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In Memoriam: Cristóbal Halffter

Jun. 01, 2021

We are saddened to report that Cristóbal Halffter has died. His publisher, Universal Edition, remembers this great composer in a moving obituary.

                                                                                   Committed to Freedom
                                                                                Obituary: Cristóbal Halffter

halffternachruftext1                    Photo: © Universal Edition/Eric Marinitsch

Born in Madrid in 1930, Cristóbal Halffter belonged to a family that has influenced Spanish musical life like no other. Halffter's grandfather was an East Prussian baron and one of the last major German landowners to settle in Spain and marry an Andalusian woman. This laid the foundation for one of the most important music dynasties in Spain. His house was frequented by the Spanish elite, such as Federico Garcia Lorca or Manuel de Falla.

Halffter's father took up a middle-class profession, but his two uncles Ernesto and Rodolfo became highly respected composers. They became students of de Falla and, as composers, representatives of the Spanish musical renewal movement. Around 1936 Rodolfo made it possible for Alban Berg's violin concerto to be premiered in Barcelona.

It is therefore not surprising that his nephew Cristóbal always combined German perfectionism with southern Spanish sensuality. It is from this duality that Halffter's works must be seen.

Halffter always belonged to the type of artist who understood his work as a result of passion and commitment to intellect and decency. Thus, with astonishing consistency, he has remained true to his mission as the admonishing voice of his country. During the Franco dictatorship, he gained much of his artistic potential from resisting tyranny. In this context, one anecdote is revealing: in the early 1970s, Halffter wrote to Franco with his friend Javier Solana, who later became Secretary General of NATO: he was allowed to keep all weapons, only the ammunition was to be approved by the opposition. Halffter's works were not prohibited during this period, they were just not allowed. That the tension between the individual and the collective plays a central role in his operas was to a certain extent inevitable. Halffter has been always committed to freedom.

halffternachruftext2                    Photo © Universal Edition

Halffter's personal borderline migration between Germany and Spain began when the family moved to the Rhineland during the civil war years from 1936 to 1939. It continued when the young composer attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music in the 1960s and came into contact with the European contemporary music scene, for example with Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and Pousseur.

Halffter's training in Spain was rather conservative. All the more important was access to the estate of his uncle Rodolfo, who had emigrated to Mexico. Here Halffter studied the classical modernism of the 20th century: Schönberg, Webern, Stravinsky (whom he would later meet). "These scores could not be found in Spain, they had not been imported, they were even forbidden. And I had them at home," Halffter later recalled.

Halffter's music is deeply rooted in Spanish music and cultural history. He combined old musical forms like Tiento, Batalla or Ricercar with his sound world, quoted and paraphrased old masters. Tiento del primer tono y batalla imperial, his most frequently performed orchestral work, also a gift to Paul Sacher for his 80th birthday, captivatingly combines the imperial gesture of Spanish cathedral music with Halffter's very individual sound language.

For Halffter, art and politics belong inseparably together, without Halffter ever letting himself be pulled before the cart of party politics. He set his political convictions in notes and expressed them unambiguously in the titles: Lament for the Victims of Violence, Requiem for Imagined Freedom.

Halffter's works were almost always written in the seclusion of the small north-western Spanish town of Villafranca, which lies on the Santiago Pilgrims' Way. There he lived in a castle inherited by his wife Maria Manuela Caro, a cousin of the king. As a trained pianist, she was a great support and an extremely competent artistic colleague. She premiered some of his works.

In Halffter's work, which comprises just over one hundred compositions, a single note or chord is often juxtaposed with a concentrated mass of sound. A symbol for the artist who seeks to make himself heard in a chaotic and confusing world.

Many works have spiritual, some even liturgical content. Halffter was convinced that "all good music is religious in some form". With the orchestral work Memento a Dresden, composed in 1995 for the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra on the occasion of its 150th anniversary and in commemoration of the destruction of the city fifty years earlier, Halffter returned to the admonitory sound speech after composing many abstract works such as solo concertos, preludes and variations.

It was no coincidence that his first opera Don Quixote was dedicated to him, premiered in 2000 at Madrid's new Teatro Real. Despite some allusions to Spanish Renaissance music, the bitter political aspects are unmistakable. Just like the composer himself, the title character acts between personal freedom and political tyranny.

Lázaro, premiered in 2008, showed Halffter, who believes in the utopian power of spirituality. His last opera, Die Schachnovelle, based on the work of Stefan Zweig, once again posed the question of moral stability. Premiered in Kiel in 2013, it was described by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as the premiere of the year. On Sunday, Halffter, highly decorated and highly esteemed, died in Ponferrada (Spain).

Wolfgang Schaufler

To learn more about Cristóbal Halffter, visit: