Aranjuez with a Blue Guitar

by Dianne M. Hunter

October 6, 2013


A constructed memory of the moment I first heard Miles Davis playing the "Concierto de Aranjuez" on the Sketches of Spain album served to structure with pleasure my transition from elementary school to Junior High School. The unraveling of this memory more than fifty years later demonstrated how the idea of trumpet playing and overseas travel served to master associations I had to Spain as an intrusive power.


PsyArt Conference, Instituto de Investigação em Arte, Design e Sociedade, School of Fine Arts, University of Porto, Portugal, June, 2013.

      Aranjuez with a Blue Guitar

       “History is … what you can remember.  All other history defeats itself.”     --W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That (authors’ italics).

       Here is what I remember:

In Roxanne’s room, there is a pale-blue phonograph, about twelve inches square, set on its own small table next to an east-facing window.  It is an autumn afternoon, and the sun is shining.  I am about eleven years old.  Roxanne and I are in the same class at school, though I don’t remember her from there.

       Roxanne opens the little traveling-case record-player and puts on a record.  I hear castanets, a guitar, and the sounds of someplace far away, overseas.  The music is beautiful and sad, unlike anything I have ever heard before.  Out comes an amazing, rising trumpet solo that is even more beautifully sad, solitary with some kind of military-background snare drums.

       On April 1, 1966, I buy a record, Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain.  When I play it, out comes the sound of castanets and a mournful trumpet with an orchestra supporting it.  I hear the “Concierto de Aranjuez,” and am transported back to 1955.  I see Roxanne’s room and that afternoon very clearly, and remember how transfixed I was by first hearing this melody.  My introduction to jazz, it remains a threshold memory of my world opening out.  The fusion of jazz with classical music creates part of its appeal, bringing American individualism and improvisation together with European traditions.  I think I can hear a bullfight and the Spanish civil war of the 1930s in the background of the album.  The sound of it transports me both to the past and overseas.

       In 2011, a childhood friend posts on Facebook a picture taken during a sixth-grade class trip to Albany, New York in 1955, when we met then-Governor Averill Harriman, who appears in the center of this photograph.  Facebook friends from that class begin tagging people in the photo.  I notice that Roxanne has been tagged as “Unknown,” so I suggest in the photo’s comment section that the unknown girl is Roxanne.  Nobody seems to remember Roxanne except me.  I have a very clear memory of the day I heard Miles Davis in her room in Tannersville, New York; but that is all I remember about her. 

       I find Roxanne listed with a website of paintings associated with an art gallery on the east end of Long Island, New York.  Via the gallery’s website, I email Roxanne asking her whether she lived in Tannersville in the 1950s.  When, after some hesitation and rigmarole in regard to a recent identity theft she experienced, she replies that yes, she is that Roxanne, I send her a copy of the Albany photograph and ask her if she is the girl I had thought must be her in the picture.  After some confusion, it emerges that yes, the girl tagged as unknown is indeed who I thought she was.

       I describe to Roxanne the day in her room when, I remember, I first heard Sketches of Spain.  Roxanne replies “You remember me to have had much more sophisticated musical tastes than I remember having, although 78 rpm does ring a bell.”

       I tell Roxanne I am thinking of going to Gurney’s Spa in Montauk for Thalassotherapy and staying not far from where Roxanne is now living.  I think of how driving New York Route 27 to land’s end at Montauk on a clear summer day with the car roof and windows open to the blue of the sky and the blue of the ocean on both sides of the island gives me a sense of infinity.  I think of the East End of Long Island as a sensational place, a summertime paradise.

       After we met up for dinner, Roxanne told me that I seem peeved at her for not remembering the day in the 1950s I described to her.  She had gotten curious, looked up the album, and found that it had not been produced before 1960, so what I remembered could not possibly have occurred.  I am baffled by the apparent disturbance of memory. 

       Looking into this, I read in liner-notes by Nat Hentoff that the Sketches of Spain album had come about while Miles Davis was on the West Coast of the USA in 1959, when a friend of his played him a recording of the Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra, by the (blind) Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999).  Miles Davis listened to the record for a couple of weeks, couldn’t get it out of his mind, and then played it for Gil Evans.  A 2001 television biography of Miles Davis directed by Mike Dibb for UK channel 4 presents another perspective on the beginning of Sketches of Spain.  Miles Davis’s wife Francis Taylor Davis recounts taking him to a flamenco performance in New York City, where he first heard the Aranjuez melody.  These earlier versions of this work fed through Miles Davis into the Gil Evans arrangement that was recorded in New York City between November 1959 and November 1960. 

       The original composition had been prompted by a meeting in Paris between Rodrigo and the classical guitarist Regino Sáinz de la Maza in 1938.  Completed by the following spring, the piece was dedicated to de la Maza, who, together with the Barcelona Philharmonic Orchestra under César Mendoza Lasalle, gave its first performance in 1940, at the Catalan Music Palace in Barcelona.  Immediate critical acclaim brought Rodrigo’s work to the attention of the public, and the Spanish government showered him with honors.

       Though audiences thought the 1937 bombing of Guernica had inspired the Concierto’s second movement, Rodrigo’s wife Victoria Kamhi identified the Adagio as both an evocation of the happy days of their honeymoon and a response to the composer’s deep disturbance by the miscarriage of her first pregnancy.  A three-part Sonata form in which two quick, bright sections frame the slower, darker part in their midst creates a dialectic between pleasure and grief that informs the allure of the composition.

       I look at the three sections of the album’s cover: broad stripes of color—a five-inch swathe of burnt yellow on the top, five inches of blood red in the middle, with a two-inch strip of black at the bottom.  Where the sunny top part meets the red middle ground, a black bull advances from the right side, dragging its shadow.  On the side of the cover opposite the advancing bull is a silhouette of a man painted black and playing a black, elongated trumpet.  He casts a long, thin shadow in front of him that stretches in the direction of the bull.  The whole cover is flecked over with white marks that make it look weathered.  The small silhouettes of the man and the bull stand out from the rest, pick up the black base of the cover and dominate its colors of passion and late-afternoon sun.

       The cover reminds me of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters poem “You Hated Spain,” in which the narrator says his first wife was frightened by the “blood-raw light” of Spain, “the African/ Black edges to everything.”  During their honeymoon, July 1956, she “saw right down to the Goya funeral grin” (p. 39).

       Since Roxanne and her family had been living in Spain before I met her, I assume she must have gotten a Spanish record of this piece and brought it back with her to the States, and that is what she must have played for me in her room.  Then, upon first hearing the Miles Davis-Gil Evans version in the 1960s, I projected that back onto what I had heard in the 1950s.

        “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar,” says Wallace Stevens’s  “Man With The Blue Guitar” (1937), evoking Pablo Picasso’s El Greco-inflected 1903 oil painting, “The Old Guitarist,” which Stevens saw in an exhibition of 1935.  Picasso’s (blind) old guitarist actually plays a brown guitar though the overall painting is blended blue.  (The guitar in this painting suggests spirituality and art.  The picture is a palimpsest.  Infrared photography reveals that the underneath the old man and his guitar can be found a woman and child, and a cow licking a calf.)

       We remember stories better than we remember facts.  Memories are supported by wishes to believe that what we remember is actually what happened.  We make up stories about ourselves and come to believe the stories, a process of self-creation.

       I listen to a CD of the Pepe Romero-Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields recording of Concierto de Aranjuez conducted by Sir Neville Marriner.  When the orchestra gets to the famous adagio, I realize that I am not hearing a trumpet but what I take to be an oboe, but which turns out to be an English horn.  Having been familiar with neither an oboe nor an English horn in the 1950s, I surmise that I must have then taken the English horn to be a trumpet when I first heard the piece. 

       I explain this to Roxanne, who says that though she vaguely remembers having had a record player in her room, she had no records there, and that no one in her family had had a record of the Concierto de Aranjuez.  The only music Roxanne remembers having in her room was in a jewelry box and it was not the Concierto de Aranjuez.

        Having a record player but no records I find difficult to fathom.  However, I decide to consider as a construction the scene of hearing Sketches of Spain in the 1950s, and set about trying to discover what had made the affect of this scene so strong and clear, so that it now resembles an obsession as well as a mystery.  Though I consider it phantasmatic, the scene in Roxanne’s room remains lodged in my mind as an actual event.  Like the Adagio itself, my memory of first hearing it haunts me.  I wonder about the relationship between obsession and haunting.

       I receive a notice of a Fall 2012 lecture to be given at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute by Clinical Psychology Professor Lissa Weinstein, Ph.D.: 

“Examination of the thematic and structural elements of stories written by adults about middle childhood opens a window into how the cognitive and affective shifts of latency are internalized and memorialized. These stories are works of mourning for the relationship with the parents and the childhood self, but more importantly, attempts to transform the inchoate experience of latency through the retrospective creation of a coherence that was initially absent.”

       Dr. Weinstein’s phrases about mourning the childhood self and inchoate experience transformed through retrospective creation of coherence that was initially absent sound apt, as does the focus on latency.  But I think I am less mourning my grade-school self than trying to revive it.

       Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society (1950) defines mastery of schoolwork as the central task of the latency stage of development, when children acquire methods and competencies, such as reading skills.  This suggests something about why what I had heard as a trumpet solo was so impressive to me.  It represented a skill I wanted to have in grade school, where I learned to play the trumpet.  In sixth grade I tuned in on reading, writing, and speaking as pleasures and as vehicles of participation at school.

       I ask Roxanne whether she remembers the day our Junior High School History teacher Mr. Flahive had asked us what happened in 1588, and I came up with the answer, “The Defeat of the Spanish Armada.”  Roxanne says she remembers Mr. Flahive.  I remember being pleased that the Spanish invasion turned into a victory for the Virgin Queen, whose Armada portrait I first saw in our sixth-grade Western Civilization textbook.  So, I think, the idea of Spain as an intrusive force that could be repelled might be part of what I brought to Sketches of Spain.

       The Armada portrait of Elizabeth shows the chaos of the drowning Spanish fleet at her back with her face looking toward calm waters, her right hand in the foreground on a globe, with her fingers covering the Americas.  She is outfitted in an imperial garb of lace, bows, pearls, and puffed sleeves that make her arms look enormous.  Face and hands are the only parts of the body that show, and these look small in relation to the costume and setting around them.  Looking now at the Armada portrait’s allegory in the context of psychological transition from incoherent childhood to tuning in language and schoolwork in sixth grade, I see the Virgin Queen turning her back on chaos and facing clear sailing.  This projects England, and to my mind, English, as a global power, personified as youthful and female.  

       Rodrigo said he wanted his Concierto to capture “the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds, and the gushing of fountains” in the gardens at the Royal Palace in Aranjuez. Researching the history of Aranjuez (located 47 kilometers south of Madrid, half way to Toledo), I discover that it is sited on a fertile plain where rivers converge, once home to Commanders of the Order of Santiago.  It was none other than Philip II, the one-time king of both England and Spain--as well as Portugal and the Netherlands--who converted the place into a royal site (in 1561) and had its palace built as a summer residence.  Aranjuez contains a botanical garden, created in 1551, with a distillery of fragrant, medicinal waters.  Splashing waterfalls, especially La Cascada de las Casanuelas in the Jardin de la Isla, built in the eighteenth-century, add to the tranquility, exhilaration, and acoustical pleasures provided by bird songs.

       Rodrigo’s sensational evocation of Aranjuez reminds me of the luscious vegetation and watery atmosphere of the Long Island Hamptons in summer.  Montauk, a seascape, seems an ideal place for ocean-water therapy, immersion in a hot whirlpool of sea minerals.  A woman from Ecuador administered my Thalassa treatment at Gurney’s spa.  In Spanish-accented English, she told me she had never heard of King Philip or his Armada.

Works Cited

Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and Society [1950] (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963).

Davis, Miles. Sketches of Spain, arranged and conducted by Gil Evans (New York: Columbia Records, c. 1961).

Dibb, Mike. The Miles Davis Story (UK: Channel 4 Television Corporation, 2001).

Fink, Michael, “A Spanish National Treasure,” liner notes to Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez, Pepe Romero, St. Martin of the Fields (Philips Classics Productions, 1993).

Gower, George (attributed) et al. “Armada Portrait” of Elizabeth I, c. 1588.

Hentoff, Nat, Sketches of Spain album cover notes (Columbia Records, c. 1961).

Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

Marriner, Neville. Roderigo, Concierto de Aranjuez, Pepe Romero, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, recorded in London at Watford Town Hall, July 1992 (Philips Classic Productions, [1993] 1994).

Sellar, W. C. and R. J. Yeatman. 1066 and All That (London: Methuen [1930], 2009.)

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965).

Weinstein, Lissa, “Coherence, Competence and Confusion in Fictional Narratives of Latency: A Look at How the Real is Remembered,” lecture given at the New York Psychoanalytic Society Institute, New York City (3 October 2012).

Yeatman, R. J. and W. C. Sellar. 1066 and All That (London: Methuen [1930], 2009).


Dianne Hunter

Department of English

Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, USA


To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Dianne M. Hunter "Aranjuez with a Blue Guitar". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: July 3, 2013, Published: October 6, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Dianne M. Hunter