Beginnings of the Spanish musical theater



Félix Máximo López (1742-1821). Portrait by Vicente López. Prado Museum.

     The musicologist José Subirá discovered in the library of the Liria palace (owned by the dukes of Alba) the first act of the "musical comedy" Celos aún del aire matan (Jealousies still kill in the air), work by Juan Hidalgo (+ 1685) and letter by Calderón de la Barca, with all the parts corresponding to the voices and to the bass, but without the "ritornelli" and musical intermissions, publishing it in 1933. [Without considering the numerous "autos sacramentales" of C. de la Barca, more similar to lyrical works but with religious topics, gender that was practiced by many of our maestros composers (e.g. Soler).]

     El jardín de Falerina, whose premiere was made in 1648, was maybe the first antecedent of the zarzuela. Play by Calderón, in two acts and with abundant cantábile music. Later on he produced El golfo de las sirenas (The gulf of the sirens) and El Laurel de Apolo (Apollo's Laurel), denominating them zarzuelas.

 Blas de Castro, Gabriel Díaz, Juan Palomares, of the profane polyphonic school were also the most distinguished composers of theatrical music.


 Many of these musical shows were represented in the palace of the Zarzuela (an old hunt pavilion located in the real Pardo park, next to Madrid, which had been enlarged by Felipe IV (1621-1665)); the expression "fiesta en la Zarzuela" (party in the Zarzuela ) was simplified in "zarzuela"; and this name, in its origin coming from "zarza" (bramble), passed to designate a sung theatrical gender.

 Starting from 1703, Madrid possessed a stable company of Italian opera, and the Royal Chapel also had to the front Italian musicians: Falconi and Corselli, for example; Corradini and Mele collaborated with the Spanish writers, and it belongs to all acquaintance the political-musical paper carried out by Carlo Broschi, called " Farinelli ", beside Felipe V and Fernando VI, for a quater of a century.


      Domenico Scarlatti entered in Spain in 1729 accompanying his pupil the princess María Bárbara of Braganza when she married Fernando VI, and he remained here until his death in 1757. With his relationship with the Father Antonio Soler (Olot 1729-El Escorial 1783) we can assure that they form the bases of the school of Spanish key of the 18th century and, with it, the essence of the local style. Luigi Bocherini, Italian musician, also settled down in Madrid and impregnated of the rhythm and color of our earth, marks the seal of the most refined Spanishness. In this section, it would be necessary to mention other main composers of that century like Gallés, Mateo Albéniz, Manuel Blasco de Nebra, Felipe Rodríguez, José Lidón, the Basque José Larrañaga, Manuel Gamarra, Joaquín Echeverría, Manuel de Sostoa, José Bidaurre and Juan Lonbide.  

    Domenico Terradelles (Barcelona 1713-Roma 1751) triumphed in Europe with his operas Merope (1743) and Sesostri (1751) and Vicente Martín y Soler (Valencia 1754-San Petersburgo 1806), well-known by the nickname of "Martini lo Spagnuolo" was admired by Mozart, who, in test of it, introduced the duet "Pace, mio caro sposo", of the opera "Una cosa rara, ossia Belleza e onestá", in his Don Giovanni.


       The teachers of the Real Chapel of Madrid, Sebastián Durón (+ c. 1715), accused nevertheless, of making Italian the religious music; Antonio Líteres (+ 1747), delicate composer whose son -same name - was outstanding organist; and José de Nebra (+ 1768), professor of Soler, have a great weight in the history of the Spanish theatrical music.


    Together with Pablo Esteve y Grimau (Barcelona c. 1730-Madrid c. 1801) and, mainly, with the from Madrid chapel teacher Antonio Rodríguez de Hita (1724-1787), the zarzuela was born and developed, national gender that is equal to the French comedian opera. Rodríguez de Hita, very important as author of religious compositions, collaborated with the "sainetero" Ramón de la Cruz, who created the truly national zarzuela whose music, "Las segadoras de Vallecas" (The reaping womans of Vallecas) and "Las labradoras de Murcia" (The peasants of Murcia), is inspired by the Spanish musical language, in the same way that the text is inspired by the bustling life of the town and in the daily customs (" literature of manners "). Rodríguez de Hita was teacher of the poet and musician Tomás de Iriarte (1750-1791),  creator of the melólogo (melodrama recited with musical accompaniment) and author of the didactic poem The Music, very soon translated to Italian and French. Beside the zarzuela (in general, divided in two acts) it was also cultivated, with the same nationalist spirit, the tonadilla, brief piece, conceived as intermission between the acts of a comedy; outstanding teachers of this gender were Lluis Misón (Barcelona 1720-Madrid 1766) -if not the true creator of the tonadilla, his authentic renewer -, Pau Esteve, Blas de Laserna (Corella 1751-Madrid 1816), Pablo Moral, Antonio Rosales, etc. Ramón de la Cruz provided librettos to others composers: Antonio Palomino, Fabián García Pacheco, Ventura Galbán, Antonio Rosales (El Licenciado Farfulla -"The graduate Babbles"-) and the Italians settled down in Madrid, Luigi Boccherini and Gaetano Brunetti.


      The Spanish music of ends of the 18th century, so much if it is the works of the national composers as of those of the Italian musicians who resided in Spain, already speaks in a language that is completely own, until the point that can be said that in this time the Spanish music is born, just as now it is conceived and recognized in the work of the big contemporary teachers, Spaniards or foreigners.



        It followed in the early 1900s teachers like Sessé, Lidón, until arriving to our character, Félix Máximo López, heir of the tradition and perfectly centered in his predecessor Rodríguez de Hita.






       On 18 November 1742 Félix Máximo López was born in Madrid. Son of Antonio López, of Pastrana (Guadalajara) and Basilia Crespo, of Vallecas (Madrid). It is possible the family lived in the today's Maestro Vitoria street, between Preciados and Arenal, since Félix Máximo was baptized in San Ginés.


        It is not for sure that the tonadillas, attributed to him: "The bees", by Don Félix de Toledo, "The Andalusians" and "The Hiding place", by Félix López (signed this way), all three dated in 1761, demonstrate that he lived in Toledo, although López carries out "The Escape", also from that year, in Madrid (the last recent discovery, the Variations of the Spanish fandango for pianoforte by Don Félix). This is all we know up to 1764 when, being 21 years old, the 29th of Juny  celebrated a wedding with María Dominga de Bartholomé Remacha, age 24, secretly and by proxy in the Masterful of Alcalá de Henares and later, in 1766, at age 24,  he public got married in the madrileña  church San Ginés.


         Up to 1775 the couple should live onwards as best as she could, giving classes or as organist in any church? They had four children: Ambrosio (1769), Miguel (1772), Juliana (1775) and José (1777). Ambrosio began collaborating with his father as organist at the Royal Chapel and Miguel studied in the Colegio de Niños Cantores. Both would become musicians of the Court but the second, tenor,  was expelled for his collaboration with the French during the occupation of 1808-1814, while Ambrosio fought in the heroic defense of Madrid.


        By public examination for the Chapel of Music, Félix obtained the fourth organist post in 1775, endowed with six thousand reales a year. The test then, reigning Carlos III, consisted on performing a prepared sonata, then another, strange for the applicant that it could be read only five minutes before, a choral or orchestral performance, possibly (according to Alma Espinosa in her doctoral thesis “The Keyboard Works of Félix Máximo López” (1742-1821),  New York University Ph.D., 1976 Music, 899 pages) it would be necessary to carry out an improvisation and, finally, an exam on music theory. This allowed the family to move to the house Islada, in Arenal street.


        In February of 1780 dies suddenly María  and Félix Máximo finds the comfort in a twenty-eight year-old youth, Melchora Pérez Díaz, with whom he gets married, the following June 21th, again in San Ginés. From this relation three more children were born: Juan Jorge Marcelino (1782), María Ángela (1784) and Francisco de Borja Carlos (1787). He definitively fixed his residence in 1784 at the 11th of Fuentes Street ,  very near Arenal street.



      The work as fourth organist was daily, accompanying the Divine Office, in "Maytines Benedictus", in "Vísperas Magnificat" and in "Completas Nunc Dimitis", mornings and evenings. The vacancies for the four positions of organist of the Royal Chapel were filled as holders died; therefore, when dying the first organist, Miguel Ravaza, in 1787, they stayed the following way: 1st - José Lidón, 2nd - Juan Sessé and 3rd - F. M. López. His honorarium was 10.000 reales.


      Third organist's position also demanded to play daily in the mass, with more responsibility since he should substitute both firsts whenever necessary, and that of second and first to play on holidays or when the king was present. This already happened during Carlos IV's reign (1788-1808). Meanwhile only, of Felix´s seven children, three, Ambrosio, Miguel and María survive. The others where maybe victims of illnes or the war.


       In 1801 he becomes second organist, with 12.000 reales per year due to the death of the Aragonese Juan Sessé. Until then we know of trips to Ocaña and Aranjuez, with friends or with his son Miguel and some more musicians of the Real Chapel.


        Finally, the last promotion to first organist was on 6 May 1805, consequence of José Lidón's appointment as teacher of the Royal Chapel and principal of the Royal School of Niños Cantores, with an annual salary of 16.000 reales. The Spanish economic decline at the end of Carlos IV's reign and Fernando VII's not very solvent administration caused the Spanish Court restricted the budget, affecting the musicians unavoidably, a fact aggravated with the French invasion and the Independence war. Starting from 1806 the economic penalties began for López, earning a wage with irregularity and sometimes null. In 1809 there were only two organists in the Royal Chapel: Félix Máximo López and Ángel Castronova; his salary was 808 reales. At the beginning of 1814 it was reestablished the 16.000 reales following a letter to Fernando VII, in which he also interceded in favor of his son Miguel. Shortly afterwards, he got an increased at 18.000 definitively. On 9 April 1821 Félix Máximo López died following an epilepsy attack.


      Josef Severio, official of the Royall Chapel, had left written on López, in a communication dated 18 December 1815: " ...This good old man, who has always served as an organist and who became the first in the year 1805, not only has been and is one of the best in strings or class, but rather he has always been very strict in the execution of his obligations and very honest man; so for his merit, circumstances and appreciable garments he has been esteemed and assisted by all his superiors."







    It is not completely clear how many works for key by López have gotten lost. Those that we know, "Música de clave" (Music of Key) -BN copies M 1234-, "Variaciones del fandango español" (Variations of the Spanish Fandango) -autograph -BN M-Cª 4420 14- and "Variaciones al Minuet afandangado" (Variations to the Minuet afandangado) -BN copies M 1742- that embraces the "Integral de la música para clave y pianoforte" (Complete Works for Harpsichord and Fortepiano) -Ed. ICCMU by Alberto Cobo-, in addition to the organ manuscripts: "Juegos de Versos por los ocho tonos y cuerda de Gesolreut" (Play of verses for the eight tones and string of Gesolreut) -104 verses and fabordones BN M 1187-, "Juegos de Versos de todos los tonos por la cuerda de Gesolreut" (Play of verses of all the tones for the string of Gesolreut) -324 verses -BN M 1735-, "Música de órgano" (Organ Music) -BN M 769-, "Piezas al órgano" (Pieces by the organ) -BN M 770- between 1801-1803, "Siete Gosas sobre el himno Sacris Solemnis" (Seven Glosses on the Hymn Sacris Solemnis) -BN M 1737-, "Versos de órgano para la nona de la ascensión" (Organ Verses for the Nona of the Ascension) -BN Cª 5285 us. 20, 21- and "Escuela orgánica" (Organic School) -BN M 2291- of 1799 (with clear didactic orientation), belonging to the collection of the "Legado Barbieri" (National Library). In his inventory Barbieri names four pieces (Piano Rondo for 4 hands; Six easy minuets for key-1794; Sonata pastorela-1794; six pastorals for pianoforte or organ -1802), of which we cannot follow the track, next to some other guitar works, violin and choral and a great quantity of carols. He also mentions to have seen: " ... lots of notes and drafts of verses and organ sonatas owned by the bookseller Montes..." The list of Barbieri omits some tonadillas and vocal and secular works that are conserved in the Monastery of Montserrat, in the Royal Conservatory of Music of Madrid and in the Municipal Library of Madrid. We can also find in the National Library the "Reglas generales o escuela de acompañar" (General Rules or School of Accompanying), toward 1780 - BN M 1188-, a pedagogic method with norms and interesting harmonic connections, such as the modulation by fifth; a 1st. volume titled "Obras poéticas, líricas y cómicas" (Poetic, Lyrical and Comedians Works) -BN MS 14101-, which Félix Máximo López composed from the year 1784 and which Barbieri found in the Rastro of Madrid in 1875, where it figures the letter for canzonettas, décimas, seguidillas, romances, cuartetas, sainetes, etc. It can be perceived the humor of his admired Cervantes. The second volume has not be found yet.


Ten line stanza poem that the same author composed complaining about his fortune


What do I own Poor of me!

today, of having lived yesterday!

only I have got not having

the hours that yesterday lived:

what today of yesterday reflected,

I will say tomorrow, if I am,

but so uncertain I am,

that tomorrow I will be

that maybe I won't say it

to have me dead today.  


(example of a 10 line stanza, to which he adds others, glossing this previous one.)


The Nonsense or the Work of the Lunatics



     The fact that this zarzuela, one of López's last compositions, consists of three acts,  that the letter was created by the same author of the music, that this were his last work, that he had worked previously with assiduity the tonadilla, that this creation took its bounds between 1815 and 1820, and that its manuscripts were in possession of Barbieri, are credentials enough to value these pages like exemplary piece of the time. Even more, if we unite the musical and creative value of our musician's chore.


     Barbieri speaks of the influence of the poets Iriarte and Quevedo in the burlesque characteristics of this work. Practically, it is composed of chamber orchestra (plus two oboes and two trumpets in the preliminary symphony) and it incorporates some Spanish dances (waltz of the marica, cachucha...), fugues, popular songs (Malbruk went to the war...), sermons, parola, party of the bullfight (third act)... Four characters (denominated: 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th lunatic) create sentences and popular sayings of the time, sometimes incongruous, of satirical character or with only musical and rhythmic meaning (in the first act Don Agamemnon -1st lunatic- sings in an old latin Italian for some time). We can include this work in the incipient nationalist current from Rodríguez of Hita.



Famous morning

alive bullring

the tier filled

everything is taken.


(translation from "The party of bullfight" of the third act of the zarzuela)


         What lyrical works do we know from 1815 up to 1832, date of the première in the recently created Conservatory María Cristina of the Los Enredos de un curioso (Messes of an Onlooker) -see pg.1 of the “First Modern Opera”-, denominated as "first modern zarzuela"?


          Although this last work represents the link or starting point toward the later zarzuela, fundamentally for the inclusion of the dramatic factor, logically to be carried out the main part of the work by our two biggest operits, Ramón Carnicer and Baltasar Saldoni, on the other hand is not an ambitious work, its function was to give an opening character toward the students of the Conservatory (who performed it) and, at the same time, to justify the four recently named teachers of the center: Pedro Albéniz, Saldoni, Carnicer and Piermarini.


            Clearly it is seen that the royal presence influenced a lot to follow this line and the popular factor has also been always very kindred to the commercial one.


            Anyway, this modern terminology could also be applied to López. Did not Mozart maybe compose operas and operettas? Apart from the always evident influence of Haydn in López, Mozart was also very present and the work is very intoned with this style, even with the mocking irony.


           It could be this work were performed privately, as it was accustomed for these works. In what forms could this work affect to the later zazuelas? Barbieri studied it, Saldoni knew perfectly López and, according to the own musician's (López) data, López was a personality in his time.


            In the 1820s, with the Revolution, the shows of Italian opera were prohibited. The political repression before and later didn't leave a lot relieve for the freedom of speech. The theaters, anyway, were very dominated by Italian musicians. The responsibility of maintaining a real position was like walking with feet of lead. Even so, López wanted to make his work and to say something more than what had been said.



        Baltasar Saldoni left written in his Dictionary: "He (López) was man of prompt and happy invention, expert of the instrument and master of the science of registering...", referring then to "his spicy genius and some sarcastic manners".


Copyright Alberto Cobo        email: