La Gran Vía

This material is © Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK. Last updated February 11th 2001

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La Gran Vía
by Federico Chueca and Joaquín Valverde
libretto by Felipe Pérez y Gonzalez

® recommended recording

For many, La Gran Vía is the essential género chico zarzuela. By turns simple and sophisticated, satirical and celebratory, musically direct but subtly organised, its vitality and popularity are undimmed by time. Yet strictly speaking La Gran Vía isn't a zarzuela at all, but a revista (revue). There's virtually no plot. The characters are either archetypal or named after Madrid streets. As a glance at the ICCMU variorum score shows, its creators chopped and changed their musical and verbal material regularly to keep the social comment freshly topical.

La Gran Via - vocal score cover

Felipe Pérez's script was a bold mixture of comic fantasy, social comment and political satire, centred on the creation of La Gran Vía, Madrid's answer to London's Piccadilly or New York's Broadway. The demolition of older streets and suburbs to make way for the sophisticated modern thoroughfare proved as controversial as the massive funding put aside for the project, which effectively reformed the centre of the city.

Chueca and Valverde had been collaborating since 1875. They had already enjoyed huge success with La canción de la Lola in 1880, and La Gran Vía was to eclipse even the controversial Lola in popularity. Like many of Chueca's scores, the original version of La Gran Vía was conceived as a suite of songs and choruses based on popular dance forms - Polka, Waltz, Tango, Jota, Mazurka, Chotis and March. Later additions (seldom heard today) included a children's choir, another Polka and Waltz, and a Pasodoble. Chueca's melodic and rhythmic vitality are as potent today as ever they were, and many of the numbers still retain their status as popular hits. As for Valverde, current musicological opinion suggests his contribution was primarily the addition of orchestral polish.

La Gran Vía as seen and heard today is usually the shorter, original version, performed at the Teatro Felipe in Madrid on July 2nd 1886 as a one-act revista madrileña cómico-lírica, fantástico-callejera ("Madrid revue, lyric comedy, fantasy street-scene") in five scenes. Taking Madrid by storm, it transferred to the larger Teatro Apolo when the Teatro Felipe closed, gradually evolving for many months after. It also made its way successfully to Paris, Vienna, Prague - and even in a fashion to London and New York, where Chueca's music provided the substance for Spanish revues not remotely akin to Pérez's original script.

Scene 1. An assortment of threatened Madrid streets and squares appear singing and dancing. The Calles de la Sartén, Libertad, Primavera, Paloma, Luna Montera and Turco amongst others complain about the announcement of the birth of a new street - La Gran Vía or "High Street" - which is going to result in their demolition (No.1: Introducción y Polka de las Calles "Somos las calles" - Polka of the Streets). El Paseante ("idler") saunters in, and discovers the reason for the streets' consternation.

Off La Gran Vía even today, we may still find a seedy little alley somewhat grandly named Caballero de Gracia ("Graceful Gentleman"). This worthy now appears, common, ridiculous and affected, boasting about his amorous conquests and the birth of the new street. His swaggering mock-Viennese waltz is mocked by the other streets and squares (No.2: Vals del Caballero de Gracia "Caballero de Gracia me llaman" - Waltz of the Graceful Gentleman). El Paseante joins the Caballero in conversation, and a medical official, Don Comadrón ("male midwife") appears, announcing that the birth of the new street is to be delayed for a long time, due to lack of funding and corporate wrangling.

Felipe Perez and the 'Ratas' cage
Felipe Pérez y Gonzalez
with the
Ratas' Cage

Scene 2. After a brief Interlude (No.3: Interludio orquestal) we find ourselves in a small plaza on the outskirts of central Madrid. The Caballero and El Paseante discuss the political incompetence which has brought about the current impasse.

La Menegilda ("housemaid") appears. In the famous song, she relates the dubious course of her brief career under the Lady of the House and beyond (No.4: Tango de la Menegilda "Pobre chica" - Housemaid's Tango). No sooner has she finished than Doña Virtudes ("virtue") the Lady of the House herself appears, to put her audience right on the true course of events, to the same infectious tango tune (No.4a: Tango de Doña Virtudes "Pobres amas" - Doña Virtudes' Tango). After a violent altercation, both ladies leave.

Three more semi-allegorical figures (taking their names from quarters of the city) emerge to plague the Caballero and El Paseante - Prosperidad ("prosperity") begging alms; Pacífico ("pacifism") fermenting discord; and Injurias ("damages") hurling insults. A brief orchestral allegro is followed by another satirical scene, as two characters representing Petroleum and Gas argue over their superior power - and profitability. They are followed by three Ratas ("pickpockets"), who boast of their thieving skills whilst cheekily eluding capture by two incompetent Policemen (No.6: Jota de las Ratas "Soy el Rata primero"- Pickpockets' Jota).

Scene 3. In Puerta del Sol - Madrid's busiest square then as now - Doña Sinceridad (Sincerity) is mocked by her children. The Caballero and El Paseante listen to the woeful story of the Fountain in the middle of the plaza, as she complains that the Town Council are going to knock her down to make room for a tramcar route. A Paleto (bumpkin) robs the Caballero and El Paseante while they continue to debate the advances in Civic responsibility and government policy. A group of Marineritos ("little midshipmen", played by the female chorus) have come to Madrid to admire the architecture, but some double-entendres of their song suggest other possibilities (No. 8: Mazurka de los Marineritos "Somos los marineritos" - Midshipmens' Mazurka).

[In later versions, this scene was set in Calle de Alcalá and contained two alternative numbers. In No. 12: Vals de la Seguridad "Soy salvaguardia de la sociedad" - the Waltz of the Security Police, an officer is mocked by a group of streetboys. No. 13: Pasodoble de los Sargentos "Ustedes por lo visto" - Sergeants' Pasodoble, pokes further satire at the lazy incompetence of the police.]

Chotis madrileno
Madrileños dance
Chotis (Schottische)

Scene 4. [In some versions, two later additions were variously inserted at this point. Two fashionable layabouts, Gomosa and Sietemesino - Dandy and Whippersnapper - pass on their way to a skating rink. The salesmen on a toy stall demonstrate their wares to El Paseante and the Caballero in a Mazurka.]

The Caballero and El Paseante find themselves at the Elíseo madrileño (Madrid Elysium), a disreputable dancehall at the top of Calle Velázquez frequented by "maids, porters and cooks" - and another impending victim of the civic developments. The ladylike Elíseo herself leads the company in a surprisingly poised and elegant dance (No. 10: Chotis del Elíseo madrileño "Yo soy un baile de criadas" - The Elysium Schottische).

At the end of the dance, Don Comadrón the midwife rushes in and excitedly announces the new birthdate for La Gran Vía - the 30th February ... if it exists! [A later addition added another number to this scene - Vals del Juego (Player's Waltz). This was an elaborate number featuring dancers and singers dressed as cards, roulette numbers and other games, all finally rounded up by the long-suffering police.]

Scene 5. A plaza on La Gran Vía itself. A general celebration ensues to mark the birth of the wonderful new thoroughfare, as a futuristic vision of the City rises in the background (No. 11: Marcha y desfile general - March and Walkdown Parade).

Note: To summarise, later versions (from 1887) also included the following musical numbers. No.5: Allegro orquestal - orchestral interlude; No.7: Coro de niños y allegro orquestal - Children's chorus and orchestral allegro; No.9: Polka de la Gomosa y el Sietemesino, y allegretto casi andantino - Polka of the Dandy and the Whippersnapper, and orchestral allegretto; No.12: Vals de la Seguridad - Policemen's Waltz; No. 13: Pasodoble de los Sargentos - Sergeant's Pasodoble.

complete song texts

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