Living la vida loca

Spain has always signified release, irresponsibility and sensuality to the composers of northern Eur

The Royal Albert Hall is about to turn itself into the world's largest and most nutritious tapas bar; a Spanish leitmotif interconnects this year's Proms, illustrating the appeal of a culture that produced the obsessive libertine Don Giovanni and his female equivalent Carmen, the ebullient busybody Figaro and the idealistic madman Don Quixote, who battles windmills in Richard Strauss's symphonic poem and beheads puppets in Manuel de Falla's El retablo de Maese Pedro.

Music celebrates instinct and irrationality; and the Iberian peninsula serves as Europe's nether region - a zone of fierce, loud, foot-tappingly infectious pleasure. For Russian composers, condemned to the snow, Spain has always signified release, irresponsibility, a perpetual rite of spring. It allowed them to be capricious. Glinka spent two years there, collecting the vernacular dances he used in the drilled mayhem of his Capriccio brillante on Jota aragonesa. Rimsky-Korsakov, granted three days of shore leave in Cadiz during his time as a naval cadet, preserved the sultry memory of the place for 20 years before decanting it into his dizzy Capriccio espagnol. Prokofiev's opera Betrothal in a Monastery contains an enchanted, contagious reverie in which the illicit lovers merge into darkness as night falls over Seville; the librettist was Prokofiev's Spanish mistress. "Madrid", an indefatigably jaunty piece for pianola by Stravinsky, evokes the mechanical pianos he heard in the raffish taverns he visited with Diaghilev. In 1967, Rodion Shchedrin rescored Carmen for a battery of rude, rowdy percussion instruments, including a bicycle bell: it sounds as if the Andalusian gipsy has run amok in a Soviet factory.

Bizet, notoriously, composed Carmen without ever visiting Spain. Why risk disillusionment when your imagination is so much more vivid? Debussy ventured across the border just once to attend a bullfight in San Sebastian, and wrote his piano prelude La puerta del vino - an evocation of the Alhambra, with strumming guitars and yodelling rumours of flamenco - after Falla sent him a postcard from Granada. He, too, preferred impressions to actualities. What you hear in Debussy's Iberia is the evaporation of nocturnal perfumes, the echo of a fiesta that has passed by in an adjacent street.

Festivities like the one in Debussy's suite or the dances with which Carmen introduces herself - a shimmying habanera, a cheeky seguidilla, and the riot of stamping and shouting that concludes her aria about the gipsies - explain the appeal of Spanish music. Its plebeian uproar and sensual insinuation challenge the classical, courtly decorum of the north. Anne Sofie von Otter, the incongruously blonde and upright Swedish mezzo-soprano who sings Carmen in Glyndebourne's new production this summer, vowed when she first performed the role a few years ago that she would not indulge in any of the usual vamping. Bizet's score, she later admitted, got the better of her: she involuntarily slipped off her shoes while she sang, and found her hands straying to her hips as she delivered the hoyden's siren songs. No wonder Nietzsche recommended Carmen as an antidote to Wagner and to all the moody introversion of Nordic Europe.

On holiday in Andalusia, Emmanuel Chabrier behaved like one of Carmen's slavering conquests. Women at the beach, he noted, often let their fruity boobs droop out of their costumes, which made him want to sew them in again. "To be of service is my greatest desire," he sighed. These temptations are audible in his orchestral rhapsody Espana, with its salacious wit and florid abandon. While Chabrier concentrated on female charms, Edouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole (actually a violin concerto, dedicated to the freakish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate) sounds like a characterisation of the archetypal Spanish male: swaggering, haughty, highly strung. Sarasate composed his own insanely tortuous fantasia on Carmen, in which the violin plays all the characters - the flighty heroine, her besotted lover Don Jose, and the strutting bullfighter Escamillo.

Stendhal said that Italian music relied on melody, German music on harmony. The life of Spanish music derives from rhythm and its bodily agitation: listen to the clapped hands, stamped feet and clacking castanets behind the scenes at the start of Falla's ballet El sombrero de tres picos. St Teresa of Avila, the mystic for whom the onslaught of the holy spirit provoked voluptuous hot flushes, commanded her followers to dance to the guitar as proof of their faith. Who knows whether they were celebrating God or the pagan imp that Lorca called the duende? The obsessive battering iteration of Spanish footwork often suggests demonic possession. Francis Poulenc compared the bacchanale in Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe with the zapateado at the end of El sombrero, and pointed out that there is no sense of advance in Falla: "The music paws the ground in the same place all the time - which doesn't matter, because it's a Spanish dance." Some dance rhythms are symptoms of dementia. The singer who performs the zapateado in Gimenez's operetta La Tempranica says she has been stung by a tarantula, and responds to the febrile wound by deliciously moaning "Ay!"

All dances mime sex, but Spanish dances combine orgiastic frenzy with a taut, teasing restraint. Think of the tango, with its balletic rules -the Proms offer two Albeniz tangos, orchestrated by Shchedrin - or the fandango, described by Casanova as wickedly lascivious even though the partners are confined to three steps and forbidden to touch. This is the dance the miller's wife in El sombrero employs for her experimental flirting. A fandango restores the appearance of social discipline in the third act of Le nozze di Figaro, but modern fandangos are more likely to spin out of control. Bernard Herrmann composed one for Hitchcock's North by Northwest, turning the chase across the presidential frieze on Mount Rushmore into a maniacal dance. Hans Werner Henze based his own fandango on the crazed capering of a village idiot in a painting by Goya, and imagined the world fragmenting as the revellers gyrate.

A more languid sorcery operates in Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, with a moment of flushed sensuous awakening after a minute or so. Like a nymph tormenting a pint-sized satyr, Bo Derek told Dudley Moore in the Blake Edwards film 10 that she usually listened to Ravel's hypnotic Bolero while she had sex. The dance accompanies a Tantric marathon that lasts 14 minutes, with a final modulation provoking a brassy explosion and releasing a tension that has become intolerable. Ravel's sly, adulterous opera L'Heure espagnole is also about the use that can be made of a sultry afternoon, with the shutters closed to simulate night. In Madrid, five-star hotels nowadays rent rooms during the hours of the siesta, allowing stressed yuppies to enjoy an intermezzo of extra-marital relaxation.

This scorching ardour often lapses into a morbid, penitential gloom. Carmen is a skittish, light-footed hedonist in the first half of the opera; then, having read her doom in the cards, she fatalistically waits to die. Salud in Falla's opera La vida breve arrives uninvited at her lover's wedding and begs him to kill her. When he declines, she falls down dead anyway, without needing to commit suicide: the frenetic intensity of her feelings finishes her off. The glottal, guttural "Ay!" of the flamenco singer in Falla's gipsy ballet El amor brujo is the ululation of erotic misery. Miles Davis appropriated the guitar's lament from Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, and turned it into a strung-out existential threnody. Davis kept a bullfighting poster on his wall while recording Sketches of Spain in 1959; for him, playing the trumpet was like wielding a sword, and required a risky existential bravado. He was delighted when told that a retired matador in Spain had heard his album and responded to it by hobbling out into the ring to skewer one more bull. The saeta - an arrow of grief, like that with which the angel punctured St Teresa's heaving breast - provokes the same grieving chant in George Crumb's Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, a setting of poems by the martyred Lorca.

Thanks to its empire, Spain universalised itself; the Proms therefore have made room for Latin American composers. Astor Piazzolla's tangos caught the sozzled, sleazy romanticism of the waterfront dives and bordellos in Buenos Aires, and used this cheap music to make what the composer John Adams has called "a tragic statement". The Mexican communist Silvestre Revueltas transplanted Stravinsky's rites of human sacrifice to his own home ground in Sensemaya, a ritual incantation derived from a voodoo ceremony, or La Noche de las mayas, which conjures up the savagery of Chichen Itza, where carnivorous deities ate the hearts of disembowelled acolytes and the sun consented to go on shining only if it could drink human blood. This menu of musical tapas is not meant for vegetarians. In anticipation, all I can say - making my tonsils vibrate like guitar strings - is "Ay!"

The BBC Proms (020 7589 8212) run from 19 July to 14 September. Carmen is at Glyndebourne (01273 813 813) from 25 July to 24 August