ICCMU - Colección Música Hispana
It’s like an Agatha Christie. One by one, the great zarzueleros are crossed off the list of suspects. Not because they’re dead – though dead, alas, they certainly are – but for the happier reason, that they’ve finally found a worthy biographer. The young, Spanish musicologists who have emerged from the inspirational tutelage of Emilio Casares are producing a splendid body of work, making sure that the creators of Spain’s music theatre tradition are at last getting the treatment they deserve. No longer do we have to rely on those anecdotal, barely researched (though often elegantly written) hagiographies, which take our hero from cradle through endless triumphs to the grave – after which they are treated to flowery state funerals, immortal fame and the tears of all who enjoyed their saintly benison on earth.
I may be exaggerating, but not much. The key fact about the steady stream of Spanish composer-biographies since the appearance of Casares’s own, magnificent Francisco Asenjo Barbieri in 1994 is, that they join a scholarly approach to readable style and high standards of book production. The ICCMU series boasts evocative graphics, copious musical examples, full works lists and – wonder of wonders for Spain – accurate indexes.
That Celsa Alonso González’s eagerly-awaited Francisco Alonso hits the mark in all these departments is no surprise. But its appeal goes far beyond window-dressing. In my opinion, this is a very significant book.
First, because of the artistic significance of its subject. Although this is not the first book to be written about Alonso, in depth, breadth and insight it far surpasses José Montero’s short, genial 1987 Espasa-Calpe volume. In eighteen, very clearly-organised chapters it provides us with a detailed, accurate account of Maestro Alonso’s life and works, including his important work over many decades for the Sociedad General de Autores and its satellites. Celsa Alonso does not attempt to valorise any one area of his music above the others; so the incomparable revues and light entertainments such as Las tocas and Luna de miel en el Cairo are treated with the same respect and attention as the grand, three-act zarzuelas such as La calesera, or the contemporary sainetes such as Me llaman la presumida.
All Alonso’s significant stage works, whatever their size or shape, are fully documented here as to genesis, production and critical-public reception; and lengthily – in a few cases, I feel, perhaps too lengthily – described as to verbal and musical content. Celsa Alonso’s short, critical comments are modestly framed, but quietly incisive. She makes no outrageous claims for Alonso’s oeuvre, but her linear clarity allows the composer to speak for himself. She clearly warms to her subject as a likeable man, but despite that – and the support she acknowledges from his surviving children – her respect for ‘The Maestro’ does not tip over into unthinking reverence. Francisco Alonso lived through times of dizzying, rapid changes in ideological direction, and – like every other prominent artist who chose to stay in Spain after the Civil War – he had to do a certain amount of ducking and diving, merely in order to survive. His (remarkably successful) attempts to remain politically uncommitted from 1936 onwards are objectively described. How did he manage the trick? Well, the sunny positivity of his personality and music shines out from nearly every page, and even hard-shelled politicos were not always immune to that.
Second, because of the socio-cultural significance of its subject. Celsa Alonso lays out her stall in a pithy Introduction, in which she makes it clear that she is interested in this composer, not just for his music, but because his work is at the fulcrum of the great debate about Spanish Identity which dominated her arts throughout the 20th century. At the fulcrum, because while his respectable, ‘regional’ grand zarzuelas such as La parranda and La picarona lie on the conservative side of the line, his revues and girly shows (some of the very best of which, amazingly, were written after Franco came to power) are unashamedly populist and libertarian, full of American dance forms and ‘jazz’ instrumentation, as well as sexy innuendo. Whatever the government – liberal monarchy, right-wing dictatorships, conservative or leftist republicans – Alonso worked … and worked … and worked.
The sections describing the endless political and cultural economic crises through which he lived are magnificently done, from the start of his career during Madrid’s Belle Époque of the 1910’s and early 20’s. After that came Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship with its conflicting emphases on ‘rural purities’ and industrial/fiscal modernisation. Next, the chaos of the Second Republic; and finally the iron, cultural fist of Franco’s early years, with its return to clerical and army oppression and censorship. Celsa Alonso’s grasp of popular cultural history is second to none, and she marshals her deep knowledge to impressive effect throughout.
The composer’s style truly reflects the paradox of her sub-title, ‘The Other Face of Modernity’. Conservative in politics and art, yet a liberal Rotarian … respectful of musical tradition, yet finely attuned to changes in contemporary, popular taste for which he was a flag-bearer (almost literally – from the pasodoble La bandera in the 1919 revue Las corsarias ) … a private family man, yet a public figure who served tirelessly with committees and organisations administrating artists’ royalties … in all these ways Alonso was a likeable, balanced man and creator, happy to face two ways, well adapted to survive and prosper whatever the political weather. He was, as the author puts it, the classic Spanish ‘Conservative modernist’, whether in contemporary revue or giving a ‘modern’ spin to historical zarzuela, as in the late and lovely La zapaterita.
Third, because of the significance of the aesthetic questions Celsa Alonso raises in the course of her book. Some of the most enjoyable passages are those where she relaxes enough to allow herself the space to debate broader issues, such as the – seemingly perpetual! – myth that the Spanish lyric stage was in a state of ‘crisis’ during the 1910’s and 20’s; or to question Serge Salaün’s idea that Alonso was one of those reactionary, bourgeois figures whose 1930’s work was out to discredit the Second Republic. Her defence is centred on irony and the Spanish tradition of double-meanings, whether for political or pornographic purposes (a strategy shared in the latter case, incidentally, with the English.) Nor does she shun post-modern feminist critique of the chorus lines in the ‘girly shows’, or the ambiguities of female emancipation within the ‘romantic’ zarzuelas. She gives credence to the counter-idea, that in a certain sense this portrayal of women is both non-realistic and economically liberating.
I wondered whether she might have gone further with this, to discuss the complex ‘third sex’ semiotics of shows such as Doña Mariquita de mi corazón addressed to homosexual as well as heterosexual audiences. Bakhtin’s idea of ‘Carnivalesque’ (the cynical, joyous theatrical overturning of established authority and morality) might also have helped assuage any Politically Correct guilt about those wonderful revues, but Celsa Alonso chooses not to bring that idea in. Perhaps she felt that her book was already long enough! I feel, though, that the socio-aesthetic hares she raises perhaps deserve a longer chase. With theatre of this quality, it’s hard to believe that its time has gone. The affectionate care with which she describes Las leandras, Doña Mariquita… or Luna de miel… belies their imputed ephemeral ‘frivolity’; and I would happily have read a little more analysis of the musico-theatrical life that these pieces evidently still have for her (and many others) over and above their significance as dead, historical, popular-cultural exhibits.
I could go on… but I hope I’ve conveyed something of my enthusiasm for this lengthy but well-packed biography. Francisco Alonso is more than simply a barometer of 20th century, popular Spanish culture. In his namesake, he has found the ideal musicologist to examine his life and varied output. There are a very few slips and typos, inevitable in a book this long, and some (by no means all) of the sections describing the earlier and less important works might have been pruned. My eyes were not madly keen on the migraine-inducing main text font. Minor quibbles aside, this is a tremendous book, lucidly enough written to be approachable even by such limited Spanish readers as myself, and – especially for those socio-political, contextual chapters – invaluable for anyone interested in Spain’s 20th century music theatre. Yes, another composer can safely be crossed off the Agatha Christie list.
© Christopher Webber 2015
25 January 2015