Louisiana State University
Having had such a long wait for an English book – or indeed, a Spanish one – to analyse romantic zarzuela from the historical perspective, we should applaud the American historian Clinton Young for doing such a delightful as well as thorough job of it. His book is distilled from the doctoral thesis he finished in 2006, shorn of some historiographical material, but with a substantially new ‘Finale’ which expands the thesis’s brief account of zarzuela during the turbulent years before the Civil War. Young guides us with a sure hand and lively mind through nine chapters, mapping the political and theatrical quicksands of mid-19th century Spain, while showing how zarzuela acted as a beacon light for the popular nationalism which central governments (monarchist or republican) were too weak to foster officially, before sinking into complaisant middle age as the darling of ‘official’, state-sponsored Art.
Although nominally starting in 1880 with the rise of género chico, he provides us with a pair of introductory chapters, allowing for commentary on the classic Barbieri zarzuelas – notably Pan y toros, which he shows to have significantly greater historical accuracy and political wallop than El barberillo de Lavapiés from ten years later. He points out that the 1874 classic dates from a less volatile period, where zarzuela was using historical events to colour essentially romantic plots, rather than for their own sake. Perhaps this rather neglects the nationalist cultural polemics of the ‘Little Barber’, which in consciously evoking Beaumarchais, Mozart and Rossini (as well as punning on its composer’s own name) laid down an artistic gauntlet on behalf of zarzuela against opera, whilst reflecting the ‘servants-and-masters’ social debate of those earlier, theatrical landmarks.
None the less, Young’s analysis of Barbieri’s music – not least his use of the chorus – is judicious. His sharp characterisation of the composer’s great advocate, that bastion of zarzuela theorists Antonio Peña y Goñi, can be downright amusing. Quoting the critic’s decidedly flowery comparison of the Spanish virtues of Barbieri against the Italianate effeminacy of Arrieta:
This is typical of Dr. Young’s unbuttoned writing, and it’s very refreshing to find such verbal fresh air pumped into the habitually stuffy rooms of American academe.
His descriptions of the ‘dog-eared’ plots and musical sensationalism of La tempestad and El anillo de hierro are equally buoyant, while his paragraphs on La bruja (which ‘seems almost realistic – provided one overlooks the main plot device, that of a relatively benign witch being transformed into a beautiful young woman through the power of love’) reveal its focus on a Walter Scott-like moment of change, from the age of popular superstition to the age of modern rationalism. He omits discussion of the same composer’s Curro Vargas, another of zarzuela’s cornerstones, presumably on the grounds that it deals with Spain’s machismo culture rather than her politics.
Having dealt with the so-called ‘zarzuela grande’ decades, Young tackles that unique mix of farce, urban realism and socio-political comment that is the género chico, plotting a steady course through the shoals of one-act works central to zarzuela’s repertoire. From his chosen historical perspective, he has an unerring sense of what’s important and what isn’t; and his comparison of the underlying political elements in Chueca’s stellar 1886 pair, Cádiz and La Gran Vía, is brilliant. Young sees that their very different virtues – a series of almost depersonalised tableaux in which the all-important chorus represents the mass of Spanish people, versus a surreal sketch show of urban reform which finds a place on stage for such impersonal nouns as Petroleum and Gas – are complementary, rather than conflicting.
The 1890’s classics are given plenty of space, not least La verbena de la Paloma (‘if any other operetta opens with two elderly gentlemen singing about the effectiveness of purgative cures, I have yet to encounter it’). The book points to a host of details revealing the zarzuela’s socio-politics, less overt than Chueca’s from the previous decade, but far from the anodyne comfort espoused by lyric theatre elsewhere. There are one or two sloppy details: is there really ‘sprechtgesang’ [sic.] in La revoltosa? I find no precisely notated sprechgesang in my score, although there is plenty of spoken text over music, as in many other género chico pieces. Nor can I find anything in the Mari Pepa/Felipe duet resembling a waltz, while the allegro animato certainly develops into a jota. ‘Charles Traubner’ (meaning Richard) is unfortunately carried over from the 2006 thesis. Such foibles hardly detract, though, from the sterling quality of the book’s many género chico analyses.
He is good, too, on the sea-change which overcame Spain (and zarzuela) after the disastrous Cuban War of Independence (1898), presenting an eloquent exposition of Caballero’s Gigantes y cabezudos which places it at the pinnacle of zarzuela’s growth, at least as an art form connecting with contemporary politics. Young avidly describes its stage riots, feminist tint and ‘regional’ muscle, based on the ubiquitous jota. Although he classifies La viejecita as género chico (which it isn’t quite, being one of many one-act zarzuelas written between 1850 and 1930 which reference the long-standing aristocratic tradition of romantic, ‘zarzuela chica’), he illuminates its political content finely; doing the same – in some of the book’s very best pages – for the surprising historical ramifications of Chapí’s El tambor de granaderos.
Clinton Young is first and foremost a historian. That’s his great strength, but I think that his boat briefly enters choppier waters when it comes to the alleged ‘decline’ of género chico around the turn of the century, and the over-hyped ‘invasion’ of Viennese operetta a few years later. In both cases he follows what I would call the received narrative of Spanish musicology (as all we English-speaking commentators were doing around the millennium!) This narrative, taking wing from such pre-war studies as Marciano Zurita’s 1920 history of género chico, was set in stone under Franco’s regime, and bedevilled zarzuela studies until very recently. So in overlooking the political mirror provided by zarzuela ínfima between c.1898 and 1910, Young misses the chance to examine such excellent – and in their time massively popular – zarzuelas as Viérgol and Calleja’s El poeta de la vida (1910), with its heady mix of girly-show sex and socialist lectures on the state of Madrid’s sewers. Zarzuela ínfima gives us soft porn and hard politics in the raw, which was why Franco and the Spanish Church airbrushed it out of history. We’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happened to zarzuela during the first decade of the century. As we now know, much did.
The book also follows convention when it comes to the brief rise and fall of Viennese operetta in Madrid, following the 1909 production of Lehár’s La viuda alegre. Here we have to separate journalistic hype from reality, for the only conflict here was in the press, between traditionalist supporters of género chico zarzuela and the proponents of the new, operetta style which had been developing since the advent of English musicals such as The Geisha in Madrid two years earlier. Close study of those zarzuelas of Lleó, Luna and Vives allegedly in thrall to Viennese operetta contradicts the received narrative, and highlights the equally strong impact in Madrid of theatre music from Paris and London. In any case, the influence of Puccini and Italian verismo opera was more potent than anything else – as Young himself later indicates, in his pithy discussion of José Serrano. What sounds like Lehár almost always reflects a common debt to the Maestro of Lucca.
There’s a sense in which the precise provenance of the parfumerie does not matter so much: the influence of operetta on zarzuela from 1907 or so is a fact, wherever it came from. Yet most of us critics are prone to scream “Vienna!” at anything in triple time; and Young is no exception, hearing non-existent ‘Viennese waltzes’ in La corte de Faraón (the two he cites are a Chueca vals and another in French style) and finding Vienna to be a defining influence on Pablo Luna’s stage oeuvre. He views El niño judío as ‘a professional mix of operetta melodies (such as Manacor’s song from Act I — a Viennese waltz) and oriental exotica.’ Yet Manacor’s song is something rather different: ‘a romanza in clear Spanish style’ (to quote Emilio Casares from Diccionario de la Zarzuela), which just happens to be in triple time. Young’s thrust is questionable, because El niño judío is not Viennese operetta transplanted into fresh, Madrid soil, but an impudent flowering of the city’s old zarzuela forms in the style of her modern revues. Just about every number is based on urban dance forms – even the ‘exotic’ Danza India is in the style of a pasodoble – and the zarzuela is as much about Madrid, start and finish of its picaresque journey, as it is written for Madrid. I can’t help feeling that here at least, the siren of Vienna has led Dr. Young astray.
There’s a return to form when the book turns to the pastoral fashion for rural (and later ‘regional’) zarzuelas such as Maruxa, which amusingly relates Vives’s own doubts concerning the heroine’s relationship with her pet sheep, Linda, as well as thoroughly appreciating the work’s musical virtues. We are taken with a firm grip through the political changes of the early 1920’s, where Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship sought an establishment partner in zarzuela. Despite the musical wonders of Doña Francisquita, Dr. Young is surely right to feel that by the late 1920’s ‘Zarzuela, which had once represented vital Spain, had become a part of official Spain’.
Once again, the historian has many fresh things to tell us about those 1920’s zarzuelas, however decadent he may consider them to be (I shuddered at one sentence, in which Young suggests that were ‘high quality kitsch, not unlike Downton Abbey’. Lord save us! Can zarzuela be that bad?) It’s instructive, for example, to find such quotidian material as El último romantico given the Young Treatment, as he details the careful, historical accuracy of its 1872 and 1887 Madrid settings, making a plausible case for Soutullo and Vert’s last opus as ‘possibly the most self-reflexive piece of musical theater ever written … a meditation on the history of zarzuela’. He convinces me there, although La chulapona runs it close (and certainly has a far better score.)
And here we come to the only seriously limiting aspect of Music Theater and Popular Nationalism in Spain: the fact that it stops, more or less, in 1930. There are a few well-chosen words on La del manojo de rosas and other contemporary urban sainetes, and a quirky section on Luisa Fernanda. Young the historian outlines the 1868 political struggles of the libretto impeccably; but building your interpretation on the premise that the ‘Habanera del Saboyano’ is the only music in the score which ‘could be considered even vaguely folkish or Spanish’ will strike most listeners, I imagine, as perverse. What number in this beloved score does not sound Spanish? Here surely is no ‘operetta’ with a forced happy ending, but a zarzuela with a deeply tragic denouement: it’s not for nothing that Emilio Sagi’s production had Luisa turning back, undecided between her two men. The moral here is that, although we may (like Vidal) despise politics, we can’t avoid its consequences; and the creators of Luisa Fernanda made a piece of lyric theatre which, like all good art, acts on us ambiguously at a variety of levels. Perhaps for that reason music theatre and history make difficult bedfellows, but that is another question entirely.
So I wish that Dr. Young hadn’t stopped there, but had gone on to look at zarzuela in relation to the politics of Franco’s regime in the 1940’s and early 1950’s, before the genre spluttered to a creative halt. It would have been good to have had his thoughts on such religiose, redemptive dramas as Torroba’s La caramba; the stream of neo-classical historical zarzuelas represented by Luna’s Las Calatravas; and most of all on Sorozábal’s deeply interesting series of post-war zarzuelas, not least the daringly satirical Black, el Payaso – ironically enough, one zarzuela which drinks genuine Viennese blood, though vampirising its operetta models slyly enough. To give us the story of Spain’s romantic zarzuela and its relation to her political history without the denouement, is frustrating.
No matter. We can be grateful for Young’s deep mining of the rich political content to be found in – or in some cases conspicuously missing from – the librettos and musical scores he puts under the microscope, from Jugar con fuego to La calesera. If I’ve spent too much space quibbling with sins of omission, let me make it clear: this is a well-researched and handsomely written book. It admirably fulfils its double aim, providing a clear and generally reliable historical context for romantic zarzuela, while showing how the genre interacted with nationalism in many, varied ways. As a bonus, the author’s bright erudition provides illuminating accounts of plenty of the individual works which make this genre so special. Music Theater and Popular Nationalism in Spain is a book to which I shall return many times, for pleasure and instruction.
© Christopher Webber 2016
14 March 2015