Oxford University Press

Federico Moreno Torroba - A Musical Life in Three Acts

Federico Moreno Torroba
A Musical Life in Three Acts
Walter Aaron Clark & William Craig Krause

Oxford University Press 2013 (£30/$45)
ISBN 978-0-19-531370-3 (356pp)

This book is an important milestone. It is not only the first in English to be devoted to a single, important composer of zarzuela; but also the first substantial work in any language to examine the life, work and times of Torroba in the detail he deserves. The joint authors are well-equipped for the task. Walter Aaron Clark is a renowned guitarist and academic whose previous publications include excellent biographies of Albéniz and Granados. William Craig Krause, besides being a contributor to OUP’s New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and other reference works, has been researching Torroba since the mid-1980’s and completed his doctoral dissertation in 1993. As to individual responsibilities, the Introduction tells us that “in a very real sense, this book is Bill’s”, presumably as to research and synthesis of the background to the composer’s life and work. Walter “undertook the principal responsibility for writing it, to give it a consistent authorial voice”, and surely took a less passive role than this suggests in the sections which analyse the principal concert works for guitar, with and without orchestra.

Federico Moreno TorrobaTheir work is organised into three “acts”. The first covers the period from the composer’s birth in 1891 through to 1932, the year of Luisa Fernanda. The second guides us through persistent questions around his perceived political and cultural identification with the Right during the Civil War and first two decades of Franco’s dictatorship; while the third is devoted to the Indian Summer of Torroba’s very active old age, from 1960 until his death in 1982 after the dawn of democracy. Each “act” is divided into three “scenes”: the first giving us an overview of Spanish political and cultural history in the years under scrutiny, the second homing in on Torroba’s personal and professional life during that time, the third given over to short analyses of the major stage and guitar works of each period. Despite some inevitable repetition and cross-referencing the scheme neatly sidesteps the tedium of linear conventions. This is especially useful, given that the progress of Torroba’s own familial and working life seems to have been unusually smooth, serene, and – excepting a dramatic incident in the late days of the Republic involving a brief but frightening period of imprisonment when he was conflated with the Falangist composer Tellería – free of surface excitement. The act-scene structure allows extra time and space to be devoted to the much more absorbing matters of national and cultural politics, and of course to the music itself.

There’s a great deal here to admire. The complex web of Spain’s politico-cultural history is untangled for us with deft precision and clarity: I would enthusiastically recommend the book to anyone looking for a pithy, contextual study of late nineteenth and twentieth century Spanish politics, especially as it affected her music and musicians. Torroba was a conservative man and creator, but his musical conservatism – focused on the notion of casticismo, or ‘traditional Spanish cultural purity’ – by no means went unchallenged, even (rather surprisingly) during the Franco era; and due space is given to examining the counter-currents against which Torroba fought a rearguard action. Earlier, the description of Spain’s slide towards anarchy in the 1930’s, and the burgeoning “evasion culture” under Franco’s iron rule (which included the championing of ‘Old Madrid’ and distorted nostalgia for género chico) are even-handedly outlined and most lucidly presented. Though scrupulously footnoted and annotated, I’m glad to say that this book is aimed at the general reader quite as squarely as the academic sophomore.

The chapters dealing with Torroba’s personal life and work are of an almost equally high standard. Again, both research and documentation are meticulous; and the many quotations, both from his own writings and from interviews with the Spanish media, are well chosen and absorbing. As a man, the composer of Luisa Fernanda seems to have been gently personable, courteous and easy-going, even bland. As a robustly-trained professional composer, conductor and impresario, his energetic work ethic and output remained astounding to the end of his life. Yet the book avoids hagiography, by continually circling back to the one central, vexed question: how far has Torroba’s reputation been besmirched by association with the fascist regime? One might think that the lady (or rather, the two gentlemen!) doth protest too much, but in reality it’s a fascinating question that has no simple answer and raises many issues of artistic and moral integrity.

Francisco FrancoThe authors makes it evident that Torroba’s claim to be apolitical (never a member of a political party, never a holder of political office and solely interested in being allowed to get on with writing music) was at best naïve, at worst ingenuous. Reading through the list of honours he received, the committees he served on, the theatre franchise he held and the opportunities he grasped to promote ‘Spanish Traditional Culture’ abroad during the 1950’s and 60’s – even where the unmusical Generalissimo proved obstinately unwilling to pay the piper – there can be no doubt that Torroba and the equally strongly nationalist Joaquín Rodrigo were promoted by a regime keen to firm up on its popular cultural credentials. There is the religious factor, too: for both men an unfashionably simple, unwavering Catholic faith cemented their position in the 1940’s and 1950’s. But without attempting to whitewash Torroba, the authors make out a sympathetic case for a composer who stood by his beloved Spain rather than go into exile, and whose music should not be judged by the political company he kept or didn’t keep. If Torroba did sup with the devil, at least he used a reasonably long spoon.

Pablo SorozábalMusically, the avant-garde was gobbledegook to him; though it is instructive to read of his enthusiasm for the Broadway musical, and even the songs of The Beatles. When it came to his fellow musicians, he was a man whose generosity almost always outweighed his prejudices. The infamous exception, of course, was the running feud with Pablo Sorozábal which has had repercussions in music-making and especially publishing down to our own day.  Doubtless the two composers “mixed about as well as oil and water”, as Clark and Krause put it. Sorozábal hated his rival’s nationalist ideology, and his personality was as combative as Torroba’s was amiable. His music can be hard-edged and acerbic where Torroba is all sunny, relaxed ease. Yet this contrary genius was not, as Torroba put it in a 1982 interview quoted here, “solitary” – he had many artistic and personal supporters, as well as an equal share of public affection. And given his own close escape from execution in the aftermath of the war (for which, see a fascinating article by Javier Suárez-Pajares in the programme book for Teatro de la Zarzuela’s 2006 La tabernera del puerto)  Sorozábal had cause to rail bitterly against the composers who prospered under Franco. Here, we only get one side of that story.

Segovia plays Castillos de EspańaTorroba the composer-impresario inspired a good deal of loyalty from those around him. His relations with musicians – pre-eminently Segovia, the inspiration for his many lovely (if sometimes anodyne) guitar works, but also the Romero family, Plácido Domingo and his parents, the inspirational conductor Enrique Arbós and many others – were friendly, considerate and based on mutual respect. All this is well-presented here, but I wish the book had found room to tell us more about his work as a conductor, both in the concert hall and sound/film studios. This work was as great a mainstay of Torroba’s life as composing; but although his (apparently limited) baton technique is briefly discussed, his many complete zarzuela recordings are not; nor does the discussion begin to account for the molten, creative energy which gives his best recordings, such as Guridi’s El caserío and Vives’s Maruxa, so much staying power. These two started life as soundtracks for the vivid series of zarzuela films he made with Juan Orduña. This project also is only mentioned en passant, without discussion of his editorial work in radically adapting, re-orchestrating or even – in the case of Serrano’s La canción del olvido – composing a (rather good!) original song to bulk out the running time.

nocturnos + castillos (Ikäheimo)Which brings me to the analytical sections of A Musical Life in Three Acts. The guitar works fare well here, which is not surprising given Clark’s involvement. He writes shrewdly on the genesis, structure and content of the short pieces and solo suites – there’s a lovely anecdote of his query to Segovia as to the meaning of Madroños, one of the most succulent of these hundred or so miniatures. According to the legendary dedicatee, it could refer to the cries of Madrid’s street peanut-vendors, or “perhaps to the little fabric balls attached to the skirts of dancers”. Or perhaps, as Clark himself suggests, the obvious reference – that the title refers to the shrubby little madroños trees that pepper Madrid’s urban landscape – is the right one. This is one warning example not to take Torroba’s romantic titles for his miniatures (whether suites of puertas, castillas or whatever) too literally. They reflect particular emotions more than specific geographical locations. As Clark points out, he had no qualms about giving his popular Romance de los pinos the new title Montemayor when he included the piece in his Castillos de España.

Concierto ibérico / DiálogosWhen it comes to the orchestral concertante works, we’re given a similarly appropriate level of analysis: we certainly listen to Diálogos – perhaps his most original concerto – and the Concierto ibérico with fresh ears after reading about them here. This is the one section of the book where the repeated claim that Torroba was a fine orchestrator is at least lightly explored and justified. His late ballets are understandably given less space, mostly devoted to generalised, enthusiastic description. They too would seem to be well worth looking at.

La marchenera - librettoEnthusiastic description rather than pointed observation also marks discussion of the ten, representative operas and zarzuelas chosen from his 100 or more stage works. We get brief plot summaries and short comments on musical numbers, but very little to illuminate that iron grasp of theatrical dynamics which made Torroba such a successful stage beast. Luisa Fernanda is modestly discussed over about fifteen pages, though without any consideration of the controversial (and for many, horribly sugar-coated) revisions he made to the score in the 1950’s. These have unfortunately been incorporated into the new ICCMU edition by Torroba’s son ­– unlike a suite of dances, uncovered a couple of years ago in SGAE’s Madrid archive, which the composer also added at some unknown juncture, but which once again the book doesn’t reference.

La chulapona is judiciously covered in a mere eight pages including music examples, the composer’s own favourite Monte Carmelo in five. And it was here I started to worry about the authors’ selective criteria. Although they agree with Torroba that “this captivating work” deserves to be revived, it’s not clear beyond a surplus of superlatives why they think it so captivating (or why Torroba preferred it to Luisa Fernanda) on either musical or dramatic grounds. In truth, Romero and Shaw’s sentimental-aristocratic 19th c. comedy is not one of their stronger texts, and the score lacks those retina-burning, romantic melodies which lie at the heart of Torroba’s appeal: there’s certainly nothing here which gets within spitting distance of ‘Amor, vida de mi vida’ from Maravilla, which the authors single out for moving praise at the very end of their book. In truth the nostalgic charm of Monte Carmelo has faded, even if we discount the downbeat, religiose ending, in which both of the frustrated heroine’s potential mates prefer holy orders to marriage!

La chulapona (Teatro de la Zarzuela 2012)

The decision not to delve deeply into Torroba’s dramaturgy, and a consequent failure to unearth some of his more interesting, neglected zarzuelas – in a phrase, to sort the wheat from the chaff – is for me the book’s limitation. The authors have a sound overall grasp of romantic zarzuela’s history, but they fail to connect that up with their subject’s work. For example, the intriguing full-length zarzuela written with Rodrigo and entitled El duende azul (1946) isn’t cited in the main text at all, despite its significance as a major collaboration between the two leading Spanish nationalist composers of the day. Some of his better post-war zarzuelas, such as the gloriously over-the-top, Chopin-inspired Polonesa (1944), get a sentence or two. Likewise, the 1955 madrileño romantic comedy María Manuela gets just about one paragraph. His last popular success, this zarzuela has a libretto by Guillermo Fernández-Shaw writing with his brother Rafael, not as the Works List tells us Federico Romero, from whom he’d split seven years earlier over another Torroba/Sorozábal nuclear explosion. Surely the fallout from that 1948 battle, which still resonates today, should have merited at least a word or two from Clark and Krause.

Maria ManuelaThey do write, intriguingly, of a post-war “Broadway influence” on María Manuela, though I’m not quite sure what such a notion might amount to. I’d be looking to Cuban influence rather than New York. Yet an earlier, pivotal score in which jazz dances do significantly modify Torroba’s castizo nationalism is not discussed at all. This is the pre-war La boda del Señor Bringas (1936), the last part of an informal trilogy of modern, Madrid sainetes written by Anselmo Cuadrado Carreño and Francisco Ramos de Castro. The first two were La del manojo de rosas (Sorozábal) and Me llaman la Presumida (Alonso), both beloved masterworks of the zarzuela ‘canon’. The text and score of Torroba’s follow-up – a rare excursion for him into contemporary, urban satire – merit close study, but its bad luck in emerging barely before the Civil War has consigned this remarkable zarzuela to oblivion. It goes unmentioned in Clark and Krause’s main text, and is even spelt wrong in that Works List!

There are, inevitably, a few slips. Too much (as usual) is made of Pedrell’s influence on Hispanic musical nationalism, too little (as usual) of the importance on the ground of Barbieri and Chapí. Giménez’s La tempranica – that seminal influence on Manuel de Falla as well as Torroba – is repeatedly referred to as María la tempranica, which is in fact Torroba’s title differentiating his through-written 1930 operatic reworking of the original. References to Los bohemios (for Vives’s Bohemios), La Khovantchina and somebody called “Richard Strauss, Jnr.” are unimportant, but they do point to sloppy proofing. There’s a paragraph (p.136-7) which appears to post-date Vives’s death. More bizarrely Chapí, who died in 1909, is listed as one of a group of composers exiled in 1936 who returned to Spain in the 1950’s!

There are also one or two ill-conceived attempts to ‘big up’ Torroba at the expense of other composers. He was certainly not, as the text claims, the only zarzuelero to double as an impresario: Jacinto Guerrero was even more successful in this field, and several singers of the period funded and toured their own companies. Nor is it true to claim that Torroba is the only zarzuela composer whose works are played in the concert hall. Excellent concert and chamber works by Sorozábal, Guridi, Chapí, Marqués and Bretón have all enjoyed well-merited revivals and high-profile recordings in recent years. An amusingly rude London review by G. B. Shaw of concert pieces by the last named, including his delicately poetic En la Alhambra, that most bejewelled of all Spanish orchestral works, hardly counts as reliable evidence.

Odious (and pretty pointless) comparisons apart, this is a book which is enjoyable and valuable, both as a portrait of the gentle, mildly conservative and yet financially astute composer at its heart, and as a narrative of the tumultuous history and musical culture of his time and place. If the material on Torroba’s zarzuelas is thinner and less informative than I had hoped, the quality of the writing on the guitar works makes up for that. The book is beautifully produced and stocked with nearly thirty rare photographs in addition to the copious music examples. Above all, the unpacking of the myths surrounding the composer’s association with General Franco should do much to blow away the mists from this murky area of the composer’s career. As to Torroba’s legacy, the solo guitar works may not be as popular as they were half a century ago, but their well-crafted, easy charm ensures a continued place in the chamber repertoire. The melodic, theatrical and orchestral qualities of Luisa Fernanda and La chulapona make them quite simply indispensible to their repertoire. I hope this well-written book may stimulate renewed interest in Torroba’s other, forgotten contributions to the Spanish lyric stage.

© Christopher Webber 2013

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30 July 2013