Federico Chueca

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Federico Chueca

(1846 - 1908)

Chueca was born May 5th, 1846 in Madrid's Casa de los Lujanes, a squat tower on the Plaza de la Villa where his father Marcelino was caretaker. At the age of eight he was enrolled at the Madrid Conservatory, and by the following year some of his little examination piano pieces were attracting the attention of the local press. Nonetheless on leaving school he adopted a less chancy career, starting medical studies at the San Carlos in 1862.

Managing (like many other students) to get arrested in the infamous St Daniel's Night Uprising of 1865 - an event recalled in Galdos' great novel Fortunata y Jacinta - he used his time in jail to compose a waltz sequence boldly called A Prisoner's Lament. Barbieri heard this, liked it well enough to orchestrate it, and changing the title to the more urbane Cupid and Esculapius introduced it at the outdoor Teatro Rossini to great effect. Chueca's worship of Barbieri as his "Father in Music" is thus hardly surprising.

The death from cholera of his earthly parents in 1867 forced Chueca to give up medicine and rejoin the Conservatory, where he studied with Castellano, Miró and Aguado, staying alive by playing piano at the Café de Zaragoza. In 1868 he composed a Hymn to General Prim, which was eventually to become famous as the March from Cadiz, finally adopted as a quasi-national anthem by the military in 1896.

In 1874 Chueca became conductor of the Teatro de Variedades, writing his first stage work - the brief El sobrino del difunto - for the Jardín del Buen Retiro in summer of the following year. In 1877 the same venue witnessed the dawn of a fruitful collaboration with Joaquín Valverde, in the one-act Un maestro de obra prima. The many works they wrote together over the next 15 or so years include the three-act Los barrios bajos (1878), the hugely successful La canción de la Lola (1880), Fiesta Nacional (1882), the patriotic Cádiz (1886 - source of the famous march still associated with the Spanish military), El año pasado por agua (1889) and - most influential of all - La Gran Vía (1886), which celebrated the construction of Madrid's fashionable new thoroughfare in an original mix of satire, sophistication and popular song and dance.

In 1885 he became conductor of the Teatro Apolo, increasingly working alone, and devoting much time to the infant art of photography, of which he was a skilled exponent. The best of his later zarzuelas include El chaleco blanco (1890), Las zapatillas (1895), La alegría de la huerta (1900) and - a last major success - El bateo (1901). He died of complications arising from diabetes on June 20th 1908, to be buried with great pomp and circumstance at the Cemetery of St Justo, a man nationally mourned and admired. The Madrid Plaza which bears his name is situated next to the Calle Barbieri - a monument to his friendship with "my Father in Music" of which Chueca would have been justly proud.

Chueca's training was piecemeal, his grasp of compositional technique imperfect. But what he lacks in musicianly subtlety he makes up for in melodic verve, wit and sheer cheek. His partnership with Valverde is one of the most successful in 19th century theatre music, and perhaps the main role of his collaborator was to add a patina of academic polish to Chueca's lively inspiration. At all events the insouciant elegance of their one-act zarzuelas is irresistible - especially the famous "street party" of La Gran Vía, with its string of popular dance forms: polka, waltz, tango, jota, mazurka and schottisch. The greatest of the post-Valverde pieces is the brief but brilliant Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente (1897), a vivid celebration of streetwise Madrid that sounds as fresh today as when Chueca wrote it.

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