Towards the start of the XIX century, the cultural establishment in Spain was predominantly governed by the aesthetic tendencies derived from the intense exchanged that existed between the peninsula, especially the region of Aragon, and Italy, primarily with Naples, but also with Rome.
Consequently, the taste of the period orientated itself towards the measured Classicism of the end of the previous century, which, in musical terms, favoured a softer melody, less abrupt and with fewer drastic changes in tonality than its Baroque counterpart. Within this environment, there is a sudden rise in the popularity of orchestral music in Spain.
Jesús de Monasterios is one of the people responsible for this situation, which saw its climax during the XIX century. The outstanding fiddler in Spain, he gained much fame in Europe as a virtuoso of the violin. His interest in the instrument was not only practical, as he developed a fruitful career as a composer and even a teacher.
It is largely thanks to Monasterios that orchestral music in Spain gained the influence of Richard Wagner's work, as it can be traced to much of his own creations. Among them, we find a number of fantasies, a concert for violin and orchestra, and a funeral march, all oriented in the same orchestral direction.
The other outstanding figure in the shift of the musical canon in Spain towards the middle point of the XIX century is Pablo Sarasate. Primarily a fiddler, he was educated in Madrid and Paris before gaining prominence in Europe and America for his prowess at the violin. Indeed, such was his fame, that he had several pieces by great contemporary authors dedicated to him, or even written to measure his playing style, such as Camille Saint-Sans' Concert #3 for violin and orchestra.
Although Sarasate's formal musical education was scant at the level of composition, he produced 60-odd pieces, most for the violin and the piano or violin and orchestra, including a number of fantasies. Unlike Monasterios, however, he moved away from foreign influences and sought instead to taint his creations with the sounds and melodies of his country.
Parallel to the development of orchestral music, there was also the continued progress of the guitar as the instrument par excellence of Spanish culture. In this regard, Francisco Tárrega emerged as one of the great masters of the early period in the instrument's history. His performances in Paris and other French cities throughout the final quarter of the XIX century elicited much praise on his behalf, and he came to be known as the 'Sarasate of the guitar'.
Tárrega was a conservative composer and his whole oeuvre is relatively corresponds to roughly 80 pieces in total. His counterpart, however, Tomás Bretón, was far more willing to combine the predominant elements in European music at the time with the tendencies typical of the Spanish lore and tradition.
Born in Salamanca in 1850, Bretón was heavily influenced by his travels abroad. Specifically, he was mightily impressed with Italian opera, and was intent on importing the style into Spain. Unfortunately, the taste of the time in the country was quite different to that in Italy, and Bretón's first opera, Guzman el Buenos was a flop.
Breton's style was distinctly immersed in his epoch, overly interested in orchestral music, of the European style. Among his most famous works stand his three symphonies and much of his chamber music pieces. Nevertheless, his reputation is built upon two thing: his eight operas, adapting the Italian style to Spanish themes as in, for instance, Los amantes de Teruel, based on Eugenio Hartzenbusch's play.
The other cornerstone of Bretón's reputation is his prolific development of the zarzuela as a genre of its own. Still today, he is included in most spanish programs, as a great number of his zarzuelas remain in the regular repertoire. A combination of popular culture, humour and song, the zarzuela was grabbing hold of the Spanish musical establishment. But that belongs to a different chapter.