Emilio Arrieta

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Emilio Arrieta

Emilio Arrieta
(1821 - 1894)

The son of a country landowner, Pascual Emilio Arrieta y Corera was born in Puente la Reina, Navarra, 21 October 1821. At the age of ten he was removed to the care of his well-to-do sister in Madrid, where he studied sol-fa sight reading with Castillo and showed early signs of talent. Several adventurous trips to Italy culminated in an extended period of study at the Milan Conservatory (1841-5) under several maestri including Vaccai, and where he became friends with Amilcare Ponchielli, composer of La Gioconda. He eventually won First Prize on his graduation and wrote Ildegonda (1846), a three act opera to an Italian text by the leading librettist Temistocle Solera, which was to be successfully performed in several Italian cities.

He returned to Madrid the same year, becoming a fast favourite of the Queen, Isabel II. She appointed the young composer to a succession of posts, culminating in his investiture as Composer Director for the Teatro Real in December 1849, two months after the presentation of Ildegonda at the new Teatro Real. A new Italian opera La conquista de Granada followed in 1850, again to a text by Solera. He taught at the Madrid Conservatory from 1857, and became its director after the "Glorious" Revolution of 1868, his leading pupils being Chapí and Bretón; but after the final deposition of Isabel II his influence declined. Two years after suffering a stroke he died at his home in Madrid on 11 February 1894.

Conservative in his politics, passionately italianate in his musical tastes, Arrieta took little part in the initial establishment of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, though he did contribute a short work El sonámbulo to the new venture (1856) as well as having a hand in several other pieces. Later on he wrote zarzuelas consistently: but in spite of this he remained, together with his friend and collaborator the great poet-dramatist Adelado López de Ayala, a significant rallying figure for artistic opposition to his exact contemporary Barbieri and the other founders of the national school. They in their turn suspected him of subverting their efforts to foster musical theatre in the vernacular, although in time personal relations between Barbieri and Arrieta mellowed.

Not surprisingly, many of his zarzuelas are written in a more italianate style than those of his contemporaries. Amongst his regular librettists, Antonio García Gutiérrez (the celebrated author of El trovador) regularly brought out his best work, and a zarzuela such as the one-act El grumete (1853) is a fine work worth reviving, although Azón Visconti (1858), Dos coronas and Llamada y tropa (both 1861) are critically respected too. The intriguingly-named La tabernera de Londres (1862), and a sequel to El grumete entitled La vuelta del corsario (1863) did not enjoy comparable approval.

Romanzas from El grumete and El dominó azul (both 1853, the latter to a text by Camprodón) are occasionally heard; but many of his later successes, such as El conjuro (1866), El planeta Venus (1858) and La Guerra Santa (1879, based on Jules Verne's 1876 novel Michel Strogoff) have sunk without trace. His last significant success was the ambitious San Franco de Sena (1883).

The eternally popular three-act opera Marina (1871, adapted by Carrión from Camprodón's two-act zarzuela of 1855) is the one work which keeps his reputation alive today. It remains an admirable barometer of Arrieta's artistic personality. Gently mellifluous, elegant and gracious in the manner of Donizetti or Ricci, it offers great opportunities for the leading soprano and tenor, but leaves little space for the more pungent popular musical song and dance forms found in the works of Barbieri and Gaztambide. Arrieta's pleasant, italianate music certainly requires star singers to bring it to life, and this may be felt nowadays to be its limitation as well as its undoubted strength.

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