This page is © Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK. Last updated September 2nd 2009
Ruperto Chapí y Lorente was born on March 27th 1851, in Villena near Alicante. As a true Valencian, Chapí was soon involved in band music, both as a piccolo player and - by the age of nine - as a composer and arranger. His first zarzuela La estrella del bosque was written when he was fifteen, at which age he was conducting the Alicante town band. A year later he left for Madrid to join the Conservatory, where he studied harmony under Miguel Galiana, and composition with Emilio Arrieta, his first great champion. He made ends meet by playing the cornet for various theatre orchestras, and composed his first zarzuela to be performed in Madrid Abel y Caín (now lost) for the Teatro Circe de Price - where a fellow orchestral player was his great rival-to-be Tomás Bretón.
He won the First Prize in composition in 1872, and with Arrieta's help obtained a commission from the Teatro Real for an opera, Las naves de Cortés (1874) in which the great tenor Tamberlick took part. This is turn produced a scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire. Chapí now determined to devote himself to composition rather than military bands ("I become ever more inclined not to return to dress uniform".) After the obligatory trip to Rome, Chapí returned to Madrid in 1878 - where another opera La hija de Jefté had been performed at the Teatro Real two years earlier - and settled into a comfortably successful career.
Chapí's later operas include Roger de Flor (1878), La Serenata (1881), and Circe (1902). His symphonic music includes the highly effective Fantasía morisca (1873/9), a Polaca de concierto, a Symphony in D and a curious three-part tone poem Los gnomos de la Alhambra. He also wrote four String Quartets, songs and other chamber music, as well as an oratorio Los ángeles. In 1889 he had refused to join the Academia de Bellas Artes, partly because of their lax attitudes towards artists' rights, and perhaps his most important contribution to Spanish artistic life was his 1899 founding of the Sociedad de Autores, forerunner of today's SGAE. He was taken ill whilst conducting his last opera Margarita la tornera (1909) at the Teatro Real and died shortly after, two days before his fifty-eighth birthday.
His operas are occasionally resurrected, but Chapí's fame now rests with the best of his many zarzuelas, notably La tempestad (1882, not based on Shakespeare), La bruja (1887) and El rey que rabió (1891) - all of which are three-act works of the género grande. His most ambitious full-length zarzuelas in expansive, operatic style are perhaps El milagro de la Virgen (1884) and Curro Vargas (1898), both of which boast beautiful tenor romanzas.
The tonadilla-like Música clásica (1880) had already revealed his gift for smaller-scale composition; and when the one-act género chico became ubiquitous, Chapí successfully turned his hand to the new fashion with El tambor de granaderos (1894), Las bravías (1896) and - certainly his best-loved work - La revoltosa (1897.) His output after this becomes progressively less concentrated in quality, though La chavala (1898), El barquillero (1900), El puñao de rosas (1902), La venta de Don Quijote (1902) and La patria chica (1907) contain much worthwhile music.
If Chapí's musical inspiration rarely runs at a consistently high voltage, his importance to the development of the zarzuela and Spanish music in general cannot be overstated. Frequent musical reminders of contemporary Italian and French taste, wedded to unfailing technical security, lend sophistication to his output without ever overpowering its Spanish flavour. Chapí's own individuality may not be very pronounced, but his best music - the famous preludios to El tambor de granaderos and La patria chica, the folksongs and dances of La Bruja, more or less the whole of El barquillero and La Revoltosa - has a sweeping energy which speaks the musical language of Spain itself. Musical chameleon though he may have been, Chapí was certainly the most versatile of all the great 19th century zarzueleros.