Though celebrated as a composer for the piano, Isaac Albéniz by no means confined himself to piano music. Indeed he devoted more than a decade of his almost forty-nine years to writing music for the stage (which has recently received attention with the revival of his most successful operatic work Pepita Jiménez and concert performances and recording of Merlin), while intermittently throughout his career he wrote songs - more than two dozen of them - as well as several orchestral and chamber works.
Born in Camprodón, Gerona on 29 May 1860, Albéniz began life as a prodigy and after many adventurous concert tours that took him as far away from home as the Americas (trips that constantly interrupted his classes at the Madrid Conservatory), he settled down to a serious course of studies in Belgium. With a pension from King Alfonso XII of Spain, he entered the Brussels Conservatory in 1876, graduating in 1879 with first prize in piano, which was awarded unanimously. He returned to Spain to establish himself as an accomplished virtuoso; in addition he began to compose and conduct. He soon became director of a traveling zarzuela company and wrote three zarzuelas (none of which survives today). In 1883 he settled in Barcelona, studying composition with Felipe Pedrell. Increasingly Albéniz incorporated his own compositions on his recitals. In 1885 he moved to Madrid where his works would be published by the leading music publishers of the day: Benito Zozaya and Antonio Romero.
Antonio Guerra y Alarcón in his 1886 monograph Isaac Albéniz: Notas crítico-biográficas de tan eminente pianista reveals that along with dozens of piano works and the three zarzuelas, Albéniz had composed several songs: four romances for mezzo-soprano to French words, three romances to Catalan words, and an "Album Bécquer". No trace of the romances survives, but the Album Bécquer most likely refers to the Rimas subsequently published by Zozaya in 1888. Also in that same year Romero published the Seis baladas. Another set of songs, "Seis melodías" with text by Alfred de Musset, was announced for publication by Romero in 1889. However, except for Albéniz's Chanson de Barberine, no other songs with text by Musset have come down to us.
Albéniz's reputation as a pianist and a composer continued to grow. In the spring of 1889 he traveled to Paris, appearing with the Colonne Orchestra in a concert that included his Piano Concerto, op. 78. From Paris he proceeded to England, where his performances brought him instant success and return engagements. In 1890 he came in contact with the entrepreneur Henry Lowenfeld who contracted Albéniz's services both as a performer and composer. As a result, Albéniz moved with his family (his wife, Rosina, and three children) to London and through Lowenfeld eventually became involved with musical theater. Working at the Lyric and later the Prince of Wales theaters, he provided extra numbers as required for their musical comedy adaptations. At Lowenfeld's behest Albéniz composed the Magic Opal. This lyric comedy in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan was premiered at the Lyric on 19 January 1893 (it was subsequently translated into Spanish by Eusebio Sierra and presented in Madrid in 1894 as La sortija; that same year, his zarzuela San Antonio de la Florida with a libretto by Sierra was also performed in Madrid).
His theatrical contacts in London brought him to the attention of an amateur poet and playwright and heir to the banking fortune of the renowned firm of Coutts and Co., Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, who had bought into and by July 1894 taken over the contract Albéniz had with Lowenfeld. Coutts, whose financial support allowed Albéniz to live in comfort for the rest of his life, was interested in writing librettos. His collaboration with the composer produced Henry Clifford (premiered in Barcelona's Teatro Liceo, 1895), Pepita Jiménez (Teatro Liceo, 1896; Prague's Neues Deutsches Theater, 1897; Brussels's Monnaie, 1905), and Merlin (composed between 1898 and 1902 but not produced in Albéniz's lifetime), the first opera of a proposed trilogy entitled King Arthur (Lancelot was left incomplete in 1903, and as for Guenevere, nothing was attempted). Thus, for approximately a decade Albéniz devoted much of his talent and energies to the creation and production of music for the stage. During this time he had moved from London to Paris.
In the French capital he came in contact with Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, Charles Bordes, and later Paul Dukas and Gabriel Fauré, forming close ties with the French musical community. From 1898 to 1900 he taught advanced piano at the Schola Cantorum, but because of poor health, in 1900 he returned to the warmer climate of Spain. He became involved with Enrique Morera and the promotion of Catalan lyrical works. When, however, his efforts failed to have his own stage works produced, he returned to Paris where his music was accepted, praised, and performed. Albéniz's Paris residence became a haven for Spanish artists (among them Joaquín Turina and Manuel de Falla); here they found support and encouragement for their own endeavors.
Albéniz's preoccupation with larger musical forms brought about a change in his compositional style from the basically light, attractive pieces of his early career to a more complex art. And although he did not stop performing, his appearances diminished as he became absorbed with the composition and production of his operatic works. From this period come the songs Il en est de l'amour and Deux morceaux de prose de Pierre Loti (Crépuscule and Tristesse) as well as those set to poems by Coutts: To Nellie (a set of six songs); Art thou gone for ever, Elaine; Six Songs (of which only Will you be mine? and Separated survive); and Two Songs (The Gifts of the Gods and The Caterpillar). There also exist the opening measures of a song setting the text of Jean de La Fontaine's fable "Conseil tenu par les rats", the concluding fragment to a Coutts song "Laugh at loving", and references to other Coutts songs for which no music can be found.
As Coutts began to tire of writing librettos, Albéniz gradually returned to the piano and his native landscape for inspiration. La Vega (1896-98) foreshadows his later style, which blossomed with his masterpiece, Iberia (1905-1908). The compositional texture and language that define Iberia are characteristic of Quatre mélodies (to poems by Coutts), Albéniz's last vocal work and last completed pieces. Suffering from nephritis, Albéniz died in Cambo-les-Bains in the French Pyrénées on 18 May 1909.