About this Recording
8.572076 - BRETON, T.: Escenas andaluzas / En la Alhambra / Opera Preludes (Madrid Community Orchestra, Roa)
English  Spanish 

Tomás Bretón (1850–1923)
Andalusian Scenes • In the Alhambra • Opera Preludes


Tomás Bretón was one of the best known and best loved composers in Spain in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He was active in a number of different musical fields, becoming director of the Madrid Conservatory as well as a renowned conductor. Bretón was also a passionate advocate of Spanish classical music, arguing, through his writings and lectures, that it should be placed on an equal footing with that of Germany and Italy, for example. As a composer he produced a catalogue of more than 120 works, including nine operas and over fifty zarzuelas as well as orchestral and chamber pieces. Most of these works have been unjustly forgotten, eclipsed by the overwhelming success of his one-act zarzuela La verbena de la Paloma, which displays just one facet of his wide-ranging creative career.

As a conductor Bretón worked principally with Madrid’s Sociedad de Conciertos (from 1885 onwards), the capital’s foremost orchestra at the time. He continued to conduct throughout his life, later working with such ensembles as the Madrid Symphony and Philharmonic. The considerable experience he gained through his conducting work is reflected in his own orchestral output, which includes three symphonies, a series of symphonic poems and various typically Spanish pieces. Andalucismo was key to Spanish nationalist music and, between them, the four highly coloured pieces that make up the Escenas andaluzas (1894) feature its central characteristics, establishing the foundations on which Albéniz and Falla were to build. The Bolero has the distinctive rhythm of that dance and also provides a wealth of orchestral colour. In the Polo the guitar-like pizzicati underline the dance’s gypsy associations. Marcha y saeta, meanwhile, depicts a typical Holy Week procession: we hear the approach of a marching band and then, just as the music is at its loudest, it stops, to allow the low tones of the saeta—the devotional song par excellence of Andalusia—to be heard on the cor anglais. The work ends with a rhythmic and dazzling Zapateado, another typical Andalusian dance. This was one of the composer’s most popular pieces, illustrative of both his nationalism and his talent for orchestral writing.

Bretón’s greatest ambition, however, was to create a recognisably Spanish opera tradition. The leading operatic composer of the time, he blended European trends, Wagnerism, Meyerbeerian grand opéra and the Italian tradition, with his own nationalist interests. His first opera was Guzmán el Bueno (1876), a one-act work on a fairly traditional libretto by Antonio Arnao: a retelling of a famous episode in the eighth-century Moorish conquest of Iberia in which the Christian hero of the title sacrifices his own son rather than abandoning his post and surrendering his town to the enemy. After a mysterious introduction, the prelude paints a musical portrait of the two peoples at war: a noble theme for the Christians and typically oriental and Andalusian sonorities for the Moors.

La Dolores (1895) was Bretón’s biggest operatic hit. Its passionate love story takes place in rural Aragón, its realistic vein in line with the verista current so popular elsewhere in Europe at the time. Here the prelude features various themes from the opera itself, the centrepiece being the jota, a lively, dazzling Aragonese dance. The way in which the themes are organized within the prelude is clearly programmatic in intent, as they introduce the various different elements of the drama to come: the insulting song that lies at the heart of the conflict, “Si vas a Calatayud…”, in which Melchor casts aspersions on his former love Dolores’s character, the energy-filled theme reflecting Melchor’s own violent nature, the lyrical melody with which the youth Lázaro declares himself to Dolores, and, of course, the stunning jota. This prelude highlights Bretón’s wonderful symphonic skills as well as his keen sense of drama.

The opera Garín (1892) was commissioned by the Liceu Theatre in Barcelona and is based on the medieval legend of the eponymous hermit of Montserrat, who was condemned for raping Witilda, daughter of the Count of Barcelona. As in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, with which Garín has much in common, the protagonist returns from a pilgrimage of atonement to Rome without having been granted the Pope’s pardon, although a final miracle results in his salvation. The most famous fragment of the opera was a sardana that formed part of the rural fiesta in the last act. The sardana, a round dance, became the symbol of Catalan nationalism. Bretón presents its upbeat rhythm in a dazzling orchestration which was received with wild enthusiasm at the première and subsequent performances.

Los amantes de Teruel (1889) was a key work in the process of establishing a Spanish opera tradition in the nineteenth century. Bretón began work on it in Paris in 1885, taking as his inspiration the play of the same name by Juan Eugenio Hartzenbusch, a leading figure in the Spanish Romantic literary world. The composer devised his own libretto, creating a lengthy and elaborate opera in a prologue and four acts, recounting the tragic love story between Diego Marsilla and Isabel de Segura in medieval Spain. Diego is captured by the Moors in Valencia and, owing to his rivals’ intrigues, fails to get home in time to prevent Isabel’s wedding to another man. The two lovers both descend into madness and then die of their broken hearts. Once again, Bretón’s prelude provides a summary of the musical tensions engendered by the drama: we hear the lyrical theme of the lovers’ first meeting, Diego’s tense battle and, finally, a finespun recurrence of the initial theme, representing the two tragic lovers as they meet again in heaven.

The symphonic serenade En la Alhambra (1888) was the result of visits paid by the Sociedad de Madrid to the religious festivities in Granada. It was one of the composer’s best-loved works, and was part of the trend of alhambrismo to be found in many other works, such as Chapí’s Los gnomos de la Alhambra. The exoticism and magical atmosphere of the Alhambra had become one of the favourite sources of inspiration of European Romanticism. Bretón’s work is redolent of Andalusia and is sustained by beautiful and delicate orchestral writing—further proof, if such were needed, of his symphonic instincts and his contribution to Spanish nationalist music, but also of the universal vision that informed his nationalism.

Víctor Sánchez Sánchez
Translated by Susannah Howe

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