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Argenta was born in Castro Urdiales, Cantabria, one of the two children, and the only son, of the local station master and a worker with the railways, Juan Martín de Argenta, and Laura Maza. Argenta showed a talent for singing as a youth, and sang in the church of Santa María. He later studied violin and piano. His teachers included Vicente Aznar and Blanco Justo. He went to school at Doctrina Cristiana, playing locally in the cinema and at Círculo Católico concerts. He suffered from tuberculosis as a youth.
In 1927, Argenta's family moved to Madrid, where his father worked in the head-office of the State Railways, and where Argenta began studies at the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música (Madrid Conservatory). His teachers included Fernández Alberdi and Conrado de Campo. He won a Premio Extraordinario for piano in 1930. His fellow pupils included Juana Pallares Guisasola, his future wife, who herself won a Premio Extraordinario in her graduation year. Argenta also won the Kristina Nilsson Prize early in 1931.
After Juan Martín de Argenta's sudden death, the family moved to Liège, Belgium, to live with relatives. Argenta made his way back to Madrid to maintain his relationship with Juana. He worked various jobs, including time at the office of the State Railways, playing the piano in dance-halls and bars, and worked as an accompanist and music tutor. He spent his summers in or near Los Molinos, near Madrid, where the Pallares family spent their summers. He continued studies with de Campo and Alberdi. His first public appearance as a conductor was 2 March 1934 with the orchestra of the Professional Association of Conservatory Students.
At the end of 1935, Argenta was named resident conductor at Madrid's Teatro Calderón for the 1936 opera season. After the start of the Spanish Civil War, Argenta volunteered with the Nationalist forces. As the only son of a widow, he was exempt from combat service. He served in a communications battalion and trained in radio-telegraphy. He was involved in the Segovian Falange. During the Civil War, he served behind the northern front almost until the fall of Gijon, the last Republican stronghold in the north. He managed to communicate with his family in Belgium and Juana in Madrid. Argenta and Juana were able to reunite in Nationalist territory, and they married in Segovia on 13 October 1937.
At the fall of Gijón, Argenta’s unit was withdrawn from the front. He fell ill and convalesced in Segovia, where he performed in concerts. He eventually reported late back to his unit, at the wrong location, so that he was accused of desertion. Pilar Primo de Rivera, sister of the late founder of the Falange, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, intervened and the charges were dropped. Argenta was also later accused of spying, but the charges were not proved and he was eventually released. In November 1938, his first child was born, a girl. Argenta was demobilised in July 1939 in Albacete.
Argenta returned to Madrid to try to make a living as a musician. Juana had given birth to their second child, a son, born a month premature and who survived only a few hours, which he learned about whilst at a concert. By the beginning of 1940, Argenta had found work, in review with Jesus Garcia Leoz at Madrid's Teatro Guerrero. He still had ambitions as a concert pianist, and arranged a number of concerts with the support of Cayetano Luca de Tena at the Teatro Espanyol. A visiting German pianist, Winfried Wolf, heard one such concert, and arranged with the German government for Argenta to receive a three-month stipend to study with Wolf in Germany. In July 1941, Argenta attended the Bad Elster music festival, and made the acquaintance of musicians including Carl Schuricht and Franz von Hoesslin. Juana had her third child, a daughter, in Madrid. After the festival, Argenta persuaded Schuricht to intercede with the German government to extend his stipend.
Later in 1941, Argenta moved with Wolf from Potsdam to the university at Kassel. He was appointed Professor of Piano at Kassel and developed his conducting technique there. He conducted the Berlin Radio Orchestra in May 1942. Juana and their two daughters arrived in Kassel to a house in Wolfshanger. Argenta suffered a recurrence of tuberculosis-related symptoms, and halted his work for three months. Later in 1942, Argenta resumed his teaching and performing. In 1943, the family fled Wolfshanger for Spangenberg in the wake of Allied bombing of the area. During this time, their home was destroyed in a bombing raid.
Argenta returned to Spain and began a series of concerts to raise funds and re-establish musical and political contacts in Spain, particularly at the Teatro Espanyol. The rest of his family, with Juana pregnant with their fourth child, arrived in Spain in December 1943. In Madrid, Argenta had difficulties in resuming a career as a concert pianist. In March 1944, his third surviving child, another daughter, was born. His career as a conductor began to develop, initially with his work in forming the Madrid Chamber Orchestra (MCO), sponsored by the banker, Luis Urquijo, the Marques of Bolarque. The MCO began to give concerts in early 1945, with Argenta performing also as a pianist, at the Teatro Espanyol. In March 1945, he auditioned to conduct the orchestra of the National Radio, and in June received a six-month contract to conduct weekly concerts with the radio orchestra. In July, his fourth child, a son, Fernando, was born. In October 1945, he was appointed the resident pianist with the Spain National Orchestra (SNO), conducting it for the first time in November. He appeared later that year as pianist and conductor with the Madrid Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO).
Argenta began to conduct the SNO more often. In January 1946, his radio contract was not renewed. In 1946, the SNO had begun a search for a replacement for Bartolomé Pérez Casas, the aging conductor of the SNO. The candidates included Franz von Hoesslin, and Argenta renewed his acquaintance with von Hoesslin, who later died in a plane crash. Argenta later became the SNO’s assistant conductor, and in November 1946, the SNO's second conductor. On 2 January 1947, he was named joint director of the SNO, and conducted 80 concerts with the orchestra in one year. He made his London conducting debut in June 1948 with the London Symphony Orchestra as part of the London Music Festival at the Harringay Arena.
In November 1948, Argenta was named principal conductor of the SNO, with Pérez-Casas remaining as the SNO's titular head until his departure in 1949. Argenta conducted the first commercial recording of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, with the work's dedicatee and first performer Regino Sainz de la Maza as the soloist. He also directed the premiere of Rodrigo’s Concierto Galante, with Gaspar Cassadó, and the first concert performance of the Concierto de Aranjuez outside Spain, with Narciso Yepes.
In 1950, Argenta and Juana had their fifth and last surviving child, another girl. They settled in Los Molinos. In November 1950, Argenta conducted the Paris Conservatory Orchestra for the first time, and continued to direct them regularly until his death. Also in 1950, Argenta began to conduct a series of recordings of zarzuelas for the Alhambra record label. He eventually made over 50 zarzuela recordings, and recordings of zarzuela selections. He conducted the soundtrack for the film La Cancion de Malibran, which premiered in October 1951.
In 1952, Argenta acquired a new agent, Valmalete (based in Paris). His international engagements began to increase. He helped in the organisation of the first Granada Festival in June 1952, and of the Santander Festival in August 1952. His work with the MCO essentially ceased after the autumn of 1952.
On 15 February 1954, an article written by Argenta was published in the Madrid arts magazine Ateneo. It strongly criticised the Spanish musical scene under Franco, including criticism of Joaquin Rodrigo. Rodrigo himself responded in print. The resulting controversy forced Argenta to apologise for the article, and caused a rupture in Argenta's relationship with Rodrigo. He made his first appearance with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR) in 1954, which led to several later commercial recordings for Decca.
Argenta continued to suffer health problems related to his ongoing tuberculosis symptoms, and underwent 5 months of treatment between 1955 and 1956. He nonetheless continued to make recordings, such as Ernesto Hallfter's Sinfonietta, De Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain with Gonzalo Soriano, work with the OSR, and later in London, the stereo orchestral LP Espana, as well as the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Alfredo Campoli and Liszt concertos with Julius Katchen. His last live concerts were of Handel's Messiah on 17 and 19 January 1958.
Argenta died at his house in Los Molinos on the evening of 20 January 1958, with the cause of death attributed as carbon monoxide inhalation. Juana returned for the funeral from Switzerland, where she was receiving medical treatment. Argenta was interred in Madrid's Almudena cemetery. He was given the posthumous award of the Grand Cross of Alfonso the Wise. A statue of him by the sculptor Rafael Huerta was erected in the garden of Castro Urdiales in 1961. The auditorium of the concert hall in Santander is named after him.
The bulk of Argenta's recorded legacy consists of recordings of over 50 zarzuelas with Alhambra (Spanish Columbia). He also was to record perhaps as many as 80 classical pieces, many for Decca, such as Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. For example, his famous stereophonic demonstration record "España!", with the London Symphony Orchestra, made at Kingsway Hall in January 1957, featured Spanish-themed music by mostly non-Spanish composers. Other recordings include Manuel de Falla's El amor brujo with Ana María Iriarte, Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez with Narciso Yepes, Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain with Gonzalo Soriano, and more obscurely, his recordings of Francisco Escudero and Maurice Ohana.
- "Floodlights on the Alhambra". Time. 1953-07-13. Retrieved 2009-03-22.
- "New Records". Time. 1953-02-02. Retrieved 2009-03-22.
- "Comradely Criticism". Time. 1954-03-15. Retrieved 2008-02-15.
- Exposición, concierto y conferencias recuerdan Argenta en su Cantabria natal, EFE, January 21, 2008. Retrieved 15 February 2008
- Salvador Arias Nieto, Ataúlfo Argenta Una batuta para la historia, Aula de Cultura La Venencia, 2008; Juan González-Castelao, Ataúlfo Argenta (1913-1958): estudio biográfico, analítico e interpretativo , forthcoming June 2008
- Morrison, Robert R. (March 1959). "Zarzuelas on Records". Hispania. American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. 42 (1): 81–83. doi:10.2307/334703. JSTOR 334703.
- Many of these Decca and Alhambra recordings have been released on CD, most notably, Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Ataulfo Argenta (EMI Classics 75097) and The Complete Decca Recordings of Ataúlfo Argenta, 1953-1957 (Decca 4757747/5)
- González-Castelao, Juan (2008). Ataulfo Argenta. Claves de un mito de la dirección de orquesta. Madrid: ICCMU. ISBN 978-84-89457-13-3.
- Fernandez-Cid, Antonio (2003). Ataulfo Argenta. Santander: University of Cantabria. ISBN 84-8102-336-1.
- Fernandez-Cid, Antonio (1971). Ataulfo Argenta. Madrid: Ministerio de Educacion y Ciencas.
- Wade, Graham (2006). Joaquin Rodrigo: A Life in Music Travelling to Aranjuez 1901-1939. UK: GRM. ISBN 978-1-901148-08-4.
- ABC Madrid (1940–1958). "ABC" (microfilm). Daily Editions. British Library.
- Arriba Madrid (1940–1958). "Arriba" (microfilm). Daily Editions. British Library.
- Ateneo Madrid (1952–1955). "Ateneo" (digital). Twice Monthly Editions. Ateneo Digital Library.
- Radiotelevision Espanola. "Ataulfo Argenta" (Videocassette). Biografias. Instituto de Cervantes.
- Ataulfo Argenta (1947–1958). "Various Recordings" (Vinyl & CD). British & Spanish National Libraries' Sound Archives.
- Biography and Timeline on www.ataulfoargenta.com, the official web site of Ataúlfo Argenta (in Spanish). Retrieved 15 February 2008.
- Entry for Ataulfo Argenta on Allmusic. Retrieved 15 February 2008.
- Portrait of Ataúlfo Argenta painted by the Cantabrian artist Gerardo de Alvear (1887–1964). Retrieved 15 February 2008.
- Juan González-Castelao, Biography of Ataúlfo Argenta in the Orquesta Nacional de España programme for «Homenaje a Ataúlfo Argenta», January 25, 26, 27, 2008, pp. 5-12
Bartolomé Pérez Casas
| Principal Conductor, Orquesta Nacional de España
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos