The Libretto
and Librettists
in the Zarzuela

Pedro Gomez Manzanares

As defined in various reference works, the zarzuela is "a theatrical work in which spoken and sung sections alternate". On these two great pillars are supported the actors, musicians, singers, chorus, dancers, scenic and lighting designers - all these together realise the great "espectáculo de zarzuela", the phrase by which people began to recognise this variety of lyric theatre in the second half of the 17th century.

It is, certainly, a compendium of many arts, but all are sustained by the two primary ones - text and music.

Miguel Echegaray Eizaguirre
Miguel Echegaray Eizaguirre

An analysis of the relative weight and importance of one against the other would lead to a long debate, without any certainty of arriving at a definite conclusion. Many think that the music should be ranked above the text, and fewer would hold the contrary view. It is useful that each faction has brought its own criteria to bear, and we may hope that having read this article, we may have a little more data to enable us to clarify our ideas.

Let us first air some questions, that will help us reflect and focus on the topic:

Is it easier to recall a tune or a word? Is it easier to reflect a spiritual state or feeling through the music or the text? Are we conscious of the text attached to the melodies? Which were the librettists to hold and delight our forebears? Let these and other questions hang in the air and serve as points of reflection on the subject.

But what is the libretto? Putting it as simply and clearly as possible, it consists of a bundle of concepts, including the original idea, the plot, the narrative thread, the dialogue, the versification -and all this not just in the spoken but also in the sung part. What would the confrontation between Felipe and Mari Pepa in La revoltosa be, without the text? The first appearance of Juan, in Los Gavilanes? What would the "madrileña bonita" ('Pretty girl of Madrid') from La del manojo de rosas be, without its words? The Act 2 duet of Fernando and Francisquita, or Fernando's romanza "por el humo..." ('By the smoke..."), from Doña Francisquita? Or Vidal's romanza in Luisa Fernanda? Or Rafael's in La Dolorosa?

If we observe the content and form of libretti throughout the three hundred years and more of our zarzuela, without going into details we may observe that there exists a clear parallel at any given moment with the dominant preoccupations of 'straight' theatre. However, we can also see a significant influence, that would not be possible in any other form, of the contemporary life of the nation. At the dawn of the zarzuela in the second half of the 17th century, the plots show human problems mirrored in the world of mythology. In the 18th century, with its sainetes and tonadillas, we see a depiction of everyday life, directly transported to the stage.

The libretto evolves in the middle of the following century into a presentation of courtly life, in which characters from the common people mix with those of the court. In the last quarter of the 19th century, with the appearance of the género chico (chico or 'little' by virtue of its duration and not by its contents), we are shown ordinary people in their natural habitat, tricked out with slang dialect, vibrantly alive, and given the coinage of new words and phrases that would come to enter common parlance. Finally, with the coming of the 20th century and the reappearance of the zarzuela grande, the libretti are based on themes more serious, profound and dramatic.

Let us return in time, to remember some of the hundreds of writers who put their mind and imagination to the service of our lyric theatre.

Spain has been the cradle of many great writers. If we focus in particular on the 17th century, we may mention Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645); Tirso de Molina (1581?- 1648); Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), who died the same day and year as William Shakespeare - 26th April 1616; Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658); Luis de Góngora (1561-1627); Lope de Vega (1562-1635) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681). It is in this era that the Spanish Theatre reaches the apex of this difficult art form, and it was as curiosities that Spanish theatrical works began to appear accompanied - timidly at first - by music, leading in time to the birth of our zarzuela.

It was Don Pedro Calderón de la Barca who in mid-century, influenced by his master Lope de Vega, wrote theatrical works adorned with musical content, which came later to be recognized as the first zarzuelas. Titles such as El jardín de Falerina (1648 - not universally considered to be a zarzuela); El golfo de las sirenas (1657); El laurel de Apolo (1657/8) etc. are those which introduced this style of Spanish lyric theatre to the world.

One of the first key findings of our survey is that with these first zarzuelas the text, but not the music, was generally preserved. The author of the text is known, but not that of the musical numbers. The work is associated with the librettist and not the composer. Does this not tell us that in this era the significance lay with the libretto rather than the score? This state is not maintained with time, as the score gains ground against the text, which gradually loses power - until we reach the 20th century, in which few even know the names of the librettists, associating the title of the work with the composer of the music.

I went to the trouble of taking a small survey of aficionados of the genre, not experts, to whom I asked three questions: could they tell me the names of ten zarzuela composers? Could they tell me the names of three librettists? Could they tell me the names of the authors of the text and music of Doña Francisquita, La verbena de la Paloma and El barberillo de Lavapiés?

The results were extremely interesting. A large proportion of the interviewees were capable of giving me ten composers' names, very few could recall the names of three writers and almost none was capable of providing the names of the authors, literary and musical, of those three works.

If we went back into the past, we would find hundreds and hundreds of writers who wielded their pens as members of the community of librettists for the Spanish lyric theatre. It is not the purpose of this article to list one after another their names and works, but mention must be made of those who stand out by virtue of their prominence, quality, volume of work, or literary interest.

Carlos Arniches
Carlos Arniches

Amongst those who have a notable place in the lyric theatre, we should mention Calderón de la Barca; Ramón de la Cruz; Carlos Arniches; the brothers Alvarez Quintero; Francisco Camprodón; Luis de Olona; Miguel Echegaray (brother of the 1904 Nobel Prizewinner for Literature); Luis Fernández de Sevilla; Federico Romero; Rafael, Carlos y Guillermo Fernandez Shaw; José López Silva; the Paso family (Alfonso, Manuel, Antonio - father and son); Felipe Pérez y González; Guillermo Perrín and Miguel de Palacios; Miguel Ramos Carrión; Ricardo de la Vega; the Cuban Gustavo Sánchez Galarraga; Enrique García Alvarez.

Others left a mark in their time, such as José María Arozamena; Celso Lucio; Javier de Burgos; Juan José Cadenas; Sinesio Delgado; Luis Eguilaz; Luis Fernández Ardavín; Luis Pascual Frutos; Emilio González del Castillo; Antonio Solís; Juan Bautista Diamante; José Cañizares; Antonio Zamora; José Muñoz Román; Antonio Quintero; Francisco Ramos de Castro; José Ramos Martín; Julián Romea Parra; Bretón de los Herreros; Ventura de la Vega; Anselmo Cuadrado Carreño; Fiacro Yrayzoz; Miguel Ligero; José Estremera; Antonio García Gutiérrez; José Jackson Veyán;

Juan José Lorente; Tomás Luceño; José Luis Mañes; Gregorio Martínez Sierra; Apeles Mestres; Antonio Monís; Enrique Paradas; José Picón; Mariano Pina; Enrique Prieto; Francisco Serrano Anguita; José Tellaeche; Maximiliano Thous; Adolfo Torrado; Vital Aza; Marcos Zapata; Luis Mariano de Larra; Antonio Casero; Antonio Casas Bricio; Conrat Colomer; Joaquín Dicenta; Joaquín Jiménez; Enrique Reoyo; Pau Esteve; Salvador María Granés; Urbá Fandó; Manuel de Góngora; Ricardo González del Toro; Francisco Arderius; Joaquín Abati; Victor Balaguer; Luis Capdevila and many, many others.

The brothers Alvarez Quintero
The brothers Alvarez Quintero

For curiosity's sake we should not forget the many great men of letters who to a greater or lesser degree lent their texts to our lyric theatre. In this group we must cite Pío Baroja (Adiós a la bohemia), Jacinto Benavente, the Nobel Prizewinner in 1922 (La fuerza bruta, Viaje de instrucción, La copa encantada, Los cachorros, La sobresalienta); Joaquín Calvo Sotelo (Un millón de rosas); Camilo José Cela, Nobel Prizewinner in 1989 (María Sabina); Agustín de Foxá (Baile en capitanía); Juan Eugenio Hartzembusch (Los amantes de Teruel, La alcaldesa de Zamalamarra); Juan Ignacio Luca de Tena (El huésped del sevillano, La perrichola); Alvaro de la Iglesia (El corderito verde); Pedro Llabrés (Aquella noche en Bahía, La reina fea, Rosa la pantalonera); Juan Vélez de Guevara (Los celos hacen estrellas); Pedro Muñoz Seca (Pepe Conde, La orgía dorada); José María Pemán (Lola la piconera, Las viejas ricas); Tamayo y Baus (Don Simplicio Bobadilla); Adelardo López de Ayala (Los comuneros, El conjuro); José Zorrilla (Amor y arte, Camoens); Nuñez de Arce (Entre el alcalde y el rey); Enrique Jardiel Poncela (Carlo Monte en Montecarlo); Eduardo Marquina (El collar de Afrodita); Diego Torres de Villarroel (La armonía entre lo sensible); Mariano José de Larra (El rapto); Miguel Mihura (Pajaritos y flores); Feliú I Codina (La Dolores); Manuel Machado (El pilar de la victoria); Jose María Pereda (Blasones y talegas) etc. etc.

This rolecall of illustrious names from our literary history should give us pause to reflect on the quality of the texts provided for our lyric theatre. Without underestimating musical value, are not these names sufficient to make us remember the high quality of the texts?

F. Romero and G. F. Shaw
F. Romero and G. F. Shaw

This is a suitable place to pause, leaving for future discussion a more detailed study of some of those writers who are crucial to the growth of zarzuela. To return to our points of departure, they do suggest some definite conclusions on the importance of the libretto throughout the long history of our lyric theatre, and the zarzuela in particular.

Pedro Gómez Manzanares
Villaviciosa de Odón
5th February 2000 (©)

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