Pablo Sorozábal

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Pablo Sorozabal

(1897 - 1988)

Sorozábal’s artisan family moved from the Basque countryside to San Sebastián a few years before Pablo’s birth on September 18th 1897. He was something of a child prodigy on piano and violin, earning his living in cinemas, cafés and fairgrounds, and playing with the San Sebastián Casino Orchestra under the influential Fernández Arbós. He always regretted having lost his ability to speak the Basque language: "because of the pressures of life and a centralised government policy we were forced to forget our language. I am ashamed of this and still hope, even if only at the end, to speak my dying words in the same language I used to express my first feelings¹"

In 1919 he moved to Madrid, joining the Madrid Symphony Orchestra which performed his Capricho español (1920). His distinctive musical personality was forged by study in Leipzig; and in Berlin, where he preferred Friedrick Koch as composition teacher to Schöenberg, whose theories he disliked. It was in Germany that he made his conducting debut, and the rostrum remained at the centre of his working life.

His Leipzig concert works include the choral Suite vasca (1923); Dos apuntes Vascos (1925) and Symphonic Variations on a Basque Theme (1927); the Siete Lieder, 1929 settings of Heine for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, are perhaps the finest works he produced in Germany. The ballet suite Victoriana (1951); and the powerful Funeral March Gernika for chorus and orchestra (1966) date from his later Madrid days. Two short but powerful compositions for chorus and orchestra, Maite (‘Our Lady’, from the 1946 film Jai-Alai) and ¡Ay, tierra vasca! (1956) retain their place in the hearts of his countrymen.

Katiuska (1931) was his extraordinarily assured stage debut. The twenty or so works which followed his operetta La isla de las perlas and the one-act ópera chica (opera-zarzuela) Adiós a la bohemia (both 1933) combine lyric fire and inimitable orchestration with an unfailing sense of theatre. Best-loved are his classic madrileño comedy La del manojo de rosas (1934) and the “nautical romance” set on the Atlantic Coast La tabernera del puerto of 1936.

Sorozábal’s liberal sympathies left him somewhat isolated after the Civil War, and many of his later zarzuelas were first seen outside the capital or in less prestigious Madrid theatres. They include the ambitious, allegorical romance Black, el payaso (1942), the ski-sports musical Don Manolito (1943), La eterna canción (1945), Los burladores (1948, a version of the Don Juan story) and Entre Sevilla y Triana (1950).

His tenure as director of the Madrid Symphony Orchestra ended abruptly in 1952 when he was refused permission to conduct Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony; and though his musical comedy Las de Caín was premiered at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in 1958, the opera Juan José still awaits stage performance after a production was suspended there during rehearsals in 1979. With his death in Madrid on 26th December 1988 the last chapter in the creative history of the romantic zarzuela came to an end.

Sorozábal remains the most controversial of the great zarzuela composers, adored by many aficionados but leaving others cold. Although his style is eclectic, exhibiting a range of influences from Debussy and Puccini through to Kalman, Gershwin and the Hollywood musical, the fusion of these disparate musical elements is very much his own. The acerbic bite and almost shocking pugnacity of his best work can justly be compared to Kurt Weill’s in Germany, but Sorozábal’s theatrical vitality and musical wit are second to none.

¹ From "Mi vida y mi obra" (1986)

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