Spain is less European than the rest of western Europe, something that shows particularly in its music. Spanish rhythms are heavily influenced by West Africa and the New World. Its melodies are full of Moorish, Jewish, and Gypsy elements, which themselves have roots in Middle Eastern or even Asian culture. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain’s music ranked with any country’s in importance. Characteristic dances from Spanish America (the zarabanda, pasacalle, and chacona among them) spread throughout Europe. Even as Italy was inventing opera, Spain developed its own native form of musical theater, the zarzuela.
But in the 18th and 19th centuries the Germanic symphonic tradition and Italian opera came to dominate the world of art music. They relegated many a national musical style, including Spain’s, to the status of local color, barely taken seriously even by the locals. In Spain, the problem was aggravated by politics, since the country often came under the influence of foreign rulers. The French Bourbon family became kings of Spain in 1700, and though the Bourbons were inevitably Hispanicized after a generation or two (a Bourbon is king of Spain today), their rule was often characterized, oddly enough, by Italian influence in the arts. In 1830, the zarzuela had virtually vanished from Spanish theaters, Italian opera dominated among the upper and middle classes, and an Italian-born queen of Spain founded the Madrid Conservatory with an Italian director and Italian as the language of instruction. The country had been colonized musically. The young educated Spaniard was likely to know Bellini better than any native composer; the serious Spanish composer was likely to tone down the native sound in what he wrote, for fear of sounding provincial.
On the other hand, musical visitors to Spain were quickly drawn to its native music, and composers like Liszt, Glinka, and Rimsky-Korsakov often attempted to characterize its peculiar colors in Spanish caprices and rhapsodies of their own. Non-Spanish listeners in the classical world still think of music by Frenchmen – Bizet, Chabrier, Lalo, and Ravel – when they think of Spanish music.
When Spanish composers decided to reclaim their national heritage, they looked to two sources: folklore, and the art music of the past. These two sources came packaged together in the work of the two most important figures in Spanish nationalism. Both Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922) and Francisco de Asís Esteban Asenjo Barbieri (1823-1894) were composers, conductors, critics, musicologists, and musical propagandists. Both of them edited and published influential volumes of Spanish renaissance music, pointing Spaniards toward their own illustrious past, and both of them produced encyclopedias of Hispanic music and musicians in an effort to attune Spaniards to their musical present.
Of the two, Barbieri had the more immediate success in making the sounds of Spanish popular music dominate spanish theaters, in turn ushering in an explosion in the zarzuela. Theaters sprang up devoted exclusively to zarzuelas, providing occupations for composers and performers. Pablo Luna (1880-1942), the composer of Benamor, was a prominent conductor of zarzuela companies, including the Madrid Teatro de Zarzuela, where he conducted the Spanish premiere of Falla’s La vida breve.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and for the Coleman Chamber Concerts.