Spanish music: Zarzuela

Few things can be more authentically Spanish than this traditional musical theatre, with its mixture of song and dialogue – the word comes from zarza, meaning a mixture intertwined in itself. Originating in musical plays designed to entertain the King and his guests in the late 1650’s, performances took place in the Palacia Real de la Zarzuela, a hunting lodge in the wooded outskirts of Madrid.

In the eighteenth century the zarzuela was transformed from a court entertainment into a genre beloved of the generality of the people, where it has remained through various developments to the present day. However as the interests of the court moved to favour Italian influenced music, the basic pastoral and rural themes of the zarzuela fell into decline and this form of folk operetta was virtually forgotten in the early 1800’s.

Its revival some fifty years later is associated with Rafael Hernando whose two act zarzuela, Colegiales y Soldados, was a great success and is regarded as inaugurating a new beginning for this distinctive type of musical.

In 1851 the Sociedad Artistica was formed and hired the Teatro de Circo for a season of zarzuelas, now Italian in style but with the outward form of the French opera comique. Many composers – even those originally scornful of the genre –produced a stream of compositions. A type of zarzuela, usually in one act only, called the genero chico became widely popular with stories often set in the working class districts of Madrid. No fewer than eleven theatres in Madrid were eventually devoted to this art form and more than 150 examples were produced, and Barcelona too became a popular centre for performances.


…to be concluded next time