Albéniz’s early life is one of the most extraordinary of any musician. In fact his whole life was something of an adventure. He was taught the elements of piano playing by his sister when he was just one year old and made his debut at the age of four, improvising at a public concert. His father, a tax inspector with an eye to producing some extra revenue, exploited him as a child prodigy before his mother took him to Paris (aged seven) to study privately under the great Marmontel, teacher of Bizet and Debussy.
Albéniz returned to Spain but soon ran away from home, living rough and supporting himself by playing the piano as a vaudeville stunt – standing with the keyboard behind him, he would play with the backs of his fingers, palms upwards…dressed as a musketeer with a rapier at his side. Aged 12, after many more incidents, he stowed away in a ship bound for Buenos Aires. Thereafter he made his way via Cuba to the USA, giving concerts in New York and San Francisco before re-crossing the Atlantic and performing in Liverpool, London and Leipzig.
At 15, he decided to take himself more seriously but simply didn’t have the self-discipline necessary to study systematically. At different times he came into contact with Liszt (in Budapest), d’Indy and Dukas (in Paris) and, more importantly, Spanish composer and musicologist Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922). Pedrell’s passionate belief in Spanish folk music and dance aroused Albéniz to become a serious composer and encouraged him to turn to Spanish idioms for inspiration. It took him some time to find that it was the piano that suited his talents best. He moved to Paris in 1893, writing unsuccessful zarzuelas, and then met a wealthy English banker, Francis Money-Coutts. Albéniz was paid an annual stipend of $5000 to set to music the appalling librettos that Money-Coutts wrote in his spare time under the pseudonym Mountjoy. This led to an (abandoned) Arthurian trilogy.
But it was his piano music, with its essentially Spanish flavour, that made him famous, and after 1896 he moved between Paris, Barcelona and Nice to compose and teach. The last years of his life were marred by tragedy: his daughter died, his wife became sick with an incurable disease and his own health deteriorated, a victim of Bright’s disease.