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Music In The 19th Century

Flamenco & Spanish Nationalism

Peter Kun Frary


Musical nationalism began in nineteenth century Europe and was characterized by aspects of culture unique to a particular people or nation: folk songs, folk dances and folklore. Like romantic program music, nationalistic works usually have a descriptive title, accompanying text or a poem. Sometimes nationalistic pieces were linked to political movements but more often were a cultural reaction to the dominance of mainstream European art music, e.g., German Romanticism. Thus, nationalism was especially attractive to composers living outside of the art music mainstream, e.g., Spanish, Russian and Czechoslovakian composers.

The Spanish Singer | Édouard Manet (1832–1883) | Metropolitan Art Museum

One of the most fascinating examples of musical nationalism occurred on the Iberian peninsula during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. Flamenco—the folk music of Spanish Gypsies—was elevated to the center of Spanish identity. Ironically, Spanish Gypsies or Gitanos, once considered outcasts, invented the music viewed as the essence of Spanish culture.

Before we listen to works by Spanish nationalistic composers, let's find out what flamenco is and how it came to be.


In strict terms, flamenco refers to the folkloric music traditions of the Romani or Gypsies of Southern Spain. In a broader sense, flamenco refers to musical styles influenced by and intermingled with traditional flamenco and played both in and outside Spain. This cross-fertilization of styles coincided with flamenco’s rise in popularity. As flamenco spread across the globe, it became increasingly professionalized while absorbing aspects of other Hispanic styles, popular music, etc.

In Romani culture, flamenco was an oral tradition passed down among family and friends. Now it is taught systematically in schools and studios. In Japan there are more flamenco academies than there are in Spain!

A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar | Alfred Dehodencq (1822–1882) | Museo Carmen Thyssen Málaga

Origin of Flamenco

During the Middle Ages, Spain was a melting pot of people and culture, hosting a large population of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Romani living together in relative peace. Spain and Portugal were part of Al-Andalus, an Islamic state controlled by Moorish Kings for eight hundred years (711-1492). It was an international and enlightened society compared to most of Medieval Europe: the Moors introduced significant technologies, advanced mathematics, astronomy and modern architecture to Europe. The Moors were also responsible for bringing many of the musical instrument families (including the guitar family) into Europe.

When the last Moorish city fell to the Christians in 1492, the Romani remained and integrated into the culture of Spain, coming to be known as Gitanos. Gitanos, like all European Romani, are descendants of immigrates from northwestern Hindustan (Northern India), arriving in Europe en masse around 600 AD.

Thus, flamenco's roots are found in the music of the Romani of Southern Spain, especially Andalusia, Extremadura and Murcia. Flamenco also has strong ties to the traditional music of Moroccan and North Africa, owing much to the ancient culture of the Moors. Even in the 20th century, the famous flamenco singer El Lebrijano frequently performed with Moroccan musicians, explaining both flamenco and the music of Morocco were essentially the same.

In its original folkloric form, flamenco included an entire ecosystem of performance activities: singing (cante), guitar playing (toque), dance (baile), vocalizations (jaleo), hand-clapping (palmas) and finger snapping (pitos).

Bullfight in Divided Ring | Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) | Metropolitan Museum of Art


The sound of flamenco is the result of centuries of mixing Romani, Hispanic, European, North African and Middle Eastern music cultures, resulting in a highly unique musical style. Within flamenco, there are over 50 distinct styles, called palos, and classified by rhythmic pattern, scale mode, chord progression, poetic form and geographic origin. Palos are organized into three broad categories:

  • cante jondo: serious mood with traces of Arabic and Spanish folk melodies
  • cante chico: light and frivolous mood
  • cante intermedio: anything not cante jondo or cante chico

Chart of Flamenco Styles | Wikimedia Commons


The scales used to create melodies and guitar solos are especially distinctive in flamenco. For example, the scale known as the Spanish Phrygian or Flamenco mode almost shouts flamenco to even a casual listener:

Of course, standard Western modes and major and minor scales are also used in flamenco. The Spanish Phrygian commonly occurs in palos such as soleá, most bulerías, siguiriyas, tangos and tientos.

Chord Progressions

Certain chord progressions are characteristic of flamenco, with a progression of four descending chords, e.g., Am–G–F–E, called the Andalusian cadence being among the most distinctive:

These chords are frequently embellished with pedal tones (or drone tones) created by playing open strings against the moving chords.


Compás is the Spanish term for time signature or meter. In flamenco, it refers to the rhythmic cycle of a palos, so it's more than mere meter. The concept of flamenco compás is more similar to tala in classical Hindustani music than European meter. For example, the peteneras and guajiras have a 12-beat cycle of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 (bold indicates accents). In actual performance, flamenco musicians overlay complex layers of rhythms over the top of the compás.

These patterns that define the style—scales, rhythm and harmony—form an outline or framework for flamenco musicians to improvise. Thus, like jazz, each performance of a piece is unique since improvisation is an essential aspect of the style. Plus, the spontaneity of improvisation yields a wonderfully raw and intense emotional energy to a good flamenco performance.

Castanets | José Tárrega Peiró (founded 1890) | Metropolitan Art Museum | Clapping, finger snaps and castanets (hand held percussion) are often used to accompany flamenco.

Flamenco Guitar

The essence of flamenco revolves around the sound of the guitar. The flamenco guitar is similar to a classical guitar but has a thinner soundboard, less internal bracing, tap plates (pick guards) and lower string height. Although these differences may seem minor, the result is the flamenco guitar is optimized for fast playing, percussive tapping and has a brighter and more punchy sound than a classical guitar.

Flamenco Guitar (1924) | Santos Hernández (Spanish, 1874–1943) | Metropolitan Art Museum | Note the white tap plate for golpe use.

Guitar technique, although similar to the classical guitar, has unique techniques optimized for the flamenco style:


Percussive strumming, called rasgueado, is executed with outward flicks of right hand fingers:


Percussive finger tapping on the soundboard at the area above or below the strings is called golpe. This technique requires a tap-plate to protect the top of the guitar. See the above video for the golpe technique.


Use of the right hand thumb with both up and down strokes for single-line notes and/or strumming across a number of strings is called alzapúa:


The technique of using the left hand fingers to hammer or pull off notes while the right hand is held off the strings is called ligado:


Rapid repetition of a single treble note, often following a bass note, is called tremolo:

Now that we've gotten a taste of flamenco guitar, let's take a look at how these sounds were used in Spanish nationalism.

Isaac Albeniz

Isaac Albeniz (1869-1909), a Catalan pianist and composer, is best known for his nationalistic piano works based on Spanish folk music idioms. A child prodigy, young Isaac toured internationally under the protection of his father, a Spanish customs agent. In 1876, at age seven, he studied at the Leipzig Conservatory and later the Royal Conservatory of Brussels under a royal grant.

Isaac Albeniz (1869-1909) | c. 1890

Albeniz wrote about two hundred-fifity piano works. Although he composed operas and zarzuela (Spanish musicals with mixed spoken and sung scenes), Albeniz is best known for his later piano works, especially Chants d'Espagne (1892) and Iberia (1908), a suite of twelve piano pieces inspired by different regions of Spain. Before you even hear these pieces, you know they are Spanish nationalistic works simply because of the suggestive titles. And, because Spanish folk music revolves around guitar playing, these piano pieces imitate textures, harmony and melodies of flamenco guitar styles.

Listen to Zambra, Rumores de la Caleta and Leyeda by Isaac Albeniz. These pieces were originally composed for piano but sound like flamenco due to extensive use of flamenco scales, harmony and guitaristic techniques and textures, e.g., open bass string pedal tones (drones), descending flamenco chord progression, tremolo, rasgueado, ligado, etc. While these pieces sound like flamenco, they are precisely composed in music notation and involve no improvisation.

Zambra from Piezas características Op. 92 (1888) (5:41) | Isaac Albeniz

Leyenda (6:54) | Isaac Albeniz

Rumores de la Caleta (Murmurs of the Small Courtyard), Op. 71, No. 6 (3:57) | Isaac Albeniz

Enrique Granados

Enrique Granados (1867-1916) was a composer, pianist, conductor and foremost Spanish nationalist.  He wrote seven operas, two symphonic poems, three orchestral suites, chamber music, songs and two volumes of piano pieces.  Sadly, Granados died tragically at sea while returning from a concert: his ship was torpedoed in the English channel by the Germans in 1916.

Enrique Granados and Friend | Granados (right) and Andrés de Segurola in 1915 | Library of Congress

Granados' piece, Danzas Españolas Op. 37 - No. 2 "Oriental," was originally composed for the piano, designed to evoke the textures and sounds of flamenco and its ancient Middle Eastern beginnings. The subtitle, "Oriental," refers to the ancient Islamic culture of Medieval Spain—not Eastern Asia.

Danzas Españolas Op. 37 - No. 2 "Oriental" (4:31) | Enrique Granados


musical nationalism, flamenco, Romani, Gitanos, cante, toque, baile, jaleo, palmas, pitos, palos, cante jondo, cante chico, cante intermedio, Spanish Phrygian, Andalusian cadence, compás, rasgueado, golpe, tremolo, alzapúa, ligado, Isaac Albeniz, Enrique Granados

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved