Manuel de Falla worked on his scenic cantata Atlantida for 18 years, right up until the time of his death. The mystical subject of the disappearance of the continent of Atlantis was made into an epic poem by the Catalan priest Jacinto Verdaguer. This poem, filled with religious and mystical significance, had already inspired a symphonic poem by the Spanish composer Enrique Morera. The subject resonated with meaning for the devoutly Catholic Falla, who had grown up in the regions of Spain where the continent had supposedly disappeared. The reemergence of the continent symbolized the resurrection, and the hope of the eventual unification of all peoples as the parted continents were joined together by this missing piece of land. Falla took Verdaguer's poem and added a multiplicity of other Spanish texts. He used popular, literary, and religious works, such as Spanish "Salve" and parts of the Catholic liturgy. He crafted a libretto that was supposed to imitate the effect of many stained-glass windows in a cathedral. Rather than create a theatrical text that moves through time, Falla created a series of visual and aural scenes that reflect on one another and are filled with poetic and mystical imagery. He creates dramatic unity through the use of a narrator whose vibrant, mellifluous, sonorous oration is crafted from popular elements, such as street cries, religious music, and old Spanish ballads. As the narrator describes events, scenes emerge from his backdrop of declamation.
As Falla worked on Atlantida, he added more and more texts and music, letting the composition grow into a monumental work that some have come to term an oratorio. He was heavily influenced in his conception by his friend Jose Maria Sert, a painter who specialized in grand, elaborate, and very baroque works of art. Sert was to supply the visual backdrop and effects for the finished cantata, which was meant to be staged, but Sert also died before Atlantida was completed. Sert left behind only his ideas in writing, while Falla left pages and pages of rough drafts of music. Some of the sections of the work were completed, but much had not been given a coherent structure before the composer passed away.
Ernesto Halffter, a disciple of Falla and a fellow composer, offered to finish Atlantida. Halffter has eventually come to be considered the co-author of Atlantida because of the amount of work he was required to put into it in order to bring it to completion. Falla attempted in Atlantida to give expression to his highest religious, spiritual, and musical ideals, and Halffter remained faithful to Falla's ideas about the work. The first concert version was given in 1961, and the first staged performance at the Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires on May 3, 1963. The definitive version was given on May 20, 1977, and was considered a brilliant success.