‘Ínfimo’ Usandizaga –
the sweet secret of the Basque Coast
The centenary of ‘young’ José María Usandizaga’s death is being celebrated in his homeland with intriguing new ventures. After the concert revival of his opera La llama (reviewed here), Rentería’s traditional Basque Music Week, Musikaste, picks up the baton, thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Coral Andra Mari and town’s ERESBIL archive.
This year’s festival has rescued several scores from the San Sebastián composer’s archive, none more attractive to aficionados of lyrical theatre and zarzuela than the ones billed for its closing concert. In fact the entire, complex creative universe of Usandizaga was summarized in the works gathered here: the (still somewhat academic) French quality of the Suite in A, the approved nationalism of his rhapsody Irurak bat, the spectacular ‘à la russe’ orientalism of Hassan and Melihah.
The highlight was the lovely cantata Umezurtza (‘The Orphan’), in which the composer discloses a febrile, dramatic inspiration mediated through Basque folklore, with the Dionysian dance rhythm of arin arin as its base. The Coral Andra Mari with Xabier Anduaga and – most notably – Miren Urbieta as soloists, tucked behind the Basque Symphony Orchestra, gave their best to make the auditorium tremble in this moving finale.
Yet the real novelty of the evening lay in the world premiere of the four musical numbers which Usandizaga drafted for the hilarious ‘lyrical comedy’ Bitz, a mordant revue in género ínfimo mode, aimed at the sophisticated, dislocated atmosphere prevalent in neighbouring, French-Basque Biarritz (whose tourist herds, coincidentally, were about to migrate to Donostia following the tocsin sound for the Great War). Christopher Webber has rightly pointed out the link between the contemporary ínfimo Spanish repertoire and the fin-de-siècle spirit of many European artists – a trend with which, moreover, Usandizaga had already flirted in his zarzuela Las golindrinas, as Teresa Cascudo has pointed out in another recent study.
Yes, you read that right: the idolised Genius of Donostia also paid his little tribute to that most maligned – yet in its time most enjoyed – of genres. It’s just that the relevant manuscript lay sleeping in a drawer after his death ... until last Saturday. Judging by the signature on the script (‘Soraluce and Villanueva’), we can assume that this daring raid on ‘disreputable’ territory must have been initiated by the hand of his maternal uncle, the journalist and musician Cándido Soraluce; so the sin, charming and venial as it was, stayed in the family. Or perhaps the piece was intended for the billboards of one of the numerous theatres and kursaals of the region? It’s hard to tell, given the innumerable shows and spectacles of those years.
A Preludio of lively, popular flavour; an ‘Indian Song’; an Intermedio in Schottisch rhythm – the composer’s original piano score dedicates this to his chums, the ‘pollo-pera’ (‘posh boys’) of San Sebastian’s La estaca club; and a charming Vals, which the libretto describes as ‘modernist’ and which indeed would hardly have seemed out of place in the Parisian Bal Bullier of Puccini’s La Rondine, made up Usandizaga’s chic contribution to this divertimento, as entertaining as inconsequential. The mosaic was originally completed by a brace of couplets composed without much effort by the mysterious W.K. Hamilton – probably an American composer, judging from his syncopations, and known to be active in Biarritz itself. As his contribution to the cause was excluded from the programme this time, I fear it may be left in silence for ever and ever.
Obviously, the music ‘simple of itself’, out of context, is not enough to allow an audience to appreciate the slim, cynical wit of a piece such as Bitz (“outside the imagination of aestheticians and analysts, music never is alone”, as musicologist Nicholas Cook wisely puts it). Still, her perfume allowed us to close our eyes on a spring night, and dream for a moment that we were with some joyous troop of fakirs and palm readers, rough cupletistas, dapper tzigane violinists, cocottes and bourgeois rogues, black lovers, fake bullfighters, imitation ‘Englishman’ and countless adventurers of all kinds, lost forever betwixt the jagged, rocky coast of the Basque Country and its jagged, rocky history.
Here’s a health to it, and to us:
‘Bitz is the golden life / full of glory … !’
© Mario Lerena, tr. CW