Recuerdos de la Alhambra: harmony and emotion

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Daniel Nistico
Posts: 42
Joined: Fri Oct 07, 2016 8:41 pm
Location: Virginia, USA (for now)

Recuerdos de la Alhambra: harmony and emotion

Post by Daniel Nistico » Tue Dec 04, 2018 8:31 pm

Dear Delcamp guitarists,

I wanted to share some thoughts on the emotional effects of harmony in Recuerdos de la Alhambra. This is a two part email series I sent out to my mailing list, which you can subscribe to for free at:

I hope this gives you some food for thought.


Video 1: A Section

Video 2: B Section

Email on the A Section of Recuerdos de la Alhambra

What you'll learn now is the long lost art of how keys and tonalities paint specific emotions.

You'll get inside the mind of musicians like Sor, Aguado, Giuliani, Tarrega and so on. What exactly were they thinking when they composed their wonderful pieces?

What's really fascinating is when many musicians have the same opinions about certain keys. It shows you that simply by putting a piece in a certain key, you are implying or evoking specific emotions.

How can this phenomenon be explained? I think it has to do with frequencies. Change from one key to another and you're dramatically altering the frequencies of the music.

You enter into a new dimension of frequencies and the guitar amplifies these new dimensions with varying colors and timbres.

For example: Play something in G Major and you'll start using the open G's and open B's a lot, giving the guitar a particular sound world. Play that same thing in Eb major and you'll no longer be playing those open strings, totally altering the soundscape of the music and thus the emotional outcome.

You can quickly see this impact by simply putting a capo on your guitar and playing a piece you know well.

For now, let's look at how harmony paints emotions in Recuerdos de la Alhambra.

The emotional landscape of Recuerdos de la Alhambra: part I

Recuerdos de la Alhambra is in the key of A.

It has two main sections, one in A minor and the other in A major.

But there's much more to it! Let's begin with a phrase by phrase look at the A minor section.

A Section: A Minor

Overall, the A section is in A minor. But something that any well-trained composer does is to highlight other keys, or temporarily shift the music to other keys.

Tarrega uses harmony like a palette of colors, gradually shifting from one to another.

The first phrase is in A minor, but after just four bars the music shifts towards a new key.



What kind of emotions does A minor portray?

Here are some words we can use:
- Pious resignation
- Tender
- Melancholic

Do you think those words describe the mood of the opening four bars?

How can we as a performer bring out those emotions?
- A pious feeling suggests something serious and could in this case refer to the Alhambra palace. Resignation suggests not being in any hurry.

This could translate as a dark tone color and relatively slow tempo that doesn't push forward at all.

- Tenderness suggests gentleness, so this could translate as an overall soft dynamic.

- Melancholic can suggest sobbing, which is implied by the accents in the bass line.

This sobbing gesture can be brought out by leaning on those accents quite strongly, resting on them and giving them extra emphasis.


The next phrase shifts to the key of C Major

C Major suggests:
- Pure
- Certain and decisive
- Innocence
- Simplicity

These moods can be brought out as follows:

- Purity, innocence and simplicity can be brought out by not adding much variation of dynamic, color, tempo, etc.

- Certain and decisive can be brought out with a louder dynamic and brighter tone color



The next phrase moves to F Major and gradually shifts away to E Major (the dominant of A minor)



I particularly like the first quote and its implications for the music. To me, there really is a sense of a passing regret in this passage. This is especially due to the descending melody and ornament in the third bar.

The first part of the quote says "full of peace and joy".

So here's my take on all this information.
- Start the phrase with peace and joy (forte with a sweet tone color)
- Then decrescendo and accelerando towards the ornament in the third bar (creating a sense of passing regret).

The next phrase moves to D Minor



Although these quotes are short, there's lots of substance to them and they again seem to give an accurate description of the musical passage. I think the first quote fits particularly well to this passage. (The second quote fits Bach's Chaconne perfectly! - this shows how even within one key there can be varying emotions - more on that later.)

This passage is essentially the same as the above one in F major - its just been transposed (meaning its the same content but at a different pitch level). Simply transposing a passage gives it a completely different mood.

The quotes can be applied as follows:
- Subdued melancholy, grief, anxiety and solemnity: use a soft dynamic and a subtle decrescendo

The final phrase is yet another sequence of the same melody, now in A Minor


Every four bars has something different to say.

If you go in depth, there is of course a lot of detail to explore in each phrase.

For example in this final phrase, Tarrega uses a special chord in the second bar.

This chord is very colorful and has lots of expressive impact. By simply adding that D# in the bass, Tarrega creates a twist in the plot - there is a D natural in the melody above that really clashes!!

This chord can be emphasized by easing up the tempo and highlighting the clash between D# and D natural.

The quotes for each key can be found in Fundamental Harmony ( I also carefully matched them with paintings to really try and set the mood.

And there's the key to it all: set the mood

To really capture the emotional journey of a piece requires you to set the mood. How do you do this?

By thinking about what your left and right hands need to do?

By worrying about those difficult passages that you've been struggling with?


The best way to set the mood is to shift your thoughts and put yourself in the right mood. You need to feel the emotions yourself and embody them.

Words are an extremely powerful way to create emotions in your being.

Just by thinking certain words, you can begin to conjure up emotions, memories and feelings. That's where the heart of expressive music making comes from.

What words can you use to describe the emotional journey of the pieces you're playing? Hit reply and let me know!

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