Francisco Alonso

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Francisco Alonso, "Maestros de la Zarzuela" stamp series (ill. courtesy Paul van Ouden)
Francisco Alonso
(1887 - 1948)

Born in Granada (9th May 1887) in a house directly opposite the municipal bandstand, it is perhaps fortunate that the young Alonso was attracted to music from a tender age. His mother, a fine pianist, was supportive when his initial choice of medicine as a career was abandoned in favour of more serious musical studies, initially with the Cathedral choirmaster, Antonio Segura, and later with Celestine Villa. By eighteen he was proficient enough in technique to become director/arranger for the Cordova Regiment, and provided them with a popular success in the pasodoble Pólvora sin humo. About this time he also directed the Philharmonic Society orchestra of his native city, and wrote his first zarzuela La niña de los cantares for the Teatro Cervantes.

Inevitable migration to the capital followed in 1911, but although Alonso made ready money writing couplets for fashionable salons, lasting theatrical success eluded him. Pieces such as the one-act sainete Armas al hombro were applauded only to vanish overnight, and it wasn't until 1916 that he achieved his first significant breakthrough, with Música, luz y alegría (Teatro Novedades.) La banderita (1919) - source of a much-played pasodoble - showed advances in orchestral sophistication and confident handling of his subject matter. Finally in 1924 came the first in his line of triumphs, La linda tapada, which enjoyed a highly successful run at the Teatro Cómico and was swiftly followed up with La bejarana (Teatro Apolo.)

Both these were taken up with equal success in Latin America - some of the music was even heard in Paris - and from then on until almost the end of his career Alonso was able to pick and choose where and how he wanted to work, dividing his time between full-length zarzuelas and revistas, revue-style sainetes. His three-act pieces include La Calesera (1925), the most famous of all with its swashbuckling romantic plot and immediately impressive score, La Parranda (1928) and La Picarona (1930). La morería (1928), written in collaboration with Rafael Millán, enjoyed almost equal success.

Me llaman la Presumida (1935), with its strongly contemporary atmosphere, is the third zarzuela in an unofficial madrileño trilogy - along with Serrano's Los Claveles and Sorazábal's La del manojo de rosas - which taken together give us a vivid portrait of the capital in the years before the Civil War. The sainete-revistas include the hugely entertaining Las Leandras (1931) with its famous song "Por la calle de Alcalá".

After the civil war the zarzuela went into eclipse, and Alonso's career with it. Ever the chameleon, he tried to adapt his style to fashionable continental models, but neither Rosa la Pantalonera (San Sebastián, 1939) nor the gracefully archaic La zapaterita (1941), with its homage to Vives' Doña Francisquita, quite recapture his earlier powers. After this, he stuck mainly to revue work, with mixed success - though the more ambitious Manuelita Rosas (1941) did something to restore his flagging reputation. Honours such as the Presidency of the Society of Spanish Authors (1947) and the Grand Cross of Alfonso X came his way, but Luces de Madrid (1947) was not a success. He died - still in harness - on 18th May 1948, and his final stage work La Rumbosa was eventually mounted late in 1951.

Several of Alonso's works - notably La Calesera and La Parranda - display a generosity of spirit, a musical amplitude which place them far above many more obviously sophisticated theatre pieces, and his colourful, exuberant lyrical gift seems as infectious now as ever it was. A highly tuned theatrical awareness helped him to avoid simply presenting the mixture as before. In fact, taken as a group, his longer zarzuelas present a wide-ranging geographical tapestry covering just about every part of the country, each with its own, very distinct atmosphere. The revistas, notably Las Leandras, crackle with lively wit and good tunes, and demonstrate as surely as the full-length pieces the brilliance of Alonso's largely self-taught technique. A popular composer in the best sense, Francisco Alonso retains a well-merited place of honour in the hearts of many of his compatriots.

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