Así cantan los chicos
In its quiet way this may be the most important zarzuela recording of 2008. It is certainly the most surprising. But more of that anon… the main point of the disc is to showcase the Escolanía del Escorial in 20th century Spanish repertoire for children’s voices. From Manuel de Falla onwards native composers excelled in writing for boys and girls, none more affectingly than Jesús Guridi in his beautiful Así cantan los chicos. An early (1915) but mature masterwork, this brief triptych captures the joys and sorrows of infancy, through games and songs to the mystery of childhood death, with that special mix of boisterousness and melancholia which Iberians – whether Basque, Catalan, Castilian or whatever – brew best.
At the centre is a funeral, described from the perspective of one of his compañeros, mystified by the dead child’s present-absence “en su cajita blanca” (in his little white box); and the work’s most telling stroke is to cross-cut that musical motif into the tapestry of the lively final song. Life … death: in comprehension of the eternal verities, which of us is not a child? Guridi as so often uses folk tunes to great effect, and his sweet, conservative idiom points up the harsh contrasts implicit in this remarkable slice of sol y sombra Catholic philosophy.
The Escolanía del Escorial perform the cantata with piano accompaniment, and the introspective spirit of their approach provides a valuable alternative to the broader, more colourful orchestral canvas of the 2003 Naxos version [reviewed here]. The vocal production favoured by Javier M. Carmena aims for smoothness of line and rounded tone rather than the open, more visceral sound of Naxos’s Bilbao choir – indeed, such modulated beauty comes surprisingly close to the classic English cathedral equivalent. With their impeccable tuning and musical sensitivity the current crop of Escorial boys are a star turn, and even if they are less obviously at home in such direct music than in the veiled subtleties of the Faure Requiem (a sublime performance, on Dies 200712) they provide a musically compelling experience, both here and in the more straightforwardly varied canciones infantiles of Antón García Abril and Guridi himself.
And so to the surprise. One of many under-researched aspects of género chico zarzuela is the work done by and for childrens’ performing companies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similar groups performing Gilbert and Sullivan in England were met with mingled joy and moral opprobrium, the latter voiced most passionately by C. L. Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll):
“...a bevy of sweet innocent-looking girls sing, with bright and happy looks, the chorus 'He said, Damn me! He said, Damn me!' I cannot find words to convey to the reader the pain I felt in seeing these dear children taught to utter such words to amuse ears grown callous to their ghastly meaning. Put the two ideas side by side – Hell (no matter whether you believe in it or not; millions do) and those pure young lips thus sporting with its horrors – and then find what fun in it you can! How Mr Gilbert could have stooped to write, or Arthur Sullivan could have prostituted his noble art to set to music, such vile trash, it passes my skill to understand!”
One wonders what Carroll’s like-minded Spanish contemporaries made of children mouthing the double-entendres of El chaleco blanco or Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente? At all events, the popularity of the children’s companies encouraged leading zarzueleros of the day to write short works tailored to their needs and abilities; and one of these was Los chicos de la escuela (“The Schoolboys”), one act and three scenes, book and lyrics by the leading writers Carlos Arniches and José Jackson Veyán, music by Quinito Valverde and Tomás López Torregrosa, then at the zenith of his popularity. It was successfully performed at the Teatro Moderno as part of the 1903 Christmas festivities, but a century on the idea of revival might have seemed fanciful.
Not a bit of it. Here we have the full, fifteen minute score – love duet and all! – performed with professional elan by the Escorial boys. And a very tuneful score it is too, in similar chico style to the same composers’s El pobre Valbuena from the following year. Besides the throbbing romantic palpitations of that Dúo-Vals for “Manuel and Teresa” (watched avidly by two of the kids), there’s a schoolroom Pasodoble in which the boys transform a quiet arithmetic lesson into a military campaign; a delicious Jota as they raid the local orchard for cherries, figs and apricots; and a witty Whispering Chorus accompanying a nocturnal tryst for a second pair of lovers, who've been locked in a woodshed.
Alberto Padrón’s rhythmically alert piano accompaniment does yeoman service for pit orchestra, aided and abetted by director Carmena himself in four-handed renditions of the Preludio and brief instrumental Final. Carmena is also a singer himself, and at 25 is clearly a questing talent worth watching carefully. The treble soloists put their music across with zest and expertise, though my instincts tell me that an open, less “covered” tone might have had a more authentically direct impact. No matter – the choir’s sense of enjoyment is palpable throughout, not least in a voluble riot when the guard finally catches up with the culprits in the fruit-stealing scene.
As far as I know, this is not only the premiere on disc of Los chicos de la escuela, but the first modern, digital recording of anything by the neglected and undervalued Torregrosa. I’ve been given to understand that the Escorial boys enjoyed performing the zarzuela so much that a second disc devoted to the genre may be in preparation. Excellent news. Meanwhile such “joy and rapture unforeseen” is to be welcomed quite without reservation, musical or moral!
© Christopher Webber 2008
As Gilbert’s Little Buttercup put it, things are seldom what they seem: and the old saw proves true for Los chicos de la escuela. Enrique Mejías García has researched the genesis of its December 1903 premiere, and has discovered that it was written not for the children’s company, but most likely as a parody of their work, to be performed by adults (in much the same way as Penella’s roughly contemporary El día de Reyes.)
Los chicos… was written to showcase the popular singing-actress Loreto Prado, who had a great reputation for playing children and older “breeches” roles, and who – judging from the contemporary review in El Imparcial – created one of the kids (Perico?) to great applause. The other boy and girl soloists would have been played by soprano tiples, and the female chorus would have impersonated the schoolboys. The controversial compañía infantil specialised in playing adult roles, in modern high tragedies such as Dicenta’s Juan José as well as dramatic zarzuelas such as Caballero’s El cabo primero, so having an adult company play children turned the tables nicely.
Importantly, though, our modern compañía infantil of the Escolanía are performing Torregrosa and Valverde’s delightful zarzuela score at the authentic octave, even if not with absolutely authentic forces!
18 August 2008