Born in Gerona, Montsalvatge studied at Barcelona
Conservatory taking top prizes in piano and composition. He settled in the
city as a teacher in the Conservatory and music critic. His Three Impromptus
for Piano won a major prize in 1933 and he soon established his reputation,
becoming the leading Catalan composer. In 1985 he was awarded Spain’s Premio
Nacional de Música, the country’s highest musical honour. He created
compositions in a wide range of styles and formats, including three operas and
the prize-winning Sinfonia mediterránea. However it is for his Cinco
Canciones Negras (Five Negro Songs) he is best known internationally today.
He wrote them in 1945-6 and the first performance was given by Mercé Plantada
at the Ateno Barcelonés. In 1949 he orchestrated the cycle, in which form it is
often performed today, and he also arranged three of the songs for chorus.
of seeking his inspiration in his native Catalonia,
Montsalvatge used the exciting rhythms and colour of the West
Indies. The first song is a setting of a Cuba dentro de un piano surrealist poem by Rafael
Alberti. There is a serious theme underlying the fun, referring to the
take-over of Cuba
by American money in the pre-Castro days. The second song sets Néstor Luján’s
witty poem about a pretty Creole girl. The third number with words by Nichólas
Guillén is about a scary man with a knife. The most famous song follows to
words by Ildefonso Pereda Valdés: the delectable Canción
de cuna para dormir a un negrito. The child’s mother tells him he is no
longer a slave and could have a fine career as a groom. The lively finale, the Canto negro, has words again by Guillén, and is a celebration of
the good life.