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Forgotten Conductors - Ataulfo Argenta

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This Entry is one of a series in which orchestral conductors of a past era, famous in their own time but largely unknown to a modern generation, are remembered as the musical celebrities they truly were.

Ataulfo Argenta (1913 - 1958)

Relatively little-known today outside his native Spain, during his short life Ataúlfo Argenta did more than anyone to put Spanish music on the musical map, yet his life was dogged by cruel misfortune. In the space of only 20 years he was fêted as a national hero, almost executed by military firing squad, imprisoned (where he contracted typhus), and died bizarrely in his own car.

The son of a railway official in the northern coastal village of Castro-Urdiales, Ataúlfo Argenta was born on 19 November, 1913. As a child, Argenta showed considerable talent for the piano and was admitted to the Madrid Conservatory at the age of only 13. In 1931, he won the Kristina Nilsson Prize which enabled him to study piano in Belgium.

At the start of the Spanish Civil War Argenta was conscripted into the army, but somehow got himself arrested as a spy. Imprisoned, he managed (just) to establish his innocence and escaped execution, but the prison conditions left their mark, affecting his future health. In 1939 he returned to Spain, but making a living as a musician in that ravaged country was very hard. Life now decided to deal him another blow. He married and his wife bore him two children. At only a day old, the younger child died whilst the new father was giving a piano recital. Argenta was told during the interval but had to continue with the second half of the concert knowing that his child was dead.

In 1941, Argenta went to Germany, teaching piano at the Kassel Conservatory and studying conducting with the great teacher Carl Schuricht. Two years later, when the Allied bombing of Germany made life once again very uncomfortable, Argenta and his family returned to Spain, where he managed to get work as a keyboard player with la Orquesta Nacional de España. His conducting debut with that orchestra soon after was a spectacular success, and in 1947 he was appointed as their principal conductor and musical director. Over the next ten years, Argenta transformed the orchestra and became Spain's leading conductor, establishing music festivals at both Granada and at Santander, in his home province of Cantabia.

Argenta's international career was launched in London in 1948, when he was invited to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra. Subsequently he was a guest conductor of a number of European orchestras, including L'Orchestra de la Suisse Romande – where he earned the respect of its founder and conductor Ernest Ansermet – and both the Paris Conservatoire and French National Radio orchestras.

In the early 1950s, Argenta made a series of significant recordings of Spanish and French music. His recordings of about 50 zarzuela, with truly great singers, enabled the genre to survive at a time when its popularity was in severe decline. The zarzuela is a distinctive Spanish theatrical genre that involves spoken dramatic scenes alternating with songs, choruses and dances.

In the mid-1950s Argenta developed tuberculosis – his weakened state of health was a legacy of his imprisonment. The illness was brought on by his heavy performance commitments, and he was obliged to rest completely for several months. Having recovered, he began a series of magnificent recordings, the last of which, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with the Paris Conservatoire, recorded only two months before he died, was this Researcher's introduction to the conductor's work.

On 21 January, 1958, Argenta's performing and recording career was cut short by his early and bizarre death, aged only 44. The Madrid police incident report stated that he and a student were sat in his car in the garage with the door closed and the engine running, apparently in an attempt to warm up. Argenta died of carbon monoxide poisoning; the student survived. Argenta's funeral was a national event, and a day of mourning held throughout Spain. He is buried at the Cementerio de la Almudena in Madrid; a monument to him stands in the Plaza de Los Jardines in Castro-Urdiales.

Argenta was succeeded as principal conductor of la Orquesta Nacional de España by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.

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