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• 1 • Overture Theater Music and the Problem of Spanish Nationalism February in Madrid can be fairly miserable. Cold winds sweep down from the mountains to the north of the city, chilling buildings that are designed to remain cool against the intense heat of a Spanish summer. For music lovers, February 1894 had added misery. On the morning of Monday the 12th, newspapers carried the obituary of Emilio Arrieta, who had died the previous day and who was one of Spain’s most eminent composers. Arrieta was not only the composer of several operas and zarzuelas, he was also the director of the Escuela Nacional de Música y Declamación, one of the key institutions for developing new Spanish composers, singers, and instrumentalists . He had been a favorite of Queen Isabella II—having been her singing teacher in the late 1840s and early 1850s—and although this was not mentioned in the obituaries, he may have also been one of her lovers. His compositions attracted some of Europe’s greatest singers: the premiere of his opera Marina in 1871 had featured Enrico Tamberlick, one of the leading tenors of the late nineteenth century. (Verdi had written the role of Alvaro in La forza del destino for Tamberlick.) Arrieta was more than a composer in mid- and late nineteenth-century Spain. He was an institution.1 Exactly one week later on the 19th, the same papers carried the obituary of an even more revered and beloved composer. Francisco Asenjo Barbieri had passed away at 1:20 that morning. Like Arrieta, Barbieri was a member of the Real Academia de San Fernando de Bellas Artes, which recognized the height of his accomplishment in Spanish artistic circles. As the compiler and editor of the Cancionero musical de los siglos XV y XVI (Songbook of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries), he was one of the fathers of the discipline of musicology in Spain. He was the founder of the Sociedad de Conciertos de Madrid, one of the earliest orchestras in Spain, and was its principal conductor for many years. During his tenure, he introduced Spain to important Music Theater and Popular Nationalism in Spain, 1880–1930 • 2 • music by Mozart, Haydn, Rossini, and Beethoven. But most of all, he was beloved for his musical theater compositions. His zarzuelas Jugar con fuego, Pan y toros, and El barberillo de Lavapiés had been wildly popular at their premieres and were frequently revived. The depth of feeling aroused by Barbieri ’s death can be judged by the fact that the weekly review Blanco y Negro featured four photographs of his funeral cortege and noted that at the funeral service “women with shawls tightly wrapped around the body and kerchiefs on their head pursued [the coffin], moving their lips and letting tears fall before the cadaver.” Arrieta’s funeral had not attracted such attention or grief— or media coverage.2 Although Arrieta and Barbieri were both towering figures of nineteenthcentury Spanish music, it was Barbieri whose death attracted the most attention . This was not merely because he died a week later. The real reason can be gleaned from four retrospective articles in the daily newspaper La Época evaluating the music of each man. These articles were written by Spain’s most eminent music critic, Antonio Peña y Goñi. Peña y Goñi was well acquainted with each man and his role in Spanish musical history: in 1881, he had published La ópera española y la música dramatica en España en el siglo XIX (Spanish Opera and Dramatic Music in Nineteenth-Century Spain), a massive overview of the development of Spanish theatrical music. As Arrieta and Barbieri were both dramatic composers, they had featured prominently in the text. Although Peña y Goñi softened his criticisms of men who had just moved into a realm where they would be immune from music critics at last, his evaluation of the two composers had not changed since 1881. This would not be to Arrieta’s benefit. On the 12th of February, La Época published Peña y Goñi’s “La música de Arrieta,” which opens by comparing Arrieta’s musical and dramatic sense with that of the Italian Vincenzo Bellini, the composer of the operas La sonnambula , Norma, and I puritani, some of the greatest examples of the bel canto vocal style that flourished in Italy in the early nineteenth century. This might seem like a compliment, since Bellini’s operas...


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