Francisco Asenjo Barbieri (, 1823-1894) was a key figure in mid-19th-century Spanish musical nationalism. His lyric theatre compositions, including seventy-five zarzuelas – many of them highly popular in Spain and Latin America – made him the foremost composer of his generation; he also established the foundations of academic Spanish musicology and consolidated concert life in Madrid.
He spent his childhood with his grandfather José Barbieri, choreographer and governor of the Teatro de la Cruz, one of Madrid’s two main operatic theatres of the time. Thus, from his early youth he became familiar with all the fashionable operas of the generation. He abandoned his university studies in 1837 to turn to music. At the Royal Conservatory he studied composition under Ramón and in the mid-1840s combined his last study years with work as a musical copyist, critic, conductor of Italian opera companies and composer for dance and military bands. In 1845 he took up teaching posts for a year in , where he conducted at the Liceo theatre. Following his graduation from the Conservatory, he was made an associate of Madrid’s influential Liceo Artístico y Literario in 1848. He also joined the society España Musical, which in 1847 addressed a petition to Queen for a theatre dedicated to the cultivation of Spanish opera. Until then, Madrid’s municipal theatres had hired out their halls almost exclusively to Italian opera companies; private entrepreneurs, impressed with the international successes of or , were similarly neglectful of local composers, whose work, if performed at all, had to be sung in Italian. The opening of the government-subsidized Teatro Real (1850, under the initial management of ’s librettist Temistocle ) did little to improve this state of affairs.
The 1848 revolution drove three young composers studying and working in back to Madrid: Joaquín , Rafael and José . Together with Barbieri and other notable figures including the playwright Luis and the popular bass-baritone Francisco , these composers concluded that the operatic business model of the time was ill-suited to foster Spanish-language lyric theatre. They accordingly formed experimental companies to produce works that diverged from the strictly operatic model and instead followed that of the French opéra-comique, with musical numbers alternating with long stretches of spoken dialogue. With Barbieri as one of the main proponents, they revived the old term “zarzuela” (which had fallen out of use in the 18th century), used it in contradistinction to “opera”, and instilled a marked folkloric connotation into it.
Barbieri premiered his first zarzuela in 1850, Gloria y peluca, in which he dramatized the troubles of a Spanish opera composer who has to renounce his dreams. As would be the norm for some years, the libretto was a free adaptation of a contemporary French play. The following year saw one of Barbieri’s greatest successes, Jugar con fuego, a zarzuela in 3 acts which demonstrated the genre’s potential, and which was immediately staged by the first travelling zarzuela companies in , and in Spain’s principal cities. From then on, the Spanish public took this form of comedic-musical theatre to heart; in an essay in the periodical La Zarzuela (4 Feb. 1856), Barbieri defined the genre as “essentially the same thing as French comic operas, with no difference other than its language and its musical garb, cut in Spanish style”. Jugar con fuego spawned further successes such as Galanteos en Venecia, Los diamantes de la corona and Mis dos mujeres, as well as lighter, less ambitious works of a traditional or urban cast, in which we find the first steps towards operetta-like creations with a marked Spanish flavour: Por seguir a una mujer, ¡Gracias a Dios que está puesta la mesa! and Los dos ciegos from 1855, based on Jules Moinaux’s libretto for Offenbach, into which Barbieri inserted a musical number from the French composer’s original score.
Until 1856 the zarzuelistas leased Madrid's Teatro del Circo as a cooperative, known as the Sociedad del Circo. It foundered, however, under the overwhelming success of Barbieri and Gaztambide and the ambitions of the wealthy Olona and Salas. These four began the construction of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, which opened in October 1856. The Queen never granted it official protection; but ample commercial support was ensured by triumphs such as Barbieri’s El diablo en el poder, El relámpago and Un caballero particular. Meanwhile, the theatre company promoted its weekly magazine La Zarzuela, with Barbieri as editor. Faultlines in the partnership soon widened, and as early as 1859 Barbieri and Olona sold out their shares to Salas and Gaztambide.
Following a failed attempt to have a French adaptation of his Entre mi mujer y el negro produced at the Parisian Opéra-Comique, Barbieri continued to present new works at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, combining composition with scholarly research on historical Spanish music sources. Around 1864, in the Madrid City Archive, he deepened his knowledge of the tonadilla, a variant of the Italian intermezzo designed as an endpiece for late-18th- and early-19th-century comedies and zarzuelas. His knowledge of this repertoire permeated the score of the zarzuela Pan y toros, first performed late in 1864. This work, set in 's time, effectively mixed various styles shot through by scenic realism and by quotations from historical and popular music (ranging from a French Gavotte to the folksong “Perulillo”). As such it epitomizes the synthesis through which zarzuela for Barbieri could become “national comic opera”. By then, he had already directed a concert of 16th- and 17th-century music, in a tribute at Madrid’s Trinitarias church, and had become curious about the historical figures of Juan Blas de Castro and Lope de Vega.
By now, a significant controversy took shape between Barbieri and his colleagues Rafael Hernando and Baltasar Saldoni, regarding the suitability of zarzuela as a vehicle for the long-awaited “national opera”, leading to Barbieri’s pamphlet Contestación al maestro Hernando (1864). As more educated members of the Spanish public began to take exception to the zarzuela’s musical populism, Barbieri defended its comedic aesthetics – with spoken dialogue between sung numbers, alternation between high and low characters, sentimental plots inextricably combining opposed social classes and political ideas – by linking it back to a tradition he derived from the Spanish “comedia” forged in the time of Lope de Vega.
In the same year, 1864, Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers was produced as Los dioses del Olimpo at the Teatro de la Zarzuela. Its broad and satirical humour scandalized purists like the novelist Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, who exclaimed that “the zarzuela, after twenty years of public success, has spawned, not an Ópera española, but rather the Bufos madrileños”. The reference was to the “Bufos” company, founded in 1866 on the model of the Bouffes-Parisiens, and for which – in that same year – Barbieri had already composed two pieces.
In 1866 Barbieri was among the founding members of the Sociedad de Bibliófilos Españoles and of the Sociedad de Conciertos, Madrid’s first firmly-established symphony orchestra, which offered concert seasons until the beginning of the 20th century. On various occasions, Barbieri had already promoted and conducted what was then called música sabia (“serious music”), thus, in 1864, he had conducted his own adaptation of the Guests’ Entry March from Tannhäuser at the Sociedad Artística Musical de Socorros Mutuos, introducing ’s music to Madrid for the first time.
In the turmoil that followed the downfall of in 1868, Barbieri was appointed musical director of the Teatro Nacional de la Ópera. Even so, he continued to premiere zarzuelas at the Bufos theatre, including such popular successes as Robinson, El tributo de las cien doncellas and Sueños de oro. For the Teatro de la Zarzuela he composed works such as El hombre es débil and finally, in 1874, his best-remembered work today, El barberillo de Lavapiés.
Also in 1874 Barbieri helped establish a music department at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. Under the Bourbon Restoration of 1875, Barbieri turned increasingly to musicological research, such as the transcription and publication of the Royal Palace’s early-modern songbook (Cancionero musical de los siglos XV y XVI). Still, in the 1880s he composed a handful of short zarzuelas for the so-called ‘teatros por horas’ (theatre by the hour), some of which enjoyed popular success – not least De Getafe al paraíso, and ¡Hoy sale, hoy…! which he composed in collaboration with Federico .
Barbieri collected one of the most important music libraries of the time. Upon his death, this was bequeathed, together with his papers and musicological notes, to the Biblioteca Nacional de España; in his honour the room of the library’s Music and Audio-visual department is called the Sala Barbieri. In 1892, two years before his death, he was appointed “académico de la lengua” by the Royal Spanish Academy – the only composer to date who has achieved this high accolade.