About this Recording
8.223745 - BRETON: Piano Trio in E Major / String Quartet in D Major

Tomás BRETÓN (1850 -1923)

Piano Trio in E Major
String Quartet in D Major

Talent will out, as the saying goes. Tomás Bretón y Hernández began life in humble circumstances on 29th December 1850 in the Spanish city of Salamanca. His father, a baker, struggled to support the family. He died when Tomás was only two years old, and from then on his widow managed through worsened conditions by taking in students as lodgers. Tomás’s older brother supplemented the family income by working as a silversmith, and a friend of his became the future composer’s first music teacher.

At the age of eight, Bretón enrolled in Salamanca’s Escuela de Nobles y Bellas Artes de San Eloy and began his formal musical education. Two years later he began to eke out a living by playing the violin in theatre and dance orchestras. In 1865 a visiting zarzuela company offered him a position, which he assumed later that year when his mother took her two sons to Madrid. Not long afterward he entered the Madrid Conservatory to study violin and composition, all the while continuing to play in restaurants and theatres. After mastering the difficulties of three courses in harmony in only five months, Breton sufficiently impressed the director, Emilio Arrieta, that his academic work was accelerated, and he graduated with honours - a first prize - in 1872.

Immediately he embarked on a professional career. Only two years passed before he was launched in the theatrical world as a composer of zarzuelas, among them Los dos caminos, El viaje de Europa and El alma de un hilo. But his true aspiration was opera, and he made his first, insecure, attempt with Guzmán el Bueno.

In 1880 Bretón married and became the father of a son. That same year he received two scholarships which permitted him to study in Rome for 13 months at the Academia Española de Bellas Artes. There he learned German in order to acquaint himself better with Wagner’s work, and from Rome he travelled on to Vienna, where he immersed himself in the city’s musical atmosphere. During this period he composed the obligatory symphony, but more problematical, for lack of an able librettist, was the composition of an oratorio and an opera. In 1882 he resolved the difficulty by following Wagner’s example: he wrote his own texts. The results were not comparable. Although highly cultured by then, Bretón lacked the poetic sense, and the music of the Revelation-based oratorio El Apocalipsis and the opera Los amantes de Teruel failed to redeem them. Premiered in Italian as Gliamanti di Terollo in 1889, the opera earned more criticism than praise. At best it was seen as an act of youthful rebellion, roundly condemned by the establishment, which included his former supporter Arrieta, but cheered by younger aficionados, who suggested that a few judicious cuts and alterations to the libretto would remedy any faults. Arrieta countered that if cutting were the answer, then everything would have to be cut. The conflict enlarged when the hated Eduard Hanslick, who knew nothing about Spanish music, blasted it after a Viennese performance, and Felipe Pedrell was impelled to write an open letter in defense of Spanish honour. For a time Bretón’s name was the rallying cry for artistic revolution.

Between 1875 and 1896 Bretón composed the ten theatrical works upon which his reputation rests today. His fondest aspiration always was to create a serious Spanish opera. He never wanted to be known as a zarzuellsta. Ironically he played an important part in the zarzuela’s revival and succeeded best in the género chico or one-act comedy. His most popular work has been and always will be La verbena de la Paloma (1894), a zarzuela that captures Madrid’s vivid street ambience. Artistically speaking, his most successful stage work is La Dolores (1892), originally a zarzuela, later expanded into a full opera. Reintroduced in 1895, it ran for 66 consecutive performances in Madrid, followed by 137 in Barcelona. Like La verbena de la Paloma, it owes its continuing favor to an employment of the Spanish popular idiom. Subsequent operas such as Farinelli, Tabaré, Raquel and Covadonga failed to arouse much passion one way or the other.

One would hardly expect a string quartet by a Spanish composer most famous for zarzuelas to radiate a purely Viennese spirit, but that is exactly the case with Bretón’s D major quartet, published in Madrid c. 1910. Even the French influence of the trio is entirely absent. The opening Allegro moderato ma non tanto is preponderantly lyrical, and if any specific parallel were to be drawn it would be to Schubert’s Quartettsatz. Following the classical pattern  even down to the exposition repeat, the movement is consistently genial and lovely. A theme in the cello’s low register ushers in the Andante on a tragic note, and what follows is a substantial, complex musical argument that expresses emotional profundity with admirable poise. This is music of mature insight, in which the play of harmonic colours admits fleeting glimpses of sunlight into a

sombre world of shadow. The scherzo, Allegro, brings playfulness tinged with melancholy, and the gracious trio, accented with pizzicati, offers a tune that is captivating in its simplicity. An introduction marked Grave begins the finale. Consisting of a chorale theme that ends each statement with a stunningly virtuosic passage for one of the four instruments, it leads to a lyrical, valedictory theme that immediately becomes the subject of a fugue. We are not dealing with the sort of dreadful academic fugue that uninspired composers use to fill pages of music paper. This is a fugue with something to say, and it forms the body of the movement. Beethoven’s example is apparent, and as the music moves along it comes ever closer to joy, ending the quartet with healthy affirmation.

@ 1994 David Nelson

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