Pedro Calderón de la Barca

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& Christopher Webber
Last updated July 26th 2000

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Pedro Calderon de la Barca
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
(1600 - 1681)

Born into a wealthy Madrid family on 17th January 1600, Calderón studied with the Jesuits before moving on to the Universities of Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca. He wrote his first comedy at the age of 23. Although much of his huge output of dramatic and sacred works has been lost, the best known plays take high rank amongst the acknowledged classics of Western theatre. They include El alcalde de Zalamea; La vida es sueño; El gran teatro del mundo; and La cena del rey Baltasar.

His earlier plays are heavily influenced by the realistic, fertile style of his master Lope de Vega, but from the age of 40 his plays show an increasing theological preoccupation, along with refinement of detail and a reliance on complex Baroque language and structure. Many feel that as he perfected his work, a certain freshness and natural quality was lost.

Of the 120 or so plays which survive, about half were written in collaboration with leading composers of the day. Many of these date from his later life, and take the form of one-act sacred verse dramas, with allegorical characters and spiritual debates. Much of the music has been lost - it seems that the artists of the time did not set much store in preserving it for posterity.

The first play with music written for the Palace of La Zarzuela was in fact El jardín de Falerina of 1648, a work considered by some writers to be the first zarzuela, although the name was not used to describe such musical entertainments until the late 1650's. Most would agree that El golfo de las Sirenas (1657, music anonymous) and El laurel de Apolo (1657/8) with music reputedly by Juan de Hidalgo, were the earliest to bear the description from the start. Later proven collaborations with Hidalgo, such as La púrpura de la rosa (1659/60) and Celos aún del aire matan (1660), enjoyed equal success - the former, indeed, even in the New World with a new score by Torrejón y Velasca (Peru, 1701).

All these, like the later El hijo del sol, Faetón (1661), Eco y Narciso (1661) and Ni amor se libra de amor (1662) employed mythological subjects from Classic literature, with comic intermedios (intermezzos) of a popular nature.

After the death of Lope de Vega in 1635 Philip IV entrusted Calderón with the management of the Royal Theatre. He fought in the military campaign in Cataluña in his early fifties, was ordained a priest and withdrew to Toledo. Later he was recalled to Madrid by the King as an Honorary Chaplain, living to the age of 81, and dying in the capital on 25th May 1681.

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