Flamenco 23 – ¡Castanets!

Today we’re going to jump back in time to speak about las castañuelas (castanets), an instrument that has a strong influence not only in Flamenco but also in the most traditional and classical forms of Spanish Dance. As we are going to do an overview of the use of castanets in general, we’ve tried to keep it short and at the same time to avoid leaving out the most relevant examples of the extremely broad variety of musical styles this instrument is used in.

The castanets are a centuries old percussion instrument and their origin can be traced back to 1000 BC and the Phoenicians, a trading nation that prospered at that time in the area of the Mediterranean Basin (Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, etc). But it is in Spain where their use has been preserved and developed – they are now, in fact, considered part of Spain’s cultural heritage. They have been used over the ages to give a Spanish flavour to any number of compositions, both in Flamenco and in Classical Spanish Dance.
Here to start with we have Graciela Ríos, accompanied by Manolo Iglesias on guitar:

Castanets are made from two hollowed out pieces of wood (chestnut, lignum vitae, or other hard wood) that are perforated and held together with an ornamental lace that is normally either black or red and is wrapped around the thumb. Nowadays there are quite a number of professional castanet players in the Classical world and as long ago as 1845 Wagner included them in the Venusberg Music in his opera Tannhaüser. Here’s a Fandango composed by Boccherini in the eighteenth century:

It takes six separate grades or levels of study to really master this instrument and an average of seven to eight hours practice a day are needed to develop the rhythmic sensibilities and “touch” required of a soloist. As we have mentioned, they are used both in Flamenco and traditional folkloric dances as well as in many key works of Spanish Ballet, especially those of the Escuela Bolera, which is traditionally accompanied by castanets (see the post on the origins of the Sevillanas). Here is an example, in the style of the Escuela Bolera of the zarzuela “Las bodas de Luis Alonso” composed by Gerónimo Giménez:

And here are some Sevillanas danced with castanets by the pupils of a Flamenco Dance academy at the Ansoain Gala Flamenco Festival (up in the Basque Country):

This is an example of Classical Spanish Dance. Here are the students from The “Mariemma” Royal Dance Conservatory dancing Falla’s Amor Brujo in a master class given at the 2010 Flamenco Festival in Torrelodones in Madrid:

Two of the best known castanet soloists internationally are José de Udaeta (1919-2009) and his disciple José Luis Landry. Other prominent soloists include: Lucero Tena, Emma Maleras, Carmen de Vicente, Inma González, Consol Grau, Montserrat Carles, Belén Cabanes, and Mar Bezana.
Lucero Tena
Born in Durango (Mexico) in 1938, this artist moved to Spain in 1958 and joined Carmen Amaya’s Dance Company. She later started her own company called “Bailaora”. Her playing is exceptional for both its expressiveness and discipline and she has managed to turn the castanets (which she has taught at the Conservatory in Madrid) into a solo instrument in performances of innumerable Classical works. Here she is in an excerpt from Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve, performed with the Symphony Orchestra at the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid.

The Emma Maleras Method
Emma Maleras – born in Barcelona – created a method for learning to play the castanets as a soloist in concertos. This method teaches the playing of castanets in the same way as one would learn the piano, reading the musical notes for each hand on a double stave, with annotations for each movement and position of the hands made in the same way as they would be for classical dance choreographies. Unlike the old fashioned learning techniques, which followed no methodology and consisted of notes that would struggle to fill a dozen pages, Emma Maleras’ method, which is currently used the world over, is made up of eleven books and six separate courses or levels of study. There is a special, condensed version for children.
Here is a performance of an excerpt of Ruperto Chapí’s zarzuela “La Revoltosa” by the Escuela Emma Maleras Castanets Chorus:

And here to end this post, are three representatives of the new generation of castanet concert soloists. Consol Grau, Montserrat Carles and Belen Cabanes performing Bizet’s Carmen Suite accompanied by the Youth Concert Orchestra:

One Response to Flamenco 23 – ¡Castanets!

  1. Pingback: The Flamenco Series « Casa Maki

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