Some Aspects of the Tonadilla escénica in Its Late Phase

Elisabeth Le Guin


The term tonadilla can refer to several different musical genres, depending on the period in question. In the second half of the eighteenth century the term is properly tonadilla escénica, and it means a kind of comic intermezzo in Spanish: a brief work for one, two, or sometimes more singers and a small theater orchestra, sung more or less throughout, and expressly created to be staged between the acts of longer works like operas, zarzuelas, or spoken plays. The genre was place-specific—the great majority of tonadillas escénicas were written in and for Madrid —and period-specific as well. The generally accepted date for the first work answering to this description is 1757, and although tonadillas were occasionally written well into the nineteenth century (Francisco Barbieri wrote one in 1881), the genre had ceased to be a vital tradition by about 1810.

There was a great deal of tension during the second half of the eighteenth century between the afrancesados, those Spaniards who followed the lead of the French in matters of philosophy, the arts, and fashion, and those who, for a variety of reasons, cleaved fiercely to old (or sometimes re-invented) Spanish traditions. This is reflected in the tonadilla texts, which are topical, directly treating current events, fashions, and the foibles of audience members, often in terms of their nationalized affiliations; at the same time, the musical language cooks up a unique mix of autochthonous Spanish dance types, French sentimentality, and the lively, limber, declamatory Neapolitan comic style.

The madrileños ate it up. Tonadillas enjoyed a tremendous vogue in Madrid. By the 1780s, the company at each of the two main theaters was presenting sixty to seventy new works every season; thus, during the season, a new tonadilla could be seen in Madrid every few days. The archival legacy of this time is impressive: the Biblioteca Municipal de Madrid has almost 2000 tonadillas in manuscript, as well as 536 sainetes of the great satirical observer of Spanish customs, Ramón de la Cruz, about a 100 of which have substantial written musical interludes. This veritable ocean has been astonishingly little navigated. Very few tonadillas have been published. La muerte y resurección de la tirana of Blas de Laserna, from which comes the “Tirana del Trípili” used by Granados for “Los requiebros” in his Goyescas, is very much the exception. Furthermore, the collections have never been systematically catalogued, although the MSS are well preserved and lovingly cared for.

Only the great Spanish musicologist José Subirá can be said to have really known this repertory; he achieved this by making the tonadillas central to his life's work, in the process eschewing academia, teaching, society, and most visible means of financial support. Since his magnificent three-volume study of 1932,1 and until the last couple of years, in which scholars at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid have produced an important article and a fine exhibition catalog, which includes a collection of essays, there has been precious little scholarly work of any kind on the genre.2 To this day, virtually none of it is in English.

Madrid 's Centro Conde Duque, which houses the Biblioteca Municipal, has sponsored a series of tonadilla concerts over the last few years, in which the madrileños can enjoy the pieces that their ancestors raved about. In coordination with these efforts, a good recording has only recently been released; it is the first adequate performance of any of these works on disc.3


Fine though the concerts are and the recording is, I cannot imagine that the tonadilla escénica will ever recuperate the popularity it once had with its listening public. It was too much a phenomenon of its time; we have lost too much of the original context. Thus, the genre embodies one of the fundamental paradoxes of the discipline of musicology: what use can there be in poring over the fossilized remains of an art form whose immediacy was its soul and reason for being?

This question hovers poignantly over my recent work in the genre. If pressed for an answer, I would have to say that the use of such study is in looking more closely at, and thus honoring, the past; and that doing this is important because we tend to find that in honoring the past, we better come to understand ourselves in the present. Tonadillas escénicas provide windows, some of astonishing clarity and others of fascinating distortion, onto a place and a time that have disappeared forever—and which yet persist, in a thousand likenesses large and small. To name only a few of the largest: Spain in the period 1785-1805 and Spain in 2005 are both contending with the impact of a big wave of immigration; both are still emerging from long periods of cultural isolation (the one from the long Hapsburg dynasty, the other from the dictadura of Franco) into relative modernity; both are prosperous for the first time in living memory. Questions that arise in relation to the one period tend to apply to the other, a fascinating and perilous exercise in historical relativism. Thus, an immediacy—a mediated immediacy, I suppose we would have to call it—does in the end emerge.

Or, to answer the question in another way (but perhaps, in the end, a more appropriate one): there is the fact that the madrileños still chuckle at the humor in these works.


I propose to concentrate here on a single tonadilla. I will not attempt to be particularly synoptic nor systematic about my treatment. Those who are interested in the general textual, structural and stylistic features of the genre cannot do better than to go to Subirá, who describes them with mastery; and those who would like to get to know the piece more thoroughly can find this particular tonadilla in a good recent edition. Rather, I hope here to give a brief glimpse of how these works once operated, and of what can still be interesting and attractive in them.

The work is entitled La lección de música y de volero, and its music was composed by Blas de Laserna (1751-1816). In all likelihood, so was its poetry. Laserna, a remarkable jack-of-all-trades and one of the most prolific composers in the whole eighteenth century, wrote the libretos for a number of his more than 800 (!) tonadillas . The first performance came in the spring of 1803. From the worn and much-marked condition of the parts, it appears to have been a particularly popular work, probably re-staged a number of times during ensuing years.

Mutacion de sala di ensayo con puerta en el foro q.e figure la entrada de la calle sillas &a.


The work opens with “Berteli” and “Eusebio,” tenor and bajo respectively. Berteli plays the part of the “autor,” or company director.

The two are trying to figure out how they will mount the coming summer season of tonadillas, without any women singers to speak of.


After this opening number, we get a spoken exchange in which Eusebio offers to sing the women's parts, and Berteli agrees to let him do it.


Then some women do appear: la Virg (=María Josefa Virg), and “la Bolera,” a bailarina .



There is some banter between the men and these women. They still do not know what tonadilla to put on, because they still lack a dama de parte de cantado . . . .


. . . so they decide to pass the time as fruitfully as they can until she shows up: to wit, Eusebio engages to practice solfa with La Virg.


Meanwhile, Berteli tells the bailarina , “While they have their lesson, I'll review the bien parado you taught me yesterday.”


A rehearsal hall with a door in the back through which can be seen the entry to the street; seats etc.


Allegro, A Minor, 2/4 time


The singers' real names were Sebastiano Berteli and Eusebio Fernández. It was common practice for tonadilleros / as to act and sing under their own names. De la Cruz used the same, curiously “transparent” convention in his sainetes .

This, like most of the meta-theatrical references with which tonadillas abound, is documentary. Due to repeated administrative conflicts and failures from 1799-1802, the Madrid theatrical companies were still in a woeful state. 4



There is a fair amount of this sort of gender silliness in the tonadillas , up to and including having a bajo sing an entire sentimental aria in falsetto, or a soprano an entire aria in the buffo tenor range (an example occurs in Laserna's Cómica y la operista of 1783).


The bolero was at the height of its popularity at this time, and boleros, along with fandangos , contradanzas , padedús , and minués , were often programmed as independent events alongside operas and tragedies. From the 1790s, theatrical companies had begun keeping dancers on staff for this.

The tonadilla had always been a genre heavily reliant on the singing and dancing of women. 5By this late date in the history of the genre, the level and nature of that singing and dancing had evolved to require professional operatic and dance techniques. Gone were the days of the untrained comic singer-actress-dancer.

Andantino, A Major, 3/4, movimiento de seguidillas (=bolero).

María Josefa Virg did not specialize in singing parts (she was to achieve her greatest fame in 1806 as Paquita in Moratín's enormously popular El sí de las niñas ).

This refers to the practice whereby at the end of a bolero —or even at the end of sections or phrases—the dancers froze, holding elegant and artful poses, competing for cries of “Bien parado!” from the onlookers. 6


There is a sardonic twist here, made clear in later spoken passages. Berteli (as his name suggests) was of Italian birth, and the very idea of an Italian trying to dance the bolero was evidently funny to the audience.




The orchestra is the minimum for tonadillas: two violins (doubled in this production, as there are two surviving parts for each) and contrabajo, usually doubled by guitar and/or keyboard.

This is a different solfa system than the one most of us know. Possibly it is deliberately wrong, a parody; but it is perfectly consistent with itself, to an extent that suggests instead that it is a distinct, apparently tetrachordal system.

One can see that Eusebio must have been a pretty agile bajo. In the theater records he is described with the Italian term buffo (as well as gracioso, the old term for a comic character). A good measure of his vocal and dramatic skill can be found in the fact that in May and June of 1802, about a year before this tonadilla premiered, he sang the title role when Mozart's El casamiento de Fígaro (in Castilian translation) was first staged in Madrid at the Teatro de los Caños del Peral.

At bar 5, Berteli begins his own melody (and, we presume, his attempts at imitating La Bolera's dance) with a series of vocables. It is interesting to take note of the differences between the “neutral” (=Italian comic) style of the music sung by Eusebio and la Virg, and what Berteli sings (the dotted rhythms, the relatively measured delivery, the tied-over phrase-ending characteristic of seguidillas and boleros). After sixteen bars of this artful group chaos, however, the musical landscape changes rather abruptly, with the entrance of a much larger orchestra—viola, clarinet, oboes, bassoon, and horns. The meter, the tempo, and the tonality, however, do not change, although we lose the bolero “feel,” by virtue of losing the characteristic dotted rhythms and the tendency toward a harmonic rhythm that moves on beats one and two of a three-beat bar.

The grand introduction is for the arrival of La Martina, the long-awaited parte de cantado , and the artist for whom this tonadilla served as a formal introduction to the Madrid audience.


She enters singing a virtuoso aria with a typically silly allegorical text, in perfect disregard for the others, who (understandably) fall silent.


We might imagine them striking poses of surprise and interest at this unexpected entry.



This tonadilla marks the first time Martina Iriarte sang at the Teatro de la Cruz, where this tonadilla was produced. 7


Although we do not have much detailed information about La Martina, from the vocal writing it is clear that she must have been well trained in the Italian, bel canto style.

Stage directions of this or any other type are almost entirely lacking in tonadillas ; we must usually infer them.


It is interesting to note that as soon as La Martina sings, Laserna once again cuts back the orchestra to its minimum. Whereas the augmented forces that introduced her amounted to a kind of sonic topos —signifying “opera,” as opposed to “intermezzo”—the reduction here may have been in order to show her vocal prowess to best advantage. It was the custom in tonadillas for the violins to double the voice lines, and quite rare for the texture to operate otherwise. The fact that La Martina could sing something this showy without that support is itself an advertisement for her talents.

Martina seems unaware of the others at first, absorbed in practicing her aria. We know she sees them, however, when the meter and tempo change:





Now everyone is, as it were, “on the same page” for the first time. Each accordingly begins to “do their thing,” simultaneously: the standard signal for an Italian comic finale, and indeed the music is a die-cut Italianate Allegro.

•  Martina complains, diva-style, that the director of the company does not appear.

•  The solfa lesson resumes.

•  The bolero lesson continues.


At bar 36 of the example , Martina begins to practice her aria again. Berteli begins to sing along with her, introducing her to the audience in buffo style, as she shows off her cantabile .






The apparent metrical contradiction here—a bolero in an Allegro 2/4 time—is made possible by a clever rhythmic sleight-of-hand on Laserna's part. When Berteli enters in bar 19 of the example (doubled this time by the bassoon), he sings his original bolero melody (ex. 1, bar 5 ), its three beats now extended across three bars of the ongoing 2/4 time. Thus through a simple adaptation of harmonic rhythm, we get to hear the dance that had come to represent quintessential Spanishness, even to Spaniards themselves, without ruffling the bustling Italianate surface. The moment is a brilliant example of musical hibridación .


At this point, the harmonic rhythm reestablishes itself seamlessly in two-bar phrases; the bolero lesson is over. From here to the end of the number, there is that escalation of energy and activity that we (just like audiences of the day) know so well from Italian comic opera finales, culminating in repeated, emphatic cadences.

There is quite a bit more in this piece, which is on the long and elaborate side for a tonadilla. The general gist is the introduction of La Martina, who emerges as very diffident about her evident skills, and very anxious to please: this was the ritual, placating posture of the nueva before the notoriously fickle and judgmental Madrid audiences, a posture documented in literally hundreds of tonadillas.

I will focus on just one other place in this piece, where again, dance music plays an interesting role. This occurs when, having at last a dama de cantado, the company members set about choosing their tonadilla.







Berteli asks Martina, “What kind of character do you like [to play], serious or maja ?”


She replies with a song:

On the one hand I'm sweet
as sugar syrup
On the other I'm salty
like myself.
I'm a compound,
of pleasant sour-sweetness,
of majo and serious. 8



“Serious” seems here to have meant “operatic” (itself an interesting equation); the music La Martina offers in proof of her “seriousness” would more likely be called “sentimental” nowadays.

“Maja,” meanwhile, is arguably the most loaded term of the entire late eighteenth century in Spain. Through it we may infer a host of qualities that existed along a continuum of resistance to everything that opera represented: autochthonous culture, membership in the lower social classes, grace and humor ( sal ), fierce nationalist pride, an emphatically embodied personal genuineness. . . .


This begins as a sort of bel-canto-ized seguidillas : sweet indeed. 9 However, in bar 10, the last time Martina sings “almivar” (sugar syrup), the accompaniment “goes salty” on her (a shift to the relative minor via a “wrong note,” A#, and the V/vi is heralds, and an up-tempo shift); our sentimental opera heroine is suddenly another girl, purely through change of seguidilla -type (although this time she retains her opera-orchestra accompaniment).

Iriarte, despite her Italian training and vocal presentation, seems to have been Spanish-born: a distinction that mattered to the audience. Here, with Laserna's expert assistance, she abruptly presented them with her maja credentials.


The subtlety and artfulness of Laserna's use of topical associations within a single dance-type to create character is comparable to the subtlety and artfulness of Rameau or Mozart.


It is worth noting, in conclusion, that having demonstrated her maja nature, La Martina does not thereafter “revert” to it. She could not have done so. In 1803, such a simplistic solution to the question of musical Spanishness (a question symbolized in this little work by its own metatheatrical consternation over how to choose which tonadilla to sing) could no longer “fly.” In fact, the piece-within-a-piece is never chosen; or rather, it is the piece itself, which casually ceases to frame its story-within-a-story and becomes its own subject matter.

In the tonadilla's middle section, or coplas , in a curious, hybrid dance rhythm that might or might not be Iberian, the three principal parts complain that things are not as they once were in the realm of the tonadilla . In the second verse, they sing as follows:

Ay, endless apasionados
for the Spanish style.

Well, then sing the tonadillas
of Morales and Misón.

Thus we'll have the grace
which the Nation has lost.


Morales and Misón we and still are generally celebrated as the first composers in this genre; their works date from the 1750s and 1760s respectively

But of course, that grace had already been lost forever—if indeed it had ever existed in the ideal form yearned for here. If not everybody present in the Teatro de la Cruz knew this yet, they would know it soon enough, after the disastrous French invasion of 1808. In any case, Laserna clearly knew it already. Martina sings:

I don't know then, I don't know.
Ay, God what a thing.
What a thing, I don't know
in that case what we'll sing.

Ay, but joy anew
returns to give vigor to the soul,
the sweetness of calm
will always reign there.


Allegro Moderato, in common time and with majestic dotted rhythms, after an abrupt but not wrenching move to the key of Eb Major


With the second verse, Berteli and Eusebio join in. Somehow, without benefit of narrative transition, all the preceding doubt seems to have evaporated.

How is this “solution” effected or justified? The answer is not evident in the text at all, but it emerges quickly enough in the score: to these serene words, La Martina begins an elaborate coloratura in triplets, an exuberant display of thoroughly Italianate virtuosity. The answer to the artists' collective dilemma is thus announced clearly enough through musical style. From this point to the end of the piece (and indeed from this historical point to the effective end of the tonadilla tradition), opera—“serious” music—had clearly won the day.

1 José Subirá, La tonadilla escénica. 3 vols. (Madrid: Tipografía de Archivos Olózaga, 1928-30). Subirá himself published a useful shorter “digest” version of his magnum opus: La tonadilla escénica: sus obras y sus autores (Barcelona: Editorial Labor, S.A., 1933).

2 See, for example, VV.AA., La Tonadilla Escénica: Paisajes sonoros en el Madrid del S. XVIII (Madrid: Museo de San Isidro, 2003) (exhibition catalog with chapters by Begoña Lolo, Germán Labrador, Acensión Aguerrí, Emilio Moreno, and others); and Lolo, Begoña, “La tonadilla escénica, ese maldito género,” Revista de musicología 15 (2002).

3 El maestro de baile y otras tonadillas (works of Misón, Rosales, Esteve, Laserna and Moral), Ensemble Elyma, dir. Gabriel Garrido, Harmonia Mundi, K617151, 2003.

4 See, for instance, Chapters 5-8 of Emilio Cotarelo y Morí, Isidoro Maiquez y el teatro de su tiempo, Estudios sobre la historia del arte escénico en España, III (Madrid: Imprenta de José Perales y Martínez, 1902). Cotarelo's remarks are on p. 196.

5 “[L]as cantarinas embelesaban a los espectadores por las gracias de los chascos o de los dichos propios de la plebe, remedados con viveza y energía.” (“The women singers captivated the spectators with the grace of the tricks and sayings of the common people, imitated with liveliness and energy.”) Memorial Literario de Madrid , September 1787. The entire text of this important early description of the genre is given in Subirá, i, 285-87.

6 “[N]o todos tienen aquellos bienparados graciosos, en donde, quedándose inmoviles, el cuerpo descubre con tranquilidad y descanso hasta las más pequeñas gesticulaciones del rostro. La serenidad en los pasos y mudanzas dificiles es la primera cosa que se debe observar en este baile. . . .” (“Not everyone has [can do] those attractive bien-parados, in which, staying immobile, the body shows with calm and repose even the smallest motions of the face. The serenity in the steps and difficult moves is the first thing which must be observed in this dance. . . .”) Antonio Cairon, Compendio de las principales regals del baile, (Madrid 1820). Quoted in Javier Suárez Pajares, “Bolero,” Diccionario de la música española e hispanoamericana , ed. Emilio Casares Rodicio, with J. López-Calo and I. Fernández de la Cuesta (Madrid: Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, 1999- ).

7 Cotarelo asserts that the de la Cruz company was much the weaker of the two at this time, being dedicated largely to spoken drama. See Cotarelo, Isidoro Maiquez, 196.

8 Por un lado soy dulce / como un almibar; por otro soy salada / como yo misma; formo un compuesto / de un agridulce grato / de Majo y serio.

9 Here we should perhaps recall the truly chameleonic variety of this dance type. Subirá suggests numerous sub-types of seguidillas, in addition to the seguidillas de bolero, which we have already encountered: seguidillas aminuetadas, gitanas, de maja, de gallego, etc.

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