Manuel Fernández Caballero

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M. F. Caballero

Manuel Fernández
(1835 - 1906)

Born in Murcia, March 14th 1835, after the death of his father. He began musical studies very early with his brother-in-law Julián Gil, director of the local theatre orchestra, and with José Calvo, who taught him basic technique on a wide variety of instruments. He also sang as a chorister in the city's Augustinian Monastery. At the age of ten, he was sent to Madrid to continue studies with another brother-in-law, Rafael Palazón; and in 1850 he decided to settle permanently in the capital, entering the Conservatory and studying a wide variety of disciplines, notably harmony with Indalecio Soriano Fuertes. On the latter's death, he continued composition lessons with Hilarión Eslava, adding counterpoint and fugue to his academic accomplishments. In 1856 he won the First Prize for Composition.

1853 had seen him working as a first violinist at the Teatro Real and conducting, at the Teatro de Variedades where he wrote quantities of orchestral overtures, incidental and ballet music. The following year he moved on to the Teatro Lope de Vega, where he wrote his first zarzuela - Tres madres para una hija. Despite signal successes with zarzuelas like La jardinera (1857) the path to prosperity proved elusive. Seven years and about 30 zarzuelas on, disillusioned and under-employed, he formed a company in Cuba where he lived until 1871.

On returning to Madrid the tide turned, and Caballero soon became a household name, with a string of successful stage pieces starting with El primer día feliz (1872.) Amongst his best-known works over the next thirty-five years, La Marsellesa (1876), Los sobrinos del capitán Grant (1877 - based on Jules Verne and featuring a love-duet in English, a scene in Australia and sundry other delights), Chateau-Margaux (1887), El dúo de La africana (1893) and El cabo primero (1895) deserve particular mention, as does La viejecita (1897 - bizarrely, a reworking of Charley's Aunt set in Napoleonic Madrid.) From 1882 he was a regular conductor with the Artístico-Musical Orchestra, whilst his zarzuela company continued to tour with great success as far afield as Buenos Aires and Montevideo (1884-5), and he received many honours at home and abroad.

From 1894 encroaching blindness increasingly curtailed his compositional activities, though a cataract operation in 1902 restored his sight sufficiently for him to read an acceptance speech on election to the Academia - significantly, on the theme of "Spanish popular song." Of his later works El señor Joaquín (1898) has lost the toehold it once held on the repertoire, but the legendary Gigantes y Cabezudos from later the same year - a patriotic rallying cry after the Spanish defeat in Cuba - retains its immense popularity as a lively celebration of the jota aragonese. He died on 26th February 1906 in Madrid.

Caballero was a fine all-round musician, whose work boasts unfailing technical security as well as musical interest. Towards the end of his working life he followed the trend of placing popular Spanish song at the heart of the drama; but even though his earlier scores may lack obvious 'local color', they do possess an essentially Spanish élan which marks them apart from Italian and French formal models. Indeed his melodies have enough strength and passion to mark him as a forerunner of the verismo school, and his orchestration has a similar vigour. His Cuban years bore fruit, too - he was largely responsible for popularising Spanish-American song and dance forms such as the habanera in mainstream Spanish music - and without doubt he must be accounted one of the greatest composers of the zarzuela tradition.

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