(1887 - 1915)
March 1887 in the heart of San Sebastián, chief city of the Basque
country, José María Usandizaga Soraluce was the firstborn
of the resident Uruguayan Consul. As a nine year old, he composed his first
piece - a waltz - and showed such enthusiasm for music that his parents agreed
to let him study at the local conservatory. By the time he left for Paris in
1901, to complete his training at the Schola Cantorum, he was already
recognised as an extraordinary and precocious talent. In Paris he studied, like
Jesús Guridi, with Vincent
d'Indy, extending his stay until 1906 to work with Paul Dukas. [Back to top of page]
Many of his orchestral, choral and chamber works date from the Paris
years. The orchestral Suite en La, Dans la mer, and Obertura
Sinfónica sobre un tema de canto llano reflect his teacher's belief
in rigorous formal concision; though the fine String Quartet Op.31 has
greater amplitude and expressive scope.
Usandizaga's music after his
return to San Sebastián shows increasing harmonic daring, and in works
such as the Rhapsody on 3 Basque Popular Songs and the 'fantastic dance'
Hassan y Melihah (1912), with its oriental market place and lively
circus ambience, a mature voice is clearly recognisable.
was never strong, and perhaps sensing that time was short, he set about the
writing of the three stage works which were to occupy him exclusively until his
death from consumption on October 6th 1915, at the age of twenty eight.
The first of these, the
Basque pastoral folk-opera Mendi Mendiyan, was performed in Bilbao in
1910 and attracted favourable attention from many critics and composers, mainly
for its youthful, fresh directness. The last was the unfinished La llama
('The Flame'), completed by his brother Ramón and premiered in
its final three-act form in San Sebastián early in 1918. Although
admired for its musical consistency, La llama - unsurprisingly given the
circumstances of its composition - was generally held not to pack the emotional
punch of the central work of Usandizaga's stage trilogy.
For this was
Las golondrinas, drama
lírico in three acts, written at white heat between late September
and mid December of 1913, and performed in Madrid a few weeks later. The
original zarzuela version with spoken dialogue is now neglected in favour of
the through-written operatic version made by his brother in 1929. Ramón
did his work sensitively enough, so very little of the original score - and
less of its impact - is lost in the transition.
success of Las golondrinas saw its young
composer hailed as the most exciting musical hero Spain had known for many
years. How far knowledge of his fragile state of health contributed to the wave
of enthusiasm is impossible to say, but there is more than enough in Las
golondrinas musically to account for it. There is the individual,
harmonic subtlety far in advance of his Italian verismo models; there is
the binding motivic structure; there is imaginative handling of a considerably
larger orchestra than was usual for the period. Above all, there was enough
high quality melodic material, intelligently marshalled, to lend Sierra's
little melodrama an emotional force rare in opera of this, or any other
No wonder the sense of loss attending his death the following
year was greater than any Spanish music had previously felt, at least since the
equally premature demise of Arriaga nearly a hundred years before.
Still, Las golondrinas is far more than
a work of mere promise. It is a mature achievement, with a unique place as the
only verismo tragedy in the zarzuela repertoire.