TOMÁS BRETÓN (1850 - 1923)
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.
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. 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. Bretón’s stay in Rome exerted a positive influence and, as also happened to his friend, the Spanish composer Ruperto Chapí, it stimulated him to incorporate into his music the new great European forms, while taking great interest in the promotion of nationalist music. 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 for the Revelation-based oratorio El Apocalipsis and the opera Los amantes de Teruel. 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. The conflict enlarged when 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. 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.
On his return to Madrid, Bretón was appointed Orchestral Director of the Teatro Real and the Unión Artístico Musical. In 1901 he took up the post of Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire, becoming Principal two years later. His students included such great musicians as Manuel de Falla and Pablo Casals. From his position within the Spanish musical circles, he laboured hard to re-energise the world of Spanish music and took particular pains to introduce the idea of an original, nationalistic opera, inspired by Spanish folk melodies. In that vein he wrote various lyrical works and pieces of chamber music, which were however, ironically, criticized for not being Spanish enough; some of his operas, such as The Lovers of Teruel and Garin were even considered Wagnerian. Although his fame is mainly based on his lyrical works, Bretón’s chamber music is remarkable, with a harmonic approach quite audacious for its period. He composed three string quartets, one piano quintet, one wind sextet, and also pieces for trio.