Tomás Bretón

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Tomas Breton

Tomás Bretón
(1850 - 1923)

One of the great paladins of the Spanish musical establishment during the last two decades of the 19th Century, Bretón was born in Salamanca on 29th December 1850. From the age of 14 he trained at the Madrid Conservatory as a violinist, pianist, and composer - notably under Emilio Arrieta - whilst at the same time acting as music director of an equestrian circus, the Circo Ecuestre del Price. In 1872 he won the first prize for composition, jointly awarded to him and his future great rival Ruperto Chapí. After this Bretón worked as a violinist at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, and in Barbieri's orchestral Sociedad de Conciertos, later gaining experience as a conductor for the Arderius Los bufos and other companies in Madrid and Barcelona.

Eventually he became a leading academic and director of the Madrid Conservatory; as well as director of the Orquesta de la Sociedad de Conciertos, and founder-director of the Orquesta de la Unión Artísto-Musical. His orchestral works include the four popular Escenas andaluzas, two fine Symphonies, the tone poems Salamanca (1916) and Elegy and Nostalgia (1917), whilst his serenade En la Alhambra (1888) is one of the best works to emerge from the Alhambrismo - the 19th Century Spanish movement which sought to transmute the romantic allure of Moorish architecture and culture into a truly national musical style. He also wrote an oratorio El Apocalipsis - and a quantity of well-regarded chamber music, including the Piano Trio in E minor and the String Quartet in D major.

His influence on later Spanish composers has been slight, and there remains the impression of an austere, fatalistic man whose very triumphs tended to be tinged with melancholy. There is a famous story about the first night of La verbena de la Paloma (1894), written to a superb libretto by Ricardo de la Vega: as the composer solemnly reached his place in the orchestra pit and took up the baton, he leaned down towards the leader of the orchestra and murmured: "I think this time I've made a mistake."

His first opera was Guzmán el bueno, performed at the Teatro Apolo in 1875, followed amongst others by Los Amantes de Teruel (1889) and La Dolores (1895), both of which are occasionally revived. His many zarzuelas include El domingo de Ramos (1894), El reloj de cuco (1898), La cariñosa and El clavel rojo (both 1899), Las percheleras (1911) y Los husares del Zar (1914). He even collaborated with the popular Chueca and Valverde, in Bonito país (1877). A follow-up to La verbena to another text by de la Vega, Al fin se casa la Nieves (1895) did not meet with much success.

Despite his own misgivings, nowadays he is remembered almost exclusively for one zarzuela standing head and shoulders above all of them - La verbena de la Paloma, rivalled only by Chapí's La Revoltosa as the great jewel of género chico, the genre of one-act zarzuelas. La verbena presents perhaps more imaginatively than any other zarzuela the musical portrait of Madrid in the last years of the century. For his orchestral brilliance, compositional technique and sustained quality of invention, its composer is justly revered.

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