String Quartet in D Major
Tomás Bretón (1850-1923) was born in the Spanish city of Salamanca. His father, a baker, died when he was two. He started playing the violin at age eight and within two years was already playing in theater orchestras helping to support his family. When his mother moved to Madrid, he entered the conservatory there studying violin and composition. During his studies and after he continued playing in theaters and restaurants and begam composing Zarzuelas--the Spanish equivalent of operettas. Finally fortune smiled on him at the age of 30 when he was awarded scholarships which allowed him to study in Rome and Vienna. Over the following years, he made his name as a composer of Zarzuelas and as a pioneer of serious Spanish opera. He eventually became director of the Madrid Conservatory as well as the Sociedad de Conciertos--the forerunner of the Madrid Symphony Orchestra.
Bretón, although a passionate advocate of Spanish music, wished to put it on the same footing as German and Italian music and take it out of the music hall atmosphere of the Zarzueta. For this, his more serious music, his opera, orchestral works and chamber music were often attacked in his native Spain as not being Spanish enough. These attacks were basically made by ignorant critics who failed to realize that the kind of national music which could be placed in a light-hearted operetta could not be placed in more serious works in the same fashion. The truth was that, Bretón infused Spanish melodies into all of these works, but much more subtlely in his more serious works.
Bretón's chamber music is original-sounding not only because of the unusual and disparate influences it fuses together but also because of his harmonic boldness. Those who have taken the time to familiarize themselves with his music are recognized that it is the equal of his foreign counterparts.
The String Quartet in D Major is one of three which he wrote during the 1880's after his return from Vienna. He was unable to get it published until 1910 by which time he had become one of Spain's leading musicians. The opening movement, Allegro moderato, begins in the fashion of the mid-romantics, sounding somewhat Spohr and then we hear the echoes of Bruckner's tonality. It is an extraordinary fusion. The dark and brooding Andante which comes second shows some very adventurous tonalities for the time with some of the perfume of the French impressionists. In the gay, rambunctuous third movement, a Scherzo, a very Spanish dance kicks up its heels while the trio section, also Spanish in inspiration, has a very original guitar-like episode (the guitar being the national instrument of Spain) created by clever use of pizzicato. The finale begins with an introduction marked Grave, the unusual feature being cadenzas given to each instrument. The main part of the movement is a big and very original Fugue which begins a la Haydn, but imperceptibly becomes more and more modern as it progresses eventually to a coda of affirmation and joy.
Published in Spain, this quartet has virtually been unavailable outside that country since the First World War. It is a good work from an important 19th century Spanish composer that not only will be enjoyed by amateurs but also is strong enough to justify concert performance.