The zarzuela is a uniquely Spanish genre which combines song with recitation, action and a humurous tone to create a dynamic spectacle. Originally, it was conceived in the midst of the Golden Century or Golden Era, back in the XVII century. It is thought that Lope de Vega, the first of the great playwrights of the time, made incursions into the genre, as did Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the last great dramatist od the Baroque period.
It would not be until 200 years later, though, that the tastes and sensibility of Spanish audiences would be aligned with the aesthetic postulates put forward by the zarzuelas of the XIX century. Roughly from 1850 onwards, the genre's undisputed popularity forced its recognition even among the more elitist portions of the cultural establishment.
From the very start, zarzuelas were divided in two categories, major and minor ones, or, what amounts to the same thing, one-act shows (minor) or several-acts shows (major, normally 3 acts, although occasionally also 2 or 4). Thus, the first great exponent of the genre in the modern sense was Francisco Barbieri.
Born in Madrid in 1823, Barbieri's contributions are deemed to be so important he is often considered in the father of the zarzuela. He wrote over 60 of them, among them Lod diamantes de la corona (The Jewels of the Crown) and El barberillo de Lavapiés.
Side by side to Barbieri's work was Emilio Arrieta's, whose Italian training originally orientated his art in the direction of the opera. As a matter of fact, he wrote three opera's before switching over to the zarzuela in 1853, three years after Barbieri´s first performance.
But once he committed himself to the nascent form of lyrical expression, Arrieta became one of the most prolific composers, completing as many as fifty plays. Unsurprisingly, Arrieta incorporates a much less traditional style to the zarzuela's music, displaying his knowledge and control of Italian music through the seamless blending of Spanish folk songs with a more refined music sheet.
With the opening in Madrid in 1856 of the Palacio de la Zarzuela, a theatre devoted exclusively to the performance of zarzuelas, the genre had finally established itself firmly upon the ground of recognised cultural expression in the country. Then followed the boom, with vast amount of material being composed and produced until the end of the century. Among the most remarkable authors of those years stands out Ruperto Chapí.
Born in Alicante in 1861, Chapí began writing minor zarzuelas when he was just a child. Following a journey to France and Italy, he returned to Spain and established himself as a successful composer of major zarzuelas from the mid 1880s onwards. He became immensely famous with El tambor de granaderos (1896) and a year later with La Revoltosa, establishing himself for the following twenty years as one of the masters of the major style.
Meanwhile, Federico Chueca, was leaving his mark as an expert of the minor zarzuela. Born in Madrid in 1846, Chueca received no instruction whatsoever in the art of music, and his work obeyed, instead, his remarkable sense of rhythm and his sensibility to appreciate what the people wanted and what the people liked.
Popular entertainment proved a great hit in the music scene of Madrid, and soon overtook the high-brow performances that had dominated the scenes for centuries before. There would be enough room for both, but the emergence of the folklore and the popular sensibility would also dictate the rotund success of flamenco in the country, as Spain, slowly, found and forged its own identity.