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Arriola, Pepito

Category: Musician or composer

José “Pepito” Rodríguez Carballeira (December 14, 1896 – October 24, 1954) was a child prodigy pianist, born in Ferrol, Spain.  Arriola would go on to become a great violinist as well, impressing the whole of Europe with his later great concerts in the German city of Leipzig and in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg.

Reincarnation or unusual functional ability?

One of the more interesting discussions in Gabriel Delanne’s book Materials for use in the Study of Reincarnation is about the nature of child prodigy –where does it come from?  Is the child a reincarnation of a very talented musician, or is he or she the receiver of unusual functional ability? 

Gabriel Delanne -  Materials for use in the Study of Reincarnation.

I had a pleasure to see at the 1900 Psychology Congress the young Pépito Ariola, who at the age of 3 and a half played and improvised on the piano with a variety of tunes.  Professor Charles Richet published a study on this case in which he states: "he played six compositions of his own in the presence of the King and Queen of Spain, which were notated, because he himself does not know the notes and can neither read nor write.

He imagined a special fingering: he substitutes the octave with skillfully executed arpeggios. When you hear an improviser, it is often very difficult, continues Professor Richet, to say whose invention it is and what is reproduced by the memory of tunes and pieces already heard. However, it is certain that when Pépito starts improvising, he is almost never out of time, and he often finds extremely interesting melodies that have seemed more or less new to audiences. There is an introduction, a middle, an end, and at the same time a variety, a richness of sound that, perhaps, would surprise if it were a musician by profession, but which for a three-and-half years old child becomes absolutely amazing."

At no stage was there any mention by his family of any former life details, and his biography mentions no flashbacks to a former life.  He simply played with an ability which was most unusual, thus we have classified it as such - inspiration coupled with unusual function ability!  It is worth noting however that Leon Denis and Gabriel Delanne considered him a case of reincarnation.

But, another aspect that indicates a unique ability and not reincarnation is that Arriola at the age of three, could read neither music nor written language and thus his process of composition was highly unconventional. He would sometimes use a blank piece of paper, indicating the nature of the piece (sonata, waltz, etc.) with a symbol at the top.  Then follow it by lines and notes. Afterward, he is described as setting the paper down in front of him saying “I will play that”.  One would expect a reincarnated musician to have retained something of the ability to use musical notation, but Arriolo then proceeded to improvise ‘remarkably well’. His pieces were described as having a “richness of astonishing expression” ranging from the tragic to the merry.

Thus Arriola, when he was composing, used his own notation merely as a reminder of what he had heard – and what he had heard appears to have been both new and existing.  He makes no mention of ‘celestial music’, but then at three years old he wouldn’t have, one cannot imagine the term was even mentioned.  Instead, he did compose new pieces and as you will see from the list below one of them was recorded when he was theoretically only two and a bit years old - Aurora habanera.  His other pieces are later.

  • Aurora habanera 1898
  • Impresiones nocturnas 1916
  • Hommage à Manuel de Falla/Homenaje a Falla 1942

After his death 12 additional scores were found. They were written in Barcelona after his return to Spain in 1946:

  • Divertimento concertante 1946
  • Tres textos cervantinos voice and orchestra, 1946
  • Aqui lloró Don Quixote,1947
  • Tres textos cervantinos for 2 pianos, 1947
  • Concerto para trompa horn concert, 1948
  • Sehilcht Weise1948
  • Song 1948
  • Don Quixote in DM 1949
  • Seis poesías de Antonio Machado Baritone and orchestra
  • Pequena serenata para cello y piano 1951
  • Concertino piano e orquestra 1953
  • Impresiones Argentinas

The Child Prodigy

Arriola's remarkable ability was first discovered at the age of two and a half. The story spread by his mother says that she had received a composition from a friend which she played frequently on the home piano.
One morning, upon hearing the piece played with accuracy and confidence, Arriola's mother entered the room containing the piano and was astounded when she discovered that her son was responsible for the skilled rendition. The young musician, without any formal or informal instruction, began his career as a pianist, at times playing pieces he had heard and at other times creating original compositions. After his mother noticed the child’s abilities, she took him with her to Madrid and his career as a concert pianist began.

On December 4, 1899, not yet three years old, Pepito Arriola gave his first public performance to an audience of music critics and musicians. Just after his third birthday on December 26 of the same year, Arriola held his second concert in the Royal Palace of Madrid in front of the King and Queen playing six original compositions!

The Story Of Pepito Arriola Told By Himself - My Earliest Recollections

So much that was of interest to me was continually occurring while I was a child that it all seems like a kind of haze to me. I cannot remember when I first commenced to play, for my mother tells me that I wanted to reach out for the keyboard before I was out of her arms. I have also learned that when I was about two and one-half years of age, I could quite readily play after my mother anything that the size of my hand would permit me to play.

I loved music so dearly, and it was such fun to run over the keyboard and make the pretty sounds, that the piano was really my first and best toy. I loved to hear my mother play, and continually begged her to play for me so that I could play the same pieces after her. I knew nothing of musical notation and played entirely by ear, which seemed to me the most natural way to play. At that time, word was sent to the King of Spain that I showed talent, and he became interested in me, and I played before him.

And in addition:

The Story Of Pepito Arriola Told By Himself - My Friendship With Arthur Nikisch

A short time afterward, Herr Arthur Nikisch, conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra at Leipsic, and at one time conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in America, came to Madrid to conduct the Philharmonic Orchestra for a special concert. Some one told him about my playing and I was permitted to play for him. He became so interested that he insisted upon my being taken to Leipsic for further study. I was then four years of age, and although musical advantages in Spain are continually increasing, my mother thought it best at the time that she should follow the great musician’s advice and that I should be taken to the German city.

I want to say that in my earliest work, my mother made no effort to push me or urge me to go ahead. I loved to play for the sake of playing, and needed no coaxing to spend time at the keyboard. In my very early years I was permitted to play in public very little, although there were constant demands made to engage me. I was looked upon as a kind of curiosity and my mother wanted me to study in the regular way with good masters, and also to acquire more strength before I played in public very much.

I did, however, play at the great Albert Hall, in London. The big building holds 8000 people, but that was so long ago that I have almost forgotten all about it, except that they all seemed pleased to see a little boy of four playing in so very big a place. I also played for royal personages, including the Kaiser of Germany, who was very good to me and gave me a beautiful pin. I like the Kaiser very much. He seems like a fine man.


Pepito was born to a liberal family of Ferrol, in northern Spain.  Ferrol is the port of entry for many people – even these days – making trips to Santiago de Compostela and of course it is a Catholic area with links to the Basques [see Shaivites].  His mother was Josefa Rodríguez Carballeira and “having no known father”, his birth certificate has the family name of his mother, which she never used, naming the boy with the last name of his grandfather.

The Story Of Pepito Arriola Told By Himself - My First Regular Instruction

My first teacher, aside from my mother, was a Herr Dreckendorf, of Leipsic. He was very kind to me and took the greatest pains, but the idea of learning the notes was very distasteful to me. I was terribly bored with the technical exercises he gave me, but have since learned that one can save much time by practicing scales and exercises. Although I do not like them, I practice them every day now, for a little while, so as to get my fingers in good working order.

In about six weeks I knew all that was expected of me in the way of scales in octaves, sixths, thirds, double thirds, etc., and my teacher commenced to turn his attention to studies and pieces. For the first time I found musical notation interesting, for then I realized that it was not necessary for me to wait until some one else played a piece before I could begin to explore its beauties. Ah! it was wonderful, those first days with the pieces. I was in a new country and could hardly wait to master one at a time, so eager was I to reach the next one and see just what it was like.

Herr Dreckendorf gave me some studies by Dussek, Cramer, the Inventions of Bach, etc., but before long the fascination of playing beautiful pieces was so great that he found it hard to keep me away from them.

So hungry was I to find new musical works that when I was eight and a half years old I could play from memory such pieces as the B flat minor Scherzo, the A flat major Polonaise, and most of the Valses and Études of Chopin. I also played the Sixth Rhapsody of Liszt and the C minor Concerto of Beethoven.

In the mean time the family moved to Berlin and it became their home.  As he says “I have seen far more of Germany than of my native country, Spain. In fact, it seems more natural for me to speak German than Spanish”.

At the age of seven he came under the instruction of Alberto Jonas, the Spanish virtuoso, who for many years was at the head of a large music school in America. He taught Arriola ‘without remuneration’ and seems to have been very kind to Arriola, acting as a substitute father figure.  He helped him develop a repertory for his concert tours and also made sure that he received a broad training, ‘not confined to those composers whose works appealed most to me’.

The Story Of Pepito Arriola Told By Himself

The result is that I now appreciate the works of all the composers for the piano. Beethoven I found very absorbing. I learned the Appassionata Sonata in one week’s time, and longed for more. My teacher, however, insisted upon my going slowly, and mastering all the little details.

I have also developed a great fondness for Bach, because I like to find how he winds his melodies in and out, and makes such beautiful things of them. I play a great deal of Bach, including the G minor organ Fugue, which Liszt played the devil with in arranging it for the piano. Goodness knows, it was difficult enough for the organ in its original form! I don’t see why Liszt wanted to make it more difficult.

Later life and Death

Arriola would go on to become a great violinist, impressing the whole of Europe with his later great concerts in the German city of Leipzig and in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg.  He died aged 57 on October 24, 1954.

There have been suggestions that Arriola may have been autistic in a minor way, but there is no evidence to show this.  His biography is perfectly lucid and he was clearly interested in other studies, having the benefit of home schooling:

The Story Of Pepito Arriola Told By Himself

I have said that we play as we think. The mind must be continually improved or the fingers will grow dull. In order to see the beauties in music we must see the beauties in other studies. I have a private teacher who comes to me in Berlin and teaches me different studies. I have studied some Latin, French, and the regular school studies. Electricity interests me more than I can tell you and I like to learn about it, but my greatest interest is in the study of astronomy. Surely nothing could be finer than to look at the stars. I have friends among the astronomers of Berlin who let me look through their telescopes and tell me all about the different constellations and the worlds that look like moons when you see them enlarged. It is all so wonderful that it makes one never cease thinking.

I also like to go to factories and learn how different things are made. I think that there are so many things that one can learn outside of a school-room. For instance, I went to a wire factory recently, and I am sure that I found out a great many things I might never have found out in books. One also learns by traveling, and when I am on my tours I feel that I learn more of the different people and the way they live than I ever could from geographies. Don’t you think I am a lucky boy? One must study geography, however, to learn about maps and the way in which countries are formed. I have toured in Germany, Russia, and England, and now in America. America interests me wonderfully. Everything seems so much alive and I like the climate very much.

So inherited ability from his musical mother is a far better explanation for his abilities.  But there is no doubting that he was inspired

The Story Of Pepito Arriola Told By Himself

Putting down the notes upon paper is so tiresome. Why can’t one think the musical thoughts and have them preserved without the tedious work of writing them out! Sometimes before I can get them on paper they are gone—no one knows where, and the worst of all is that they never come back. It is far greater fun to play the piano, or play football, or go rowing.


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