Dubbed 'the Spanish Mozart' by his biographer and descendant, Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga was steered into a musical career by his ambitious father and older brother. His music reveals a gift for writing melody, a strong sense of structure, and a love of chromatic harmony. His death at the age of just 19 cut short a promising career.
Arriaga was born in Bilbao on 27 January 1806, the son of an organist, royal clerk and schoolteacher who later became a merchant and shipowner. His brother, Ramón, was a violinist and guitar player who, along with his father, had established contacts with the musically influential in Madird court circles. Arriaga is thought to have begun composing at the age of 11 and by September 1821 had produced about 20 works, including an opera, Los esclavos felices, from which only the overture and a few fragments remain.
In September 1821 Arriaga travelled to Paris, where the Spanish ambassador introduced him to Cherubini, then an inspector at the Conservatoire. He was admitted to Fétis's counterpoint and fugue class, deservedly winning prizes in 1823 and 1824, and Pierre Baillot's violin class.
In the meantime, Arriaga continued his composing activities, exhibiting a powerful strength of invention. Three string quartets were published by 1824 and a symphony, showing the influence of Beethoven and Schubert , was one of Arriaga's last works. It is thought his death on 12 January 1826 at age 19 was the result of exhaustion combined with a pulmonary infection.
Clearly Arriaga's potential was never fully realised. Fétis, his teacher at the Conservatoire, was enthusiastic about his abilities and though many of his works are now lost, those that remain reveal a remarkable musical talent. His posthumous reputation was guaranteed through the activities of Emiliano de Arriga in the 1880s, and reinforced by Emiliano's son, José in the 20th century.