grip on both European and Russian imagination. Composers not from Spain, from Mozart to Verdi to Glinka to Rimsky Korsakov, from Debussy to Beethoven to Donizetti and of course from Rossini to Ravel, all found their musical voice in the dream of Spain. Because of something alluring: Spain was not only exotic in its perfumes and habaneras, it was also a source of escape. Romantically, Spain, and Sevilla in particular, became itself a leitmotif, a subject of being separate, that all composers would try to portray, with the dance being the most useful compositional tool for perfecting the composer’s craft. It also proved profitable. The exotic España sold well with the public. It made world music popular before there was even a term for it.
One need only hear España from Chabrier, inspired in part by his time sitting in a Sevilla Cafe in 1883, to understand how the orchestral showpiece is imbued with an authenticity of transcribed rhythms and sounds, yet refined à la Française to satisfy the public taste. It would make sense then to feature a French wine, since the French were so taken with the Spanish soul. Given the appeal of Spain, perhaps a Spanish wine, and exotic one, can best represent the real Spain, rather than the ideal as manifest in the music of these French composers.
Baron de Ley Tempranillo is a Rioja wine, a diamond in the rough, growing at over 800 meters in the Sierra de la Hez (Rioja Baja) in which must be one of the highest estates in the Rioja appellation. This “mountain” Tempranillo -as it is often called- is tremendously balsamic, with huge fruit and an airy and lively depth. The crisp acidity really makes a difference from other Tempranillos in Rioja, making it an outsider.
However, despite the plethora of such award winning Spanish wines, from Rioja and that other star appellation, Ribera del Duero, there is one region of Spain at an equally high altitude, with a wine that is considered for many the exotic among the traditional grapes. In Jumilla, Juan Gil has produced several wines that are available at retail and online and very affordable, but which capture this “otherness” in that it rejects the ubiquitous Tempranillo for a 100% Monastrell wine. The Monastrell wine in the region of Murcia was considered for decades as mediocre and best used for combined wines (also called Mourvèdre in France and used in Chateauneuf du Pape), until vines were replanted in Jumilla after a phylloxera plague. Since then, producers like Juan Gil discovered grapes of gold. Juan Gil and his family winery have 120 acres of vineyards located at an altitude of more than 700 m above sea level with sandy, chalky soils. Given the high altitude which at night tempers the hot climate, diurnal temperature variations can be greater than 25 C. This cool climate then retains the fruit and allows the grapes to fully ripe. My first taste of the Juan Gil 18 months Blue label was a shock to the system. I love all deep Spanish reds for their spice, but this was an exotic surprise. Full of fruit yet also body, high alcohol content, long on the palate yes, but sweet on the tip, and dry enough to support all Spanish food, yet subtle in its diverse and exotic influences, like Andalusia itself. Tannins be damned, Juan Gil makes a terrific wine. The Monastrell is named after the Catalonian name for Monastery, as the grape was grown by monks. Had Chabrier during his Spanish rite of passage enjoyed a Juan Gil, his España might have been divinely inspired. At least , today, you can taste a sip of high altitude Heaven from exotic España while enjoying the music.