As part of its mission to raise awareness of Catalonia's musical heritage, the Museu de la Música is participating in the Manén Year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of the Barcelona musician. In partnership with the Associació Joan Manén, the exhibition entitled Joan Manén. Orgull i destí, curated by Daniel Blanch, aims to increase our understanding of a violinist and composer who was one of Catalonia’s best-known and most internationally-recognised artists of the last century.
Manén was a self-motivated musician, a highly individualistic and intuitive artist who knew from an early age that he was destined to be an important figure in the world of music. His life was, in many ways, like something from a novel, shaped both by his talent and by the turbulent historical events he lived through, as well as by a huge personality that can be seen as representing the epitome of the 19th century virtuoso.
Drawing on a documentary collection that includes photographs, paintings and sketches, programmes, scores, letters, instruments owned by the composer, and other objects, the exhibition paints a portrait of the composer covering the key aspects of his life and music. It features a screening of a documentary by production company Marcial AV, "Joan Manén, Variacions sense tema" and parallel activities such as concerts, conferences, workshops and listening sessions with commentaries.
About Joan Manén
Joan Manén i Planas was born in Barcelona on 14 March 1883. He was the elder of two sons. His younger brother, Àngel, was a bassoonist with the Orquestra Pau Casals and the Barcelona Municipal Orchestra. Their father, Joan Manén Avellán, was a man with a strong personality. An amateur pianist, he devoted all his energy to developing the musical talent of his elder son.
Manén began learning piano and solfège from his father at the age of four, and began to study the violin when he was five. Two years later, he studied with the violinist Clemente Ibarguren, a pupil of Delphine Alard. Pushed by his father, his talent blossomed. He sight-read works for piano, transposed Bach’s fugues, and attended concerts of the Barcelona Philharmonic Society, conducted by Antoni Nicolau.
In the summer of 1892 he appeared in his first public concerts as pianist and violinist in Castellón and Valencia, under the name of “Juanito Manén”. In 1893 he auditioned before Queen Maria Cristina, who offered him her patronage. His father turned down the offer and decided to travel with his son to Buenos Aires, initiating a series of extensive tours of South America between 1893 and 1896. When he turned 11, Joan Manén stopped having violin lessons.
In 1894 he conducted a 200-person orchestra and choir in La Habana, and in 1895 he debuted in New York’s Carnegie Hall, an extraordinary achievement for a musician of his age. His life as a child prodigy left its stamp on the personality of the young Manén, but it was not the best way for him to develop as a musician. With no specific training and, once more, pushed into it by his father, he turned to the challenge of composing.
From 1898, aged 15, Manén settled in Berlin with his father. Otto and Berta Goldsmith, a couple with many connections in the Berlin cultural scene, became involved in his musical education and helped boost his career. Thanks to them, at the age of 15 he debuted as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing his Concerto espagnol.
In Berlin he performed with the violinist Pablo Sarasate and the pianists Eugene D'Albert and Teresa Carreño. Composers Max Bruch and Antonin Dvořák accompanied him on the piano at private evening events, and the prestigious publisher Fritz Simrock published several of his works.
At the age of 17, Manén gave a recital in Cologne, accompanied by Richard Strauss on piano, and premiered his first symphony, Catalònia, which he conducted himself, at the Líric Theatre in Barcelona. His debut, in 1904, at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin represented a turning point in his career. Following his performance of Paganini’s extremely difficult Variations on “God Save the King”, he was regarded as one of Europe's leading violinists.
Over his 65-year career, Joan Manén gave more than 4,000 concerts and, at the start of the 20th century, he was ranked alongside the greatest violinists of the time, such as Fritz Kreisler, Bronisław Huberman and Jan Kubelík.
In his early years, he mainly performed using a violin made by the Catalan luthier, Étienne Maire Clarà. He subsequently acquired a Petrus Guarneri that had belonged to Felix Mendelssohn, an instrument that accompanied him throughout much of his career.
Reports from the time highlight the individuality of his interpretations. The critics of the day pointed to his exceptional technical mastery, the purity and warmth of his sound and the captivating musicality of his playing. Manén considered himself to be a violin soloist in the mould of the 19th century romantic genius personified by Niccolò Paganini. His repertoire was based around works that showcased his virtuosity and cantabile skills.
Manén was linked to some of the greatest musicians of his time: Jenö Hubay dedicated two works to him; Enric Granados and Joaquín Nin performed all of Beethoven’s complete sonatas with him, and he worked with Pau Casals and his orchestra on many occasions. He performed with conductors including Bruno Walter, Henry Wood, Willem Mengelberg and Ernest Ansermet, accompanied by Europe’s top-ranking orchestras.
Turning to his discography, Manén pioneered the recording of complete concertos for violin and orchestra. The Museu de la Música in Barcelona holds the world’s first recordings of Beethoven’s and Mendelssohn’s concertos for violin and the first recording of a Bruch concerto, made in 1916, 1917 and 1921.
Born in a time when it was vital to cultivate and maintain star quality and audience engagement, Manén always felt the need to be admired by audiences and feared by his rivals. Aware of his talents, his pride in everything he could do was always on show, which made him a difficult and complex personality.
Joan Manén’s career as a composer took off in 1908 after the premiere of his second opera, Acté, at the Dresden Semperoper, one of Europe’s most important opera houses at that time. The opera, which had been coldly received five years earlier at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu was unanimously acclaimed and performed in various cities around Germany. From then on, Manén's works began to feature in the programmes of orchestras such as the Philharmonic Orchestras of Vienna and Berlin, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Manén’s compositions showed him to be an original, intuitive and eclectic musician. His post-romantic style drew on Mediterranean influences based on highly inventive themes. From the age of 20 he developed a more personal style, known as “Iberism”, taking the imagery of Spanish folklore as the starting point for internationally acclaimed works. Demanding, and a perfectionist, he often rewrote his works many times.
He composed a number of caprices and concertos for violin and orchestra, a cello concerto (written for Pau Casals and premiered by Gaspar Cassadó), concertos for piano and oboe, numerous symphonic works, two ballets, seven operas, choral works, chamber music, songs, works for instrumental soloists (including the Fantasia-Sonata, dedicated to the guitarist Andrés Segovia), and sardanas.
The composer's talent was to elevate the specific to a general level, taking legends and converting them into universal themes: the development of the artist in the symphonic poem Juventus, the spirit of survival in Heros, love in the quintet Lui et elle and human behaviour in the opera Don Juan.
To pigeonhole a personality as complex as Manén as just a violinist and composer would be to ignore the many other facets of his career. He was a conductor, pianist, writer, promoter of festivals and concerts, the founder of the Barcelona Philharmonic Society (1930), the discoverer of the grave of Paganini (1939) and inventor of the “Invisible orchestra”, an electronic system that allowed him to simultaneously perform as soloist, composer and conductor.
In 1954 Manén and his wife Valentina Kurz began work on creating an auditorium in Barcelona that would have been named the Auditorium Joan Manén. Construction was halted due to lack of funding and the violinist was unable to see one of his dreams come to fruition. He planned to premiere his final work, the Don Juan trilogy of operas, composed over forty years, in this auditorium.
Manén, who had believed himself destined for greatness from a very young age, was a true megalomaniac. He achieved great success and fame, but struggled personally, seeking unrealistic levels of recognition in line with his egocentricity.
Towards the end of his life, Manén was a lonely figure. His great stage presence was a thing of the past and the post-romantic and nationalistic aesthetic of his works no longer appealed in a musical climate dominated by the record industry and new trends. He was an innovative composer, with his own voice and a highly personal harmonic language, but his musical style remained rooted in expression and melody.
In his final years, Joan Manén withdrew from the Barcelona music scene and lived in his own ivory tower, surrounded by memories of a full life. He died in Barcelona on 6 June 1971, aged 88.
Aleix Palau | 4 November 2021
Barcelona's Museu de la Música inaugurates the exhibition “Joan Manén. Orgull i destí"
Curated by Daniel Blanch, the exhibition examines the life of the Catalan musician on the 50th anniversary of his death.
From 4 November to 6 February.