a breif history

Composers Writers


Early History

Juan de Hidalgo
Juan de Hidalgo

In 1657 at the Royal Palace of El Pardo, King Philip IV of Spain, Queen Mariana and their court attended the first performance of a new comedy by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, with music by Juan de Hidalgo. El Laurel de Apolo traditionally symbolises the birth of a new musical genre which had become known as La Zarzuela - after one of the King's hunting lodges, situated in a remote countryside thick with zarzas or brambles.

La Zarzuela was often visited by clowns and actors from the city of Madrid, and perhaps the piece Calderón and Hidalgo provided, running the theatrical gamut from classical opera to low slapstick and popular song - a bit like Dryden's work with Purcell in England - reminded the courtiers of a typical La Zarzuela entertainment.

Calderón - the greatest playwright of the day. Hidalgo - the best Spanish composer. They ushered in a new and swiftly developed form of Baroque entertainment in which witty, pithy libretti were to be matched by music of high quality and extraordinary diversity. A charming example (available on Auvidis Valois CD) is Viento es la dicha de Amor ("Wind is the poetry of love" - 1743) with music by José de Nebra), a mixture of blank verse and prose, opera arias, short choruses with a flavour of Monteverdi, popular songs with castanets and delectably orchestrated instrumental interludes.

The coming of Italian opera composers made the native form increasingly unfashionable, though as late as 1786 Boccherini wrote a zarzuela for the palace of La Puerta de la Vaga in Madrid - La Clementina is a scandalously neglected masterpiece of Spanish lyric theatre, to a libretto by the poet Ramón de la Cruz, the Spanish rival to Metastasio. Clearly, the zarzuela was still worthy of the highest talents Spain could muster.

The Golden Age

After a fallow period - money was short and Spain reduced to a low ebb of prosperity, artistic creativity and morale - we reach the second half of the 19th Century, the Golden Age of the Zarzuela.

As at first, the essence of the new flowering was the exotic mixture of genres - zarzuela is not going to appeal to anyone who likes their theatre 'purely' one thing or the other. The classic pieces of the time are a potent brew of sophisticated musical ensembles and arias, mixed in with verse and prose dialogue, popular songs and lowlife comedy characters. Some are long and operatic in scope - the género grande. Others are short, often gently titillating one-act farces, mostly set in the less salubrious parts of Madrid - parts all too well known to many of the pleasure-seeking men in the audience, at least. These are the immensely popular sainete and género chico zarzuelas. In between, there are zarzuelas of all shapes and sizes, overflowing with every flavour of musical theatre.

Barbieri, properly regarded as the musical founding father of the 19th century movement, wrote zarzuelas which remind us of Rossini, Donizetti, Viennese operetta and even Gilbert and Sullivan (compare, for example, the troop of policemen in his masterpiece El barberillo de Lavapiès with their roughly contemporary colleagues in The Pirates of Penzance)

Francisco Asenjo Barbieri
Francisco Asenjo Barbieri

With Barbieri, as with his great contemporaries such as Bretón, Chapí, Chueca and Caballero musical originality is not as high a priority as vitality, theatricality and sophisticated style. And, as with Sullivan in England, these composers are at their best when, paradoxically, they seem to be taking things easiest. Their individual flavour comes across more strongly in the zarzuelas than in their more "serious" concert, church and operatic works.

If there is a single reason for this, it lies in one fact - Madrid. The spirit, sights and sounds of the capital pervade nearly all the great zarzuelas, large or small, from this classic period - and of many from the 20th century. Even the composers who came from outside the city or the country, from Boccherini through to the basque Guridi, became steeped in its heady atmosphere, madrileños heart and soul just as much as the natives such as Chueca or the great writer Perez de Galdós. Many of the very best zarzuelas take their life from their madrileño setting, including Bretón's classic La verbena de la paloma and Chapí's equally beloved La Revoltosa.

The 20th Century

The first half of the new century saw the repertoire enriched by a huge quantity of work. Some of the composers - Vives, Sorozábal, Torroba - are at least a match technically and imaginatively for the previous generation. The 20th century sees a diversification of the range of the zarzuela, tragic verismo shockers like Las golondrinas (by Usandizaga) jostling with exotic operetta (Luna's El niño judio) and small-town musical (Guerrero's Los Gavilanes).

Yet the most enduring works of the 1920's and 30's - Vives' Doña Francisquita and Torroba's Luisa Fernanda - are firmly rooted in the madrileño tradition, with its tonadillas, fandangos and habaneras. These composers, with others of at least equal popularity such as Serrano and Alonso, were well aware of contemporary trends in Italian, French and German music, without ever losing sight of the debt they owed to their great Spanish predecessors. This lends their zarzuelas a flavour unlike anything else in the operatic repertoire.

Pablo Sorozabal
Pablo Sorozábal

With the onset of the Civil War, the zarzuela is more or less played out as a vital form. Only the evergreen and chameleon Sorozábal kept the form alive into the 1950's, and his later productions, such as the civil war allegory Black, el payaso and the urbane Don Manolito, increasingly come to resemble Broadway musicals as much as earlier zarzuelas. The legacy of nearly one hundred years and thousands of works remains incomparably rich.

© Christopher Webber 2000
updated July 26th 2000

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17th century

Calderon de la Barca - postage stamp
Pedro Calderón

Much has been written about the composers of zarzuela, very much less about the merits of the writers who put their plays at the musicians' service. Yet the text is the main vehicle for the comedy, the satire, the drama, the characters and their feelings at every period of the zarzuela. In most cases, at least half of the running time will be "straight" theatre without music. These texts vary from brilliant to anodyne or worse, but the finest writers created a body of high quality work which sets the Spanish lyric theatre apart from comparable forms.

Many of the playwrights of the Spanish Golden Age gave space to music within their theatrical work. This was a period where inertia in scientific studies was mirrored by brilliant innovation in literature and the arts, and Lope de Vega led the way in allowing music a new dynamism within the drama. During the career of his successor Pedro Calderón de la Barca we first see native works striving to strike a balance between words and music. With Calderon that the history of the zarzuela begins, a history dominated in the 17th century by verse texts on mythological and quasi-historical topics, but with that same admixture of popular elements that has characterised zarzuela throughout its existence

18th century

The onslaught of Italian opera gradually forced native opera into smaller compass, and the 18th century is the high water mark of the short tonadilla and sainete - the equivalents of the Italian intermezzi such as La Serva Padrona and Pimpinone. The outstanding writer of tonadillas was Ramón de la Cruz, whose texts broke the mythological mould of earlier times by reflecting popular life and speech. Short, with little plot, character was the mainstay of the tonadilla, the bud which was to blossom into the all-conquering género chico late in the following century. The zarzuela itself went into temporary eclipse. Longer native examples, by de la Cruz and others, adopted Italian models as to versification, style and content.

Early 19th century

Not until the 1850's does the full-length native drama resurface. The growth of nationalist consciousness brought about the birth of the modern or romantic zarzuela, a mighty movement in which writers such as Ventura de la Vega, Luis de Olona, Luis Mariano de Larra and Francisco Camprodón were at least as proactive as their better known musical colleagues.

Ventura de la Vega
Ventura de la Vega

French was the dominant cultural force of the time, and these playwrights drew their plots more or less from French romantic plays, mixing aristocratic courtiers with their servants in populist settings. Their chosen form was the three-act zarzuela grande. Their chosen literary means was elegant, formal verse.

Later 19th century

A return to the aesthetic of Ramón de la Cruz, led by Ventura's son Ricardo de la Vega, brought about another shift in the literary course of zarzuela. The género chico is chico ("little") by virtue of length, not quality or potential complexity. Writers tended to write such pieces in one act, lasting about an hour. Originally they were text only, but music was soon incorporated. Subject matter is simple, clear and comedic, mixing sentimental and cynical, romantic and realistic, machismo with submission to the superior intelligence of women. The prime characteristic of género chico is its root in madrileño culture, the life of the people, presented for the people. Verse drama gives way to vernacular prose, rhyme and metre being reserved for the cantables, or sung parts. Certain words and expressions, otherwise without meaning, made their appearance in these cantable sections.

Inevitably, many texts from this period are superficial, implausible and slipshod, relying on cheap vulgarity and easy laughs. Still, many good writers emerged during this new Golden Age, admirable for their fluent dialogue, clear characterisation and wit - as well as their facility to dovetail "book and lyrics" seamlessly. Of these Carlos Arniches was the greatest, though the Alvarez Quintero brothers, Miguel Echegaray, Guillermo Perrín & Miguel de Palacios, and Miguel Ramos Carrión are almost equally noteworthy.

20th century

After the first decade of the new century, the focus of zarzuela again changes. The three-act zarzuela grande reappears. The influence of Viennese operetta, with its exotic settings and situations, pervades the madrileño género chico. Sophisticated literary content becomes the norm, as zarzuela comes to be more carefully planned - in contrast to the revistas ("revues") which were quickly written and performed to popular audiences without much thought as to artistic longevity.

Romero and Shaw
Romero and Shaw

Figures such as Federico Romero & Guillermo Fernández Shaw, Anselmo Cuadrado Carreño, and Luis Fernández de Sevilla carried on the work of the best zarzuela playwrights, employing scrupulous and varied theatrical craft, sophisticated versification and structure, plus an awareness of the great tradition from which they had emerged. If these later writers occasionally lack the fresh, vital originality of the earlier generation, they make up for it in solid technique and consistency.

© Pedro Gómez Manzanares & Christopher Webber 2000
updated July 26th 2000

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