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The castanets are a centuries-old, percussion instrument whose earliest recorded history dates to over 1000 B.C. and whose origin is attributed to the Phoenicians, a culture imminently commercial, who thrived in the countries surrounding the basin of the Mediterranean: Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Spain. However, over the course of history, it has been Spain that has conserved and developed their use and as such, the castanets are considered the cultural patrimony of Spain (they are considered the national instrument of the country). Thus, the castanets are usually used with the music that gives a Spanish color and character to that music.
The castanets consist of two pairs of shallow, cup-shaped, pieces of special wood, usually chestnut (castana), although other woods and materials have been used in more contemporary times. Each pair is drilled to receive an ornamental cord, which is looped round the thumb. The pairs usually differ slightly in pitch; the lower is called macho (male) and the higher hembra (female). The higher-sounding pair is usually held in the right hand. The cups hang downwards and are manipulated by the fingers. Each instrument is handcrafted and molded to fit the size of hand of its professional user.
But this Spanish style of castanet-playing is rarely used by an orchestra in modern scores, not only because they are difficult to use and master BUT because there are less than four professional castanet players in the world. Rather, at times, two pairs of orchestral castanets are used, or alternatively a “castanet machine”, in which the cups are secured by elastic to a central piece of wood ending in a handle which is held and shaken.
Castenets are usually employed in music (to give that Spanish character) such as Bizet’s Carmen, Chabrier’s rhapsody Espana and Massenet’s ballet Le Cid. Wagner wrote for them in the Venusberg Music in Tannhauser (1861) where they lead in to the abandoned excitement he depicted. They also help to establish the atmosphere of the scene in the Dance of the Seven Veils in Richard Strauss’ Salome. Britten employed them significantly in his Let’s Make an Opera, where they imitate the cry of a night bird. And they are frequently used to support rhythmic structure, as in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.
The castanets are considered perhaps the most sophisticated of the percussion instruments.
Carmen de Vicente as Castanet Concert Artist
Carmen de Vicente has distinguished herself in her native Spain, and more recently in the United States as a world class master castanet player. Critics, colleagues and audiences in both countries have cheered her phrasing and dynamics, musicianship, and effortless command of the centuries-old percussion instrument.
She has performed with numerous orchestras, pianists, and guitarists in both the United States and her native Spain. Her U.S. performances are numerous:
Alexandria Symphony Orchestra
Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo
Barns of Wolftrap
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Mexican Cultural Institute
Metropolitan Club - Washington, DC
Mount Vernon College
Organization of American States
Spanish Institute in New York City
University of North Carolina
Additionally, several of her Spain performances include:
Real Coliseum de Carlos III. San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Palau de la Música, Valencia
Comité de Artes Escénicas y de la Músìca en Alicante
Centro Cultural Villa de Madrid
Federación Nacional de Centros y Casinos Culturales en:
Gran Peña, Madrid
Centro Cultural de los Ejércitos
Tudela (La Rioja)
Her large and varied musical repertoire ranges from the works of the Spanish masters to the classical works of Mozart and Bach. Equally at ease performing Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez accompanied by classical guitar, or Bach's Brandenburg Concerto # 3 accompanied by piano, she dazzles and weaves the rhythm of the castanets to the music. Her repertoire includes:
Agustin Lara/ Granada
Albeniz/ Cordoba, Castilla, Sevilla
J.S.Bach/ Brandenburgh Concerto No3
G. Bizet/ Chanson Boheme (Carmen)
J. Brahms/ Hungarian Dance No. 5.
T. Breton/ La Dolores
Manuel de Falla/ Danza Ritual del Fuego (Amor Brujo) La Vida Breve, Primera Danza Española
G. Gimenez/ La Boda de Luis Alonso La Tempranica
E. Halffter/ Danza de la Pastora
E. Lecuona/ La Malagueña
F. Garcia Lorca/ Canciones Españolas Antiguas
J. Malat/ Serenata Española
V. Monti/ Czardas
W.A. Mozart/ Rondo en C Major, K 485
Popular and Folklore/ Alma Llanera Popular Venezolana Tico-Tico La Cumparsita (tango) Jarabe Tapatio
J.Rodrigo/ Aranjuez Concerto
Sevillanas/ Anonymous, arranged by Garcia Navas Lagartillo Reverte Fuentes Bombita Mazantini Guerrita Algabeño Machaquito
Padre Antonio Soler/ Sonata No. 84 in C major
J. Strauss/ Tris-Tras polka
J. Turina/ Sacromonte (Danzas Gitanas) Orgia (Danzas Fantasticas)
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