Manuel Penella

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Manuel Penella
Manuel Penella
(1880 - 1939)

Manuel Penella Morena was born in Valencia on 31st July 1880, son of the composer and director of the city conservatory Manuel Penella Raga. Young Manuel soon began composition studies there under Salvador Giner, presiding spirit of the city's vibrant musical life. Penella showed at least equal promise as a violinist, and had it not been for an accident to his left hand would perhaps have chosen to become a concert virtuoso rather than a composer.

After graduation, he worked locally as a church organist, but soon succumbed to the lure of theatre, producing the first of over 80 stage works with the zarzuela La fiesta del pueblo in 1894. A compulsive traveller, he spent much of his working life with zarzuela and opera companies abroad, notably in Latin America, Cuba, the United States, and Mexico - he even spent time as director of the military band in Quito, Ecuador.

His first notable success - the revista Las musas latinas (1912) was typical in that it proved more popular outside Spain. Revistas, zarzuelas, operettas and operas flowed easily fom him, and his best known work is El gato montes ('The Wildcat', Valencia 1916) a popular opera in red-blooded Spanish verismo style, the well-muscled Pasodoble from which is still invariably played in the corrida. The popularity of El gato montes extended to New York, where Penella conducted a sold-out run of ten weeks, at the Park Theatre in 1920, and this strong if unsubtle score has been lovingly revived and lavishly recorded by Plácido Domingo in recent years.

His greatest and most lasting musical triumph came in Barcelona, with Don Gil de Alcalá (1932), another through-written work, tastefully scored for a string chamber orchestra. This lovely work transcends its apparent limitation as a light pastiche of 18th century musical manners, and possesses a haunting beauty not quite like anything else in the repertoire.

He planned to settle in Barcelona, where some of his later works such as the revista Jazz Band (1933) and the opera La malquerida (1935) achieved some success, without matching the musical quality of Don Gil. But soon enough he left Spain for another extended tour, and it was whilst supervising the music for a film of Don Gil that Penella died suddenly, in Cuernavaca, Mexico on 24th January 1939.

One result of his compulsive globe-trotting was that Penella's name became better known outside Spain than those of his more musically distinctive contemporaries. Viewed by some as a solitary, even austere figure, he certainly stands alone in one respect as a zarzuelero - for from El gato montes onwards he wrote his own libretti. A musical chameleon, his best work has a fresh tunefulness and energy which is strongly effective - and in Don Gil de Alcalá at least, he produced a most subtle and individual jewel.

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