The essential composer
A couple of months ago I was presenting a programme of zarzuela recordings to one of those fine local societies which are the backbone of British musical life. It had been a case of love at first sound, my listeners moved by these romanzas and intermedios, new but strangely familiar, as if they’d known them all their lives. Afterwards I was fielding the usual questions, when a gimlet-eyed matron in a cloche hat bowled me a googly: “You’ve played us some fantastic music, but every piece sounds quite different – what is the essential zarzuela?” Of course there’s no sensible answer to this, so like a good politician I answered a question of my own: “I don’t know about the essential zarzuela, but I do know about the essential zarzuela composer.”
That essential zarzuela composer is of course Federico Chueca. “El alma de Madrid”, the man himself beloved by many in life, his music by so many more since his death precisely one hundred years ago. The biographical facts make a romance in themselves … the caretaker’s son born up a tower in the heart of the city; the teenager caught in the 1865 student riots and writing his first hit music in jail, to be taken up by Barbieri his “father in music”; his first cult stage work banned by the city fathers as a danger to public order, his last major success premiered at the ultra-respectable Teatro de la Zarzuela. It’s a very human progress, and like many progressions ends with a falling cadence, the last years of his life clouded by failure, ill-health and retreat, the género chico style which he embodied increasingly upstaged by sexy Parisian-style coplas and sugary Viennese waltz-songs.
From the technical point of view Chueca is in many ways the prototype modern, popular composer. His songs are simply structured strophic forms, his tunes are direct and short-phrased, his harmonies so functional as to write themselves. Whether he had the facility is an open question, but like Kálmán, Rodgers and Sondheim after him he certainly hadn’t the inclination to orchestrate the fifty or more scores he produced between 1875 and 1907. In particular, the nature of his long-term collaboration with Joaquín Valverde has been much debated. In the absence of manuscript evidence – and given Chueca’s later reliance on amanuenses including the young Manuel de Falla – it seems reasonable to assume that harmony and orchestration were Valverde’s province.
Not that any of this matters when it comes to isolating the qualities which make the songs and choruses of Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente or La Gran Vía as fresh now as they were a century and more ago. Lots of composers write good tunes, but Chueca had that intuitive genius for bending words to music in unexpected ways which make them stick in the memory. There’s a nice story about some advice he gave to Tomás Bretón, when he heard that serious soul rehearsing the seguidillas “ Por ser la Virgen de la Paloma” before the premiere of La verbena… Chueca suggested that repetition of end-line phrases and syllables (“un mantón de la China– na, China– na, China- na”) would put a button on the tune. It certainly does, investing Bretón’s graceful melody with the raw street-sense of zapateado heel-and-toe clicks, as well as an off-centre, comic zest once heard, never forgotten. His imaginative way with words and sounds is an important secret of Chueca’s popular musical appeal – even for listeners who don’t understand much Spanish. And like Leos Janacek, he never missed an opportunity to incorporate rhythmic imitation of real life whenever he got the chance: laundering (El chaleco blanco), tombola machines (La Gran Vía); and even, in Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente, drug-induced snores, all have their place!
Looking to the wood beyond the trees, modern critics have rightly pointed out how Chueca unifies his one-act zarzuelas, tightly binding his scores into Dance Suites by clever balancing of mazurka, chotis, polka and the other popular forms of the day. The songs may be simple, but the organisation is masterly. Then again, many of Chueca’s greatest songs are not quite so simple as they seem. In The Beggar’s Opera (1728) John Gay matched scathingly satirical verses with popular songs and opera arias, in the process creating an ironic distance between music and text which was instantly understood and relished by his audiences, whether musical or not. Chueca does something similar in numbers such as the Maidservant’s Tango in La Gran Vía, where the sensual exoticism of the dance form makes conscious comment on the exploitative, workaday drudgery of the girl’s story. Beyond this Chueca’s drooping musical cadences communicate everything essential. The effect is sexy, delicious and funny whilst at the same time pointing up the message. On occasion these ironies work at a meta-musical level: later in La Gran Vía, for instance, Eliseo’s text and street-dance form are consonant with the demolished hall’s common, even sordid reputation. Who but Chueca would have conceived a chotis of such grandiose dimensions that his cheap little Eliseo rivals Vienna for poise, power and sophisticated glamour? The effect in a good performance is witty, impressive and unexpectedly poignant.
Nietzsche on Chueca
No other composer, not even Kurt Weill, has outdone Chueca in these kind of sophisticated ironic effects. It was his most potent musical legacy for succeeding zarzueleros, of whom his close colleague José Serrano and (later) Pablo Sorozábal best understood how their revered Maestro had been able to manipulate text through music to make a point. Indeed, musical irony was to be the only critical weapon available to Sorozábal in the early Franco years, and fortunately he had learned Chueca’s lesson well. But Chueca was able to combine irony with empathy, and a genial, roguish spirit which gives him a place of honour amongst the world’s great musical dramatists – a place which Friedrich Nietzsche of all people was amongst the first to spot. Passages from his 1888-9 letters (in Christopher Middleton’s translations) are worth quoting at length:
The German philosopher recognised in Chueca’s work the antithesis to music-drama which he’d been looking for since his acrimonious break with Wagner. He saw the anti-operatic speed and mischievousness of numbers such as the Thieves’ jota, which undermines establishment mantras, aesthetic as well as social, through sharp musical irony and theatricality. No wonder the Madrid authorities had clamped down on performances of La canción de la Lola – the 1880 template for Chueca’s later triumphs – on the grounds that it was so popular that it threatened to subvert order in the city’s poor quarters! (The phenomenal cult of this particular zarzuela forms a significant part of the backdrop to Pérez Galdós’s masterly novel Fortunata y Jacinta, which also depicts those 1865 riots which brought our composer to prison and early fame.)
Chueca has always communicated clearly and directly to audiences at all levels; his broad appeal, encompassing street and salon, has given him iconic status. It’s instructive, for example, that arrangers for the recent La Zarzuela + Pop CD needed to do nothing to pep up Chueca’s Tango to make it palatable for modern popular taste – it’s so spare and punchy that there was nothing they could do! And Enrique Mejías’s vivid snapshot of the recent Chueca spectacular in Plaza Mayor leaves no doubt that the thousands there connected to this music with instant, warm enthusiasm. If Chueca seems to have lost little in the last hundred years, it’s because he needs no historical footnotes. I sense that he’d take sly delight in the fact that the Madrid plaza named after him has become a byword throughout Europe for “alternative” pleasures and anti-establishment life-styles.
So, if there is to be a representative zarzuelero, it must be Chueca. His music is an instant tonic for anyone down in the dumps. No other music-theatre tradition contains anyone comparable. It seems that personally he wasn’t as outgoing and joyous a man as his music suggests. He liked being with friends and colleagues, but never sat easy or bothered to ingratiate himself with the musical establishment – Pedrell, for example, found his madrileño character inimical, reserved and unsmiling. Chueca was every bit as enthusiastic about his photography as his music, and preferred practise to theory in both pursuits. His music may lack pretension, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be taken seriously; for all its deceptively light surface, a Chueca score often conceals a rich theatrical goldmine. Many of these mines have been too little quarried; so amongst the many centenary homenajes full marks to Teatro de la Zarzuela for choosing to stage the virtually unknown De Madrid a París as memorial to the great original of zarzuela composers. As long as zarzuela holds the stage, so will Federico Chueca – and may that be for many more centuries to come.
© Christopher Webber 2008
20 June 2008