The First Years: Castro Urdiales
On the third floor of a house in José María Pereda street, number 5, in the northern coastal town of Castro Urdiales in the province of Cantabria, lived a married couple – Juan Martín de Argenta and Laura Maza. Don Juan was the railway master on the narrow-gauge line that linked Castro Urdiales with Traslaviña, and Laura was a seamstress. On 19th November 1913, Laura Maza gave birth at home to a boy who was baptised Ataúlfo Exuperio.
As a child, Ataúlfo listened frequently to his father playing the piano, a reasonable musician who spent many hours interpreting, in particular, the works of Bach. Noting the profound effect the music had on his son, Don Juan engaged the services of Justa Blanco to teach Ataúlfo the piano and musical notation. Once thing led to another, and soon the young Ataúlfo was playing the violin, with Vicente Aznar as teacher, a violinist-fisherman or possibly a fisherman-violinist. The poor child would spend hours waiting to see if his tutor the fisherman caught anything in order to commence his violin classes: no catch meant no lesson. Over time, Ataúlfo would indeed become an accomplished violinist himself, learning also to play the viola. Furthermore, he had a beautiful voice and sang in the choir, eventually becoming its soloist.
By 1920, Ata – the diminutive by which his family knew him – was seven years old and his musical aptitude was known to all those in his hometown. The Círculo Católico (Catholic Circle), a religious foundation, which amongst other things helped impart musical lessons, was an established institution in Castro. Even though Juan Argenta was not a particularly religious man, tending towards the liberal if anything, he decided to make yet another small sacrifice for the sake of his son, and began to frequent the Círculo Católico, becoming great friends with the lawyer Don José Merino, president of the institution. The lessons offered by the foundation were inexpensive, yet the family’s humble resources did not even allow for such expenditure. With Ataúlfo in mind, Don José approached the board of the Círculo, proposing that the foundation offer free lessons in the form of a grant to children who lived under circumstances that could be described as ‘special’. And so it was that Ata, hugely enthusiastic, began to study at the Círculo.
Aged 12, Ataúlfo gave his first public concert. There still exist today programmes of the evening’s perfomance:
“Teatro de la Villa. Piano recital by the 12-year-old Ataúlfo Argenta, organized by the Círculo Católico. Concert dedicated to his fellow countrymen as it is his first public performance, the programme consisting of: “Granada” by Albéniz, “Waltz in Dflat major” by Chopin, “Semiramis Overture” by Rossini, “Brilliant Tarantela” by Sydney Smith, and “Capricho Español” by Antonio Noves. Stalls: 1.25 pesetas; Standing; 50 cents.”
Concerts did not stop there: Ataúlfo took part in those given by the Círculo, performing works by Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Ponchielli, Grieg, Caballero, Chapi… Not only as pianist but also as a soloist on the violin. One particular programme states:
“Melody for violin and piano by Schumann, performed by Ataúlfo Argenta, accompanied by José García, piano alumni.”
Ataúlfo not only attended normal academic lessons at school, he also had music notation classes, piano and violin lessons at the Círculo, sung in the choir at church and gave various public performances, and even played the piano every Sunday as accompanist to the silent movie films held at the Teatro de la Villa, for which he received 1 peseta per week.
Don Juan, however, could see that the possibilities offered to his son in Castro Urdiales were limited, and asked to be transferred to Madrid. Letter upon letter followed, until finally his request was granted. By having obtained the transfer and thus allowing Ataúlfo to continue his studies in the capital, Don Juan knew his hope would be fulfilled – that of having a musical son.
And so, shortly afterwards, in the company of his parents and sister Elena, a young and quiet Ataúlfo undertook the train journey towards the new life that awaited him. With every passing kilometer that the train covered, Ata came yet another step closer to achieving his dreams, leaving behind his beloved hometown, the memories of which would for ever remain close to his heart.
It was the Conservatoire in Madrid where Ataúlfo would complete his studies. In order to gain admittance, he sat the public examinations in music notation, four years of piano and three of violin. The violin exam he passed; piano he obtained with distinction. Registering officially, he began in classes for 5th year piano, 4th year violin, 1st year harmony, 1st and 2nd piano accompaniment, and History and Aesthetics of Music. Ataúlfo’s favourite teacher, Fernández Alberdi, whom out of all others would help him the most during his career, saw in the slim young Cantabrian a strong natural musicality. Argenta would throughout his life always be grateful to Alberdi for his help and counsel.
At the Conservatoire Ataúlfo made great friends, amongst them Enrique Casal Chapi, Emilio Lehnberg, Ridardo Vivó, Remedios de la Peña, Nin Culmell, José Muñoz Molleda, Roberto Pla, Gallego Marquina, Moreno Bascuñana and Eduardo Hernández Asiaín.
On 1st June 1928, Ataúlfo was admitted as tenor to the Choral Mass of Madrid, where albeit his tender age, he became assistant to master Benedito. It was here on a day in May of the following year, that he met Juanita Pallares. She, who was one year older than him (he still being only 15) would finish her musical career at his side. In the book registering the first prizes at the Conservatoire of Madrid, one can see the names of Ataúlfo Argenta and Juanita Pallares, side by side, almost as if heralding the love that would bind them for the rest of their lives.
It was in 1929 that Argenta obtained first class honours in piano, accompaniment and chamber music, and in 1930 – his final year – he gained the prize in piano for outstanding accomplishment, and in harmony distinction.
Meanwhile, Ataúlfo was able to contribute a little to the family’s low income by singing in the Cathedral Choir, as well as other churches. Over time, he began to gain a reputation as a talented musician.
In 1930, a piano competition was announced in which the prize was to be a grand piano donated by the singer Cristina Nilsson. Ataúlfo, who was still only 17 years old, decided to take part. January 1931 arrived, and only a few days remained until the competition date. Suddenly, without warning, his father died. Even though it was heartbreakingly difficult for him to concentrate, Ataúlfo managed to focus on the studies required of him for the competition, and the panel of judges, presided over by Arbós, declared Ataúlfo Argenta the winner. He, nonetheless, ever conscious of the precarious financial situation his mother and sister now found themselves in, both of them barely earning a living as seamstresses, decided without a second thought to sell the prized grand piano so as to help his family make ends meet, and immediately took a job as an assistant at the office where his father had worked. At the weekends, he played in the teahouses of Cuatro Caminos or La Bombilla, but he knew in his heart that it would be impossible to continue with his musical career if these were the only opportunities he had to play in public.
As chance would have it, Ataúlfo’s half-sister from his father’s first marriage, lived in Liege (Belgium) with her husband who owned a modest hotel. The couple offered the family a roof over their heads, and as a direct result of this kindness, Ataúlfo was able to continue his studies at a Conservatoire, this time in a city in Belgium. In Liege, he studied virtuosity with Jean du Chastain and composition with Armand Marsik, but somehow neither Argenta nor his mother and sister felt comfortable in Belgium and they decided to bring forward the date of their return to Spain, once financial assistance had been secured that would make daily life tolerable.
Back in Madrid, in 1932, Ataúlfo reconnected with his old life, going for walks with his girlfriend Juanita, meeting with his friends, and entering yet again the Conservatoire where this time he registered for 1st year composition under Conrado del Campo. To have a source of income he played with small dance orchestras in towns such as Cuatro Vientos, or at the Casino in Los Molinos outside Madrid, in Palma de Mallorca and also Cercedilla. And at the age of 20, for the first time in his life, Argenta picked up the baton and conducted a student orchestra.
With his friends, Argenta played chamber music, and for a small fee he accompanied those that took part in competitions at the Conservatoire. He was also the internal master during the operatic season, which in 1935 brought together at the Calderón artists such as Rossetta Pampanini, Lauri Volpi, Franceschi and Miguel Fleta.
The Civil War
On 11th July 1936, Argenta and a number of other musicians left for the coastal resort of Mondariz, where the intention was to perform during the summer months. Once there, they played short suites, lyrical compositions, fantasies, intervals at other concerts, and the usual and requisite dancing tunes of the times. With the outbreak of civil war, the group was transferred to Salamanca to serve in the rearguard. Ataulfo then travelled to Segovia, where Antonio Hernández Asiaín was based as the owner-director of the local Radio station. Antonio was Eduardo’s brother, violinist and close friend of Ataúlfo. In Segovia, Argenta took a course in radiotelegraphy which he completed with flying colours, and consequently was posted to the front as corporal. He travelled with a mobile broadcasting transmitter to Villarcayo, where he spent the spring of 1937. Notwithstanding the many difficult situations he faced, Argenta never stopped thinking of his career as a pianist. A succession of transfers led to Aguilar de Campó y Cistierna, and then finally Riaño, where he received extremely good news: on 20th August 1937 his fiancé Juanita had managed to cross the lines, and had entered the zone occupied by the national forces.
They were married on 13th October 1937, at the San Miguel church in Segovia.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Benavente, a keen piano player himself, began to frequently ask Argenta to give concerts for the officers.
On 13th May 1938 an event took place, which could not have been more serious in the circumstances. The young married couple would go for walks in the afternoons, and Juanita, as usual, arrived at the appointed time expecting to meet Ataúlfo. He, however, was not to be found and no one knew of his whereabouts. Eventually Commandant Sanz, a friend of Argenta, informed Juanita that there existed a secret broadcasting station that had been sending information to the republican side and consequently the young telegraphist Ataúlfo had been detained and had been taken to Villacastin, where the cellars in the Council building were now his prison. It was a very grave situation for Argenta to be in – spies were executed. The accusation of espionage made against him was further substantiated by a magazine photograph, which pictured him in front of the FUE orchestra – the Student Union Federation – following the outbreak of war. The caption explained in glowing terms of Argenta’s collaboration with the republican forces and his total commitment to their cause and ideals.
It was only as a result of the unremitting effort and help of Juanita that Argenta was transferred to Segovia prison. Then one day, whilst in prison, Ataúlfo was shown the magazine, and his face lit up. It was not he who was depicted in front of the FUE gathering – even though he had in fact conducted the orchestra on many occasions, something he clearly omitted to tell the officers in charge. He asked that those responsible for his case see the photograph, and they in turn were able to confirm that the allegations were a lie. A few days later he was freed.
By now, Juanita was pregnant and it was decided she travel to Asturias, where her large family lived on a farm in Roces, a few kilometres outside Gijón. She would be properly attended in childbirth and there would be plenty of food, both for her and little Ana María, who was born on 14th November 1938 and whom Ataúlfo would meet for the first time when she was already one and a half months old.
We are now in 1939. Two lieutenants, both of them music lovers, began to organise concerts in Villaviciosa de Odón, a small town near Madrid, and managed to obtain special permits for Hernández Asiaín (who was posted in Toledo) and Argenta, so that they could perform together. The concerts were to become legendary. The two musician friends grabbed the opportunity to play pieces for violin or piano solos, duets and even trios, in which Argenta attempted the more difficult parts for the cello.
Then, finally, the much-awaited news arrived: the war was over. Nonetheless, Ataúlfo had to wait until July to join Juanita in Madrid, he now being filled with great hope at being at last able to continue with his musical career. Unfortunately, the concerts were few and far between, and it was only the rare and distant news from abroad regarding musical events outside of Spain, that gave any reason for believing that things would change for the better and so not to give up in pursuing his career. Viewed from a pianist’s standpoint, the possibilities in post-war Spain looked bleak.
Resumption of his Career
After the end of the civil war, Argenta began to give concerts again, this time with the help of the businessman Julián Uceda. On 30th November 1939, he accepted Jacinto Guerrero’s offer as pianist at the Teatro Coliseum of Madrid. Here he would play with a small orchestra and another pianist – his great friend Jesús García Leoz – as accompanist to the ‘revistas americanas’, which were shown at the theatre on the Gran Via in Madrid.
The opportunity arose to again play classical music, albeit as an accompanist. Argenta was offered a concert with his close friend Hernández Asiaín in Oviedo, in the north of Spain, and he accepted. As the date for the concert approached, the Daniel agency informed Argenta that Hernández Asiaín had been taken ill and that the concert would have to be cancelled. Argenta immediately suggested he play alone and was told that his proposal would be considered but that the final decision lay entirely with the President of the Philarmonic Society in Oviedo.
Argenta agreed to travel to Oviedo on 29th November, but at the last minute had to delay his departure because of the premature birth of his son, Enrique. Having been delivered one month early, the little boy’s condition was delicate. That same night Argenta left on the train for Oviedo, where upon his arrival, he convinced the President of the Philarmonica to allow him to perform alone. The recital on 30th November was so expressive, that both the audience and critics were astounded, they being unaware of the dramatic events that had unfolded that night. During the interval Argenta had received a telegram informing him of the death of his newly-born son. Blinded, his eyes filled with tears, Argenta went back onto the stage and played with such emotion that his performance was electrifying. The concert was a resounding success and Julián Uceda, who was acting as Argenta’s agent, would soon hear of the excellent reviews.
Offers of concerts flooded in following Argenta’s performance. He decided to leave the Teatro Coliseum so as to concentrate on the recitals, which took him to Oviedo, Gijón, Malaga, Valencia… He toured Spain in the company of Lilia D’Albore Janigro and shortly afterwards was invited by José María Franco to perform a Mozart concerto with the orchestra of which he was conductor.
In the spring of 1940 Argenta gave a recital in the Teatro Español. To conclude, he played “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky. The performance was another complete success. Amongst those who went back stage to see Argenta after the concert was the great German pianist, Winfried Wolf, who said to him: “You play badly but you have substance. You also have musicality and temperament, and could quite quickly become a good pianist.” Wolf suggested that Argenta study in Germany for a period of time, yet it was out of the question as he had not the financial means to do so. At the end of the conversation, in which Wolf was clearly moved on hearing of the difficulties that Argenta faced on a daily basis, he made the following promise: he would personally take care of the practicalities so that a trip to Germany could take place.
Time passed, and Argenta had almost forgotten his dream of being able to travel abroad, when he received a letter from the German Embassy, which made him jump for joy: on account of Winfried Wolf’s intervention, the authorities had granted Ataúlfo a grant for a cultural exchange between the two countries, and he would be able to attend a summer course in Postdam and Kassel (Germany), led by Wolf himself.
Amongst the letters that Ataúlfo wrote to Juanita, there is one dated 27th April 1941 where he states:
“The journey was wonderful. For my part, it was as if I get on a aeroplane every day. When I got to Wolf’s house he told me the most amazing news which almost made me pass out for joy: I am to give a concert the first week of July, it being a German-Spanish programme, and I am only to play the Spanish part.”
Ataúlfo quickly settled into life in Postdam, a town on the outskirts of Berlin, and immersed himself in the Germanic-style rigour, the strict study schedule and the music that enveloped him wherever he went. Not only was he able to concentrate on his studies, but he was also given the chance to play in a few concerts, such as the recitals he gave at the festival in Bad-Elster on 13th July 1941, in the presence of personalities from the musical world of Spain, such as Cubiles, Espinós, Sopeña…
On 22nd July 1941, Margarita, his second daughter, was born. Ten months would pass before Ataúlfo set eyes on her for the first time.
There were more concerts, radio performances, and he conducted the Radio Berlin orchestra. By now it was not only Winfried Wolf who was helping him: Carl Schuricht and Franz von Hoesslin were his teachers when it came to conducting an orchestra. There developed a deep friendship and respect between the great German conductor Carl Schuricht and the young pianist from Castro Urdiales, which would grow with the passing of the years.
In a letter dated 9th February 1942 Juanita was told:
“ ‘Sold out’. ‘No more tickets’. The first time this happens at one of my concerts… The audience was enraptured to the point that I had to play five encores, the last two with people surrounding me on the stage. If the critics tell of this enthusiastic reception, my career is assured. All these months of sacrifice will not have been in vain.”
An academic vacancy became available at the Conservatoire in Kassel (Germany), and thanks to the prestige Ataúlfo had gained in those few previous months, he was able to take up the post. Juanita and the girls, Ana María and Margarita, would be able to join him at last. In 1942, after having been apart for one and a half years, Juanita and Ataúlfo were reunited. In Wolfsanger they would live a period of their lives filled with hope and happiness.
As WWII became more virulent, it also became increasingly more difficult to hold concerts. Argenta put his name down for a conducting course in Muenster, yet the course never even got started. Shortly before the commencement of lessons, on the 3rd October 1943, allied bombers destroyed the major part of the city; over 25’000 people were killed on that one night. The family had to move to Spangenberg, where Argenta tried desperately to organise as many concerts as he could. He needed to earn as much money as quickly as possible before their return to Spain, and as such, managed to give twelve concerts during that short period of time in different parts of Germany.
It was agreed that after the last concert Argenta was to give in Germany, the family would depart for Paris by train. Juanita would wait for him with the two girls at the railway station. Just as the concert was about to finish, the sirens rang out across the city. Outside, the traffic was at a standstill and people ran desperately in search of cover. Argenta arrived late at the station, and the train for Paris, carrying his 5-month pregnant wife and two daughters had already left. Juanita had no money on her and knew not whether Ataúlfo was safe. On arriving in Paris she subsisted at the station by accepting money given to her by strangers.
The following day, still wearing his tailcoat, Ataúlfo got off a cargo train and to his amazement saw his wife and daughters sitting on a bench at the main railway station. Together at last, they were able to leave behind the hell of war, returning to Spain on 6th December 1943.
During the years that Ataúlfo lived in Germany, the Spanish National Orchestra – Orquestra Nacional de España – was created. Bartolomé Pérez Casas, a celebrated musician in his 70s, was nominated its first conductor. The opportunities for musicians were greater now than in 1939, and Argenta had high hopes. He performed as a soloist, and also accompanied others: Antonio Janigro, Henryk Szeryng, Garspar Cassadó, Victoria de los Angeles and Beniamino Gigli.
Angelines, another daughter, was born on 31st March 1944. That year Argenta was to be blessed on many occasions. In addition to the birth of his little girl, he also rejoiced at being re-united with Carl Schuricht in Madrid. The great German maestro, a tender friend and sound advisor to Argenta, arrived in May to conduct three concerts with the National Orchestra in the Palacio de la Música in Madrid. Furthermore, that same year, Ataúlfo worked with the National Radio and became head of the chamber orchestra, which had been formed especially with the intention of making broadcasts, these lasting until April 1946.
In 1945 Argenta was appointed professor of piano, celesta and musical timbre with the National Orchestra. In January of that year, with the help of various financial sponsors, he formed the Madrid Chamber Orchestra, made up of musicians from the National Orchestra. At the National Radio Ataúlfo gave two concerts per week. He was busy but deeply satisfied and confided in an interview with Antonio Fenández-Cid:
“I work hard, never stop for a second, but have you any idea of what I get in return? All of them are magnificent teachers, excellent people, passionate about their work like I am… You will never see anyone pulling a face or complaining, or there being difficulties. In nine months we have given more than 120 concerts.”
In fact, in nine months, it was 125 concerts.
Yet the life of the orchestra was short lived. Not so for the Chamber Orchestra, which thanks to Luis Bolarque, who was to become a close friend of Argenta, was given a new lease of life, with the creation of the Society of the Friends of the Chamber Orchestra which allowed for a fixed regular income.
On 1st March 1945, at the Teatro Español, Ataúlfo Argenta conducted the new Orquesta de Cámara de Madrid for the first time. The program included works by Bach, Corelli, Schubert, Haydn and Mozart. He toured with the orchestra throughout Spain, also giving concerts in the “Ateneo de Madrid” and helping launch many careers: Narcisco Yepes interpreting “Concierto de Aranjuez” at the end of 1947; Maria de los Angeles Morales; Carmen Pérez Durias; Pilar Lorengar; Consuelo Rubio; Toñy Rosado; Teresa Berganza; and the Singers of Madrid with José Perera.
Fernando, Ataúlfo’s fourth surviving child, was born on 4th July 1945. Later that year, on 11th October, Argenta had the good fortune to take over from Bartolomé Pérez Casas as conductor because of the maestro’s ill health, and consequently performed with the National Orchestra at the Teatro Calderón. The evening’s program included works by Weber, Bach, Brahms, Debussy and Turina, and it was an enormous success – Argenta was acknowledged a great musician. Regino Sáinz de la Maza wrote in the ABC newsmagazine:
“In particular, it was Brahms Symphony No. 2, which Schuricht conducted in Madrid only one year ago, that allowed us to see in this new conductor his extraordinary potential.”
The concerts continued and so did the good reviews that followed.
In 1946 Ataúlfo Argenta was named second conductor of the National Orchestra, working with Pérez Casas who was still its director. He would now come into contact with the Orfeón Donostiarra. Franz von Hoesslin asked Argenta to prepare Verdi’s Requiem for the Quincena Musical, a fortnight of musical concerts in San Sebastián. At that time, Juan Gorostidi was the director of the San Sebastián choir and a strong bond and admiration grew between the two men, which would last the rest of their lives. And the concerts continued… Ataúlfo was invited to conduct the Municipal Orchestra of Valencia.
On 2nd January 1947, Argenta was made joint-director of the National Orchestra. He then conducted the four Brahms Symphonies. In addition, he also worked with the Bilbao and Barcelona Orchestras, as well as the Madrid Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra. A tour of Spain was organised with three zarzuelas in mind: La Verbena de la Paloma, Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente, and La Revoltosa.
Ataúlfo Argenta had a tremendous facility for conducting from memory. He also had an extraordinary capacity for work and that, combined with his natural abilities, allowed him to further his talents to the amazement of audiences. In his concerts he was able to interpret works that were unknown to the public along side a more traditional repertoire.
A new opportunity arose for Argenta on 10th June 1948, when he travelled with his great friend Antonio Fernández-Cid to London. There he would make his international debut by conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Harringay Festival with José Iturbi as pianist before an audience of more than 10’000 enthusiastic fans. The first concert blew the audience away. Yet even more important were the concerts that he would conduct shortly afterwards in Paris. From the outset, the French capital claimed this young Spanish conductor as its own. One should not forget that only seven years separated the first and last concerts that Argenta conducted in France, the majority of them in Paris, and during that time he performed over 50 times. At the first concert with the Orchestra of the Society of Concerts of the Paris Conservatoire, something happened which was extremely unusual for the times: as the last musical notes died away, the audience erupted in effusive applause. By public demand, Argenta came back onto the stage no less than five times. When it looked as if the applause was dying down, the orchestra would begin to leave, and then the entire audience, all of the fans standing, would start clapping loudly again for the Spanish maestro, and he would have to take another bow.
That year, Argenta conducted almost all the concerts performed by the Spanish National Orchestra, whilst some were co-directed with Pérez Casas who by now was 75 years old.
In 1948, Argenta took the National Orchestra to Santander, where they gave two concerts in the Monte Corbán cloister. These concerts would be the catalyst for what would later become the International Festival of Santander, which Argenta fought to create along with the other founders, Riancho, Cerviá and Pérez Embid. Eventually Ataúlfo took the lead in organizing the festival, and chose Porticada Square as the orchestra’s temporary base, managing to convince the Ministry of Education that the National Orchestra should be allowed to perform at this location. He personally contracted the international orchestras, ballet companies, conductors and soloists who did not want to travel to Spain for political reasons or even simply because they were mistrustful of actually being paid. Argenta was also present at the Sevilla Festival, where the NO-DO filmed a concert conducted by him, the only such cinematic recording ever made of one of his concerts.
In 1949 Argenta performed for the first time with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Pérez Casas died, and Argenta became sole director of the National Orchestra. He conducted in Barcelona, Valencia, Logroño, Vitoria, San Sebastián, and, of course, Madrid, where he directed 29 programs during the 1949-50 season.
The Spanish National Orchestra played for the first time in the Champs Elysees Theatre, Paris on 6th May 1950. ABC newsmagazine critic, Luis Calvo, wrote the following:
“When the concert finished, no one seemed to know what they were doing. Everyone was shouting and wouldn’t leave. Argenta and the lead players were tired of taking bows, so the conductor decided to do an encore by playing La Revoltosa. The crowd erupted with such fervour that the last notes of the piece were lost in the applause. The Spaniards were exhausted, sitting, stunned, speechless, filled with emotion, whilst the hall shook with ‘bravos’ and incessant clapping, lauding Argenta as he left. Ataúlfo Argenta had to take a bow up to ten times.”
The following day’s performance was sold out. The program began with Strauss’ Don Juan, then Beethoven’s 5th, and lastly the premiere of Concierto de Aranjuez, interpreted by Narciso Yepes the young soloist whom Argenta had taken under his wing. Again, the audience was ecstatic. Argenta signed autograph upon autograph as people stood in endless queues, and eventually, in the early hours of the morning, Argenta’s car squeezed past the fans that stood waiting, applauding him in the street.
After this triumph, he was asked to conduct the National Orchestra of the French Radio Television at the Bordeaux Festival. The concert was yet another sell-out. Argenta’s career was now unstoppable. To his extraordinary musicality was added his ability for hard work, his amazing sensitivity, his assuredness, his clarity of movement, his precision, his control over the music around him, his passion, his personality, and his physical presence, all combining to make him a genius of the conducting world. His interpretation of Berlioz’ Fantastic Symphony was such a success that he was offered the possibility to conduct it with the Orchestra of the Conservatoire of Paris, and later to record it with this same orchestra which was awarded the grand prize by the French recording label.
On his return from France, Argenta became hugely active with the National Orchestra, in addition to other orchestras that he also conducted.
Abroad, his performance schedule was unremitting. In eight years, between 1950-58, Argenta conducted an extraordinary number of different orchestras. Amongst these were the following (and only the major ones are cited): in Germany, the Rias of Berlin, the Stuttgart, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf and Berlin Philharmonics; in Austria, the Symphonic and Philharmonic Orchestras of Vienna; in France, the Conservatoire Orchestra of Paris, and the French National Orchestra; in Italy, the Santa Cecilia of Rome Orchestra (with which he premiered a number of Schoenberg works), Maggio Fiorentino, the Fenice Orchestra in Venice and the RAI of Turin; in Belgium, that of Antwerp and the Belgian National Orchestra; in Holland, the Hague Orchestra; in Portugal, the Oporto Symphony Orchestra; in Denmark, the Radiotelevision Orchestra of Copenhagen; in Britain, the Scottish National Orchestra, and the London Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestras. And finally, in Switzerland, the orchestra at the Luzern Festival, that of the Tonhalle in Zurich, and most importantly, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, for which he was offered the post of director in place of Ansermet who by now was getting old.
On 23rd June 1950 his fifth child was born, a daughter Cristina. And with the success in his career, came financial security of which Ataúlfo and Juanita had always only been able to dream of.
The European music festivals became a regular part of Argenta’s tours from the year 1950 onwards. In Spain, Argenta was also involved in festivals, including the Quincena Musical in San Sebastián, which was the most established. Later would come the festivals in Santander, Sevilla and Granada, the latter being initiated and promoted by Argenta in 1952.
In 1953, Ataúlfo conducted the complete cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies in Porticada Square, Santander. The ovation following Symphony No.9 lasted over 15 minutes.
If Argenta’s workload, by this time, could have been termed formidable, after 1954 it became excessive. For example, he conducted two concerts in London with the Symphony Orchestra. The following day, he travelled to Glasgow to rehearse and give a further concert. He then left for Edinburgh, to conduct in the city’s famous festival with the Scottish National Orchestra. Unexpectedly, he received a call from Madrid: he was required to travel with all due haste to Pamplona to conduct the Spanish National Orchestra in a special concert. He left immediately, and on concluding the concert, he returned once again to London where he boarded the train back to Edinburgh, arriving just in time to conduct the concert that very same night. This phenomenal activity resulted on the one hand in Argenta’s health deteriorating, whilst on the other raising his prestige in the music world, increasing it by the day. He was considered to be among the great young conductors of the time: Karajan, Giulini, Markievitch, Celibidache; and on a par with the great veterans – Schuricht, Ansermet, and Furtwaengler, with whom he had the satisfaction of sharing directorship of the Besançon Festival.
The February 1954 edition of the Ateneo de Madrid magazine published a series of articles titled: “Fifteen years – pre- and post war.” The musical section was written by critics such as Federico Sopeña, Enrique Franco, Fernando Ruiz Coca, and also musicians, amongst them Argenta, who’s opinion was published under the heading “Spanish music in the world.” In the article, Argenta wrote of the situation before the civil war, referring to Falla, Turina and Esplá, as well as some others who were not as famous. He then compared it with the reality as he saw it in post-war Spain:
“Spanish musical composition is at its lowest point ever since Spain was able to name amongst its renowned musicians greats such as Albéniz and Granandos. And what is the cause of the current crisis? One reason, above all others, is the fact that our composers ignore what is happening in the musical world, having turned their backs on it. And where are we in the world’s rankings as far as musical production? At present, practically last. The same could be said in the instrumental field. Our procedures are old, extremely old, and we have only one chance to survive: we either re-invent ourselves, or we die.”
Public indignation resulted in a signed petition demanding Argenta be expelled as head of the Spanish National Orchestra. The campaign to have him removed was initiated by a composer who felt slighted by his remarks, and another musician who was only too keen to take over the position of Commissioner for Music. Argenta’s existence was quite simply a nuisance to both these men.
Argenta returned from a tour of Switzerland with the National Orchestra, and suddenly found himself in the midst of the furore. He came close to resigning his post and moving to Switzerland where the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande had offered him the chance to be joint-director with the grand maestro Ernest Ansermet. However, his friends and, most importantly, his wife – exhausted and with five children to look after – pleaded with him to reconsider and to publicly apologise.
Consequently, as had occurred before in the history of Spain, an individual – in this case a musician – found himself dragged against his will into the politics of the regime. He was manipulated by those with political agendas, as was indeed again the case following his death.
Reconciliatory statements were made rendering Argenta’s enemies powerless to continue the campaign. Argenta, who already suffered from ill health, was so affected by the stress that his condition worsened. Yet the waters had been calmed and at the first concert, which he conducted at the Palacio de la Música in Madrid following the controversy, he was given a standing ovation as he stepped out onto the podium. The fans, well aware of the underhand events that had taken place, made it impossible for Argenta to even start the concert such was their acclaim. For several minutes Argenta stood with his back to the audience listening with great emotion as thousands of people rendered him homage with tenderness and cries of admiration.
By the time 1955 season commenced, Argenta was physically very weak. He was only able to undertake a few concerts, had to share the conducting with Carl Schuricht at the Festival de Granada, and was unable to be present at the Santander Festival. It was with super human effort that he managed to give a number of concerts in Spain, Paris, Vienna and Rome, as well as a tour of five concerts in Switzerland. He returned to Spain extremely ill, where upon the he was diagnosed as having an ischioanal abscess due to suspected disseminated tuberculosis.
Argenta withdrew from all conducting duties and was hospitalized, remaining for some months at the Sanatorio de Tablada located in the mountains outside Madrid. At the clinic, the brothers Zapatero looked after him, both doctors and close friends from Castro Urdiales. Argenta’s physical fortitude meant that his condition improved faster than had been envisaged, and within six months his weight had increased from a skeletal 56 kg (123lbs) to 77 kg (170lbs).
In 1956, Argenta resumed conducting. Firstly, he travelled to Switzerland, and on 27th April 1956, he returned to the podium with the National Orchestra. A full-page photo of Argenta was inserted into the evening’s programme, the accompanying caption stating amongst other things:
“Argenta did not wish the concerts given by the National Orchestra at the Palacio de la Música to be completed without him being present. On the occasion of tonight’s concert, the National Orchestra wishes to pay homage to its maestro.”
On the death of Bartolomé Pérez Casas, Argenta was nominated his successor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando (Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando). Argenta was also awarded the Cross of Isabel la Católica. In June, later that year, he travelled to the Granada Festival, where he performed with the soloist Yehudi Menuhin.
By 1957, Argenta’s musical ascent was irreversible. Consensus was that he excelled in the romantic music of Germany and that of Spain. He doubled his workload both abroad and in Spain. The newspaper Diario and the Institute of Public Opinion voted him as being among the most popular celebrities in the country. Offers of work multiplied. Critical acclaim both at home and abroad eulogised him as a conductor. And it was during this period that he made a great contribution to Spanish classical music, promoting it and actively participating in the recording of its most important zarluelas. Added to that, he made recordings of symphonic music for DECCA, Columbia and Club Francais du Disque, and radio recordings.
By this time Furtwaengler, Toscanini and Guido Cantelli had died. In their place, the names of those who would take over the most important conducting positions in the world, were Celibidache, Bernstein, Karajan, and Argenta. Innumerable eulogies in the European press followed, one of these by the critic Alois Mosser who compared Argenta to Toscanini.
Honours continued to be bestowed: Commander the Order of Alfonso X the Wise; Knight of the Order of Isabel la Católica; Academic of Bellas Artes; Honoury Son of Santander; and Honoury Son of Castro Urdiales.
Argenta was 44 years old and one of the most acclaimed conductors of the times. In that last year, he turned down various offers to conduct orchestras in Australia and in USA, his reason being that he wanted first to establish himself in Europe.
Not only did Argenta work with the best European orchestras, but he was also ranked among the most important conductors in the world and was also rated to be among artists of international fame. With Argenta a new generation of performers became famous who stood along side the veterans of the musical world: Victoria de los Angeles, Teresa Berganza, Pilar Lorengar, Narciso Yepes, Alicia de lo Rocha, Joaquín Achúcarro, Marisa Robles, Gonzalo Soriano…
In Paris, on 24th November 1957, Argenta conducted Brahm’s “Requiem” with Pilar Lorengar, Kim Borg, the Orfeón Donostiarra and the Orchestra of the Society of Concerts of the Paris Conservatoire. Argenta then conducted in Switzerland before returning to Madrid, where he picked up the baton for the last time that year.
At the start of 1958 came the usual and necessary scheduling of Argenta’s itinerary for the forthcoming seasons, a task completed with the help of his artistic agent, Marcel de Valmalete. There would be six concerts in February with the National Orchestra of Belgium; in Rome he would conduct the Orchestra and Choir of Santa Cecilia; in March, in Vienna, the Falla Festival and Medelssohn’s Oratorium “Elias” with the Vienna Boys’ Choir; and he would perform with the Choral and Symphonic Orchestras of Vienna. There would be the recording of Brahms’ Four Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic; in May, recordings in Palestine with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Israel; in Paris, recordings with the Conservatoire Orchestra. Then the Granada Festival, followed by festivals in Belgium in July with the Spanish National Orchestra at the Brussels Universal and International Exhibition. In August, he would travel to Rome; there would be Beethoven’s 9th with the RAI Orchestra of Turin; and at the Santander Festival the Orfeón Donostiarra. In September, the Quincena Musical in San Sebastián, and the Edinburgh Festival, and so on… The schedule did not even include the regular concerts with the National Orchestra.
A Tragic Death
Ataúlfo Argenta had conducted 40 orchestras outside of Spain, had given 720 concerts and had worked with a repertoire of approximately 600 works by the time of his untimely death.
He was an international conductor, with huge appeal, charm and humanity, a straightforward and practical man, with a slim and elegant figure, and a unique interpretative style, earthy, precise, full of life and expression, a huge talent and great musician. During his own lifetime he was idolized both in and outside of Spain.
On 17th and 18th January, Argenta conducted Haendel’s “Messiah” in the Monumental Cinema, with the National Orchestra and the Orfeón Donostiarra, Maria Stader, Norma Procter, Peter Offermanns and Otto von Rohr. It was yet another success for him and an unforgettable experience for all those who were present at the concert.
On 20th January, Juanita left Spain with their eldest daughter, Ana María, to travel to Switzerland where she was to undergo surgery on her vertebrae. Argenta drove them to the airport at nine that morning, and then went straight to a rehearsal with his orchestra at the Teatro Real. The programme for the following Friday and Sunday was to include works by Mozart, Vivaldi, and Schumann’s “Rhenish” 3rd Symphony. Cristobal Halffter was present at the rehearsal, eager to maintain a close relationship to Argenta, his next work soon to be premiered in Madrid, “Two movements for timbal and strings”. That same afternoon, Argenta had an interview with a journalist, and around 8pm he departed for his house in the countryside in the locality of Los Molinos outside of Madrid, to pick up a score which he had left there by mistake. That night he did not return home.
It was on the cold Tuesday morning of 21st January 1958, that Ataulfo Argenta’s lifeless body was found by one of the builders who were working in the house.
The National Orchestra was waiting for the maestro to start the rehearsal. The score for Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony lay open. Someone walked into the rehearsal hall and said: “Don’t wait for the maestro any longer. Argenta is dead.”
Argenta had turned on the ignition of his car whilst still in the garage, had put on the heating and had waited for the engine to warm up. The autopsy confirmed the cause of death: carbon monoxide inhalation. His body was taken to the cemetery in Los Molinos where it was kept during the cold night of 21st January.
Juanita came back from Switzerland immediately – the entire Orchestre de la Suisse Romande personally took leave of her, accompanying her to the steps of the aeroplane. On arrival, the body of Ataúlfo was already at their home on Alfonso XII street in Madrid.
The burial took place on 23rd January in La Almudena cemetery in Madrid. All musical activity in Spain was suspended during the entire week. A number of European orchestras dedicated their forthcoming concerts to the Spanish maestro. The Belgian National Orchestra took the decision that each of the six concerts which Argenta would have conducted, should commence with works by Bach played by the orchestra standing up, without conductor. The Spanish National Orchestra would also do the same in its first concert without Argenta. The Vienna Philharmonic cancelled the concerts programmed with Argenta. As a sign of mourning, the doors of the Madrid, Paris, and Vienna conservatoires remained closed.
The world’s media, in particular in Europe, echoed with the sad news of his death. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande took the decision to help the family by paying for the education of Argenta’s son. Posthumously Argenta was awarded the Grand Cross of Alfonso X the Wise and the first Gold Medal of Castro Urdiales.
On 31st January 1958 thousands of mourners gathered for the memorial service held at the Madrid church of “Los Jerónimos”. As the ceremony drew to a close, J.S. Bach’s Choral Cantata 140 rose from the choir stalls, performed by the Spanish National Orchestra.