Francisco Asenjo Barbieri

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Francisco Asenjo Barbieri

Asenjo Barbieri
(1823 - 1894)

Madrileño Francisco Asenjo, born 3rd August 1823, later adopted the name of Barbieri in honour of his maternal grandfather, manager of the Teatro de la Cruz where the young boy first came into contact with theatre and music. His first music teacher was José Ordóñez Mayorito, and in 1837 he entered the Madrid Conservatory, studying widely - clarinet, piano, vocal and compositional studies - under Ramón Broca, Pedro Albéniz, Baltasar Saldoni and Ramón Carnicer respectively. Between 1841 and 1844 he made a living as peripatetic singer, clarinetist, copyist, piano teacher and writer of popular songs and dances, as well as academic chorus master. He inaugurated his operatic career with Il Buontempone (1847, in Italian), but also founded La España Musical to promote native Spanish opera. He supported his extra-musical work through journalism, music criticism (for La Ilustración) and as copyist, prompter and translator at the Teatro Real.

As a step towards his ideal of creating a distinctively Spanish theatrical form he abandoned Italian opera, writing his first zarzuela in 1850. He was central to the group of composers, including Oudrid, Gaztambide and Arrieta working from 1851 at the Teatro del Circo, directing the chorus as well as providing many original stage works. 1856 saw the founding of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, and from the 1860's Barbieri broadened his activities even further, founding the Society for Orchestral Music (1866) and introducing much of the German symphonic repertoire to Madrid, as well as publishing a wide variety of books on music, politics and other topics. He died, loaded with honors, recognized at home and abroad as the father figure of Spanish music, on 19 February 1894 in his beloved Madrid.

Barbieri's contribution to the renaissance of the nation's cultural life cannot be overemphasized. He was the most influential Spanish composer of the nineteenth century, cultivating the growth of a national musical style quite distinct from its Italianate roots though his series of zarzuelas grandes that followed the ground-breaking Jugar con fuego of 1851. His music is uneven, but works of the quality of Los diamantes de la Corona (1854), El Diablo en el poder (1856) and Entre mi mujer y el negro (1859) exhibit increasing dramatic confidence and melodic power. The series culminated in the magnificent national epic Pan y Toros (1864); though his comic masterpiece is El barberillo de Lavapiés (1874), a miracle of raw popular spirit, musical subtlety, ironic wit and political fervor which remains the cornerstone of the zarzuela tradition. The influence he had over later composers may justly be compared to Glinka's in Russia, revealing new possibilities and paths towards a genuinely Spanish style of composition in all musical fields.

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