José María Usandizaga

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José María Usandizaga
José María
(1887 - 1915)

Born 31st 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.

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.

His health 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.

The sensational 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 period.

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.

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