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ClassicsOnline Home » BRETON: Piano Trio in E Major / String Quartet in D Major
BRETÓN (1850 -1923)
Piano Trio in E Major
String Quartet in D Major
out, as the saying goes. 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.
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
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. 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.
The results were not comparable. Although highly cultured by then, Bretón
lacked the poetic sense, and the music of the Revelation-based oratorio El
Apocalipsis and the opera Los amantes de Teruel failed to redeem
them. 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, who suggested
that a few judicious cuts and alterations to the libretto would remedy any
faults. Arrieta countered that if cutting were the answer, then everything
would have to be cut. The conflict enlarged when the hated 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.
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. 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.
hardly expect a string quartet by a Spanish composer most famous for zarzuelas
to radiate a purely Viennese spirit, but that is exactly the case with Bretón’s
D major quartet, published in Madrid c. 1910. Even the French influence of the
trio is entirely absent. The opening Allegro moderato ma non tanto is
preponderantly lyrical, and if any specific parallel were to be drawn it would
be to Schubert’s Quartettsatz. Following the classical pattern even
down to the exposition repeat, the movement is consistently genial and lovely.
A theme in the cello’s low register ushers in the Andante on a tragic
note, and what follows is a substantial, complex musical argument that
expresses emotional profundity with admirable poise. This is music of mature
insight, in which the play of harmonic colours admits fleeting glimpses of
sunlight into a
world of shadow. The scherzo, Allegro, brings playfulness tinged with melancholy,
and the gracious trio, accented with pizzicati, offers a tune that is captivating
in its simplicity. An introduction marked Grave begins the finale. Consisting
of a chorale theme that ends each statement with a stunningly virtuosic passage
for one of the four instruments, it leads to a lyrical, valedictory theme that
immediately becomes the subject of a fugue. We are not dealing with the sort of
dreadful academic fugue that uninspired composers use to fill pages of music paper.
This is a fugue with something to say, and it forms the body of the movement.
Beethoven’s example is apparent, and as the music moves along it comes ever
closer to joy, ending the quartet with healthy affirmation.
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