Interview with Andrés Moreno Mengíbar

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Andrés Moreno Mengíbar is a doctor in history and professor of geography and history, music critic of the Diario de Sevilla and contributor to music magazines such as Melómano and Scherzo. As a researcher, he has specialized in the history and sociology of opera, mainly in connection with the city of Seville. Some of his books include La ópera en Sevilla, 1731-1992, Sevilla y la ópera en el siglo XVIII, and the volume Manuel García: de la tonadilla escénica a la ópera española (1775-1832) which he co-edited in 2007. His latest work, Los García, una familia para el canto, published by the Centro de Estudios Andaluces, was one of the fundamental references in the bibliography that documented our entry on The García Family. It is a great pleasure to introduce our first series of interviews in Reflections on Vocal Art by speaking with Andrés Moreno Mengíbar, whom we thank for his great kindness and interest in sharing his knowledge and reflections on a subject that has kept him busy for more than thirty years. 

How do you first become interested in the Garcia family?

When I began researching the history of opera in Seville more than thirty years ago, I came across the name of Manuel García. There wasn’t much published about him, but the little I was able to find gave rise to my desire to investigate his life’s trajectory, his and that of his family.

What has been the course of your investigation?

I began with my thesis on the opera in Seville in the 18th century, for which I was awarded the “Arpista Ludovico” Research Prize in Musicology. Already in 1989 I began research for my doctoral thesis (read finally in 1995), which dealt with the Opera in Seville in the 19th century. Later, in collaboration with Professor Ramón Mª Serrera, I researched the operas related to Seville, the result of which are two books: 100 operas from Seville and Seville, the city of 150 operas. And recently I was able to culminate my passion for the García family in 2018 with the book Los García. Una familia para el canto.

What were the most encouraging milestones on this path?

The first surprise came with the discovery of the composer Manuel García thanks to James Radomski’s book. This made me see from another dimension the need to vindicate his figure from the perspective of the valorization of his compositions and their performance, something in which I am still involved today. The second was to gradually develop the thread of the long musical saga of the García family and the quality of their compositions, especially those of Pauline Viardot. I have actively participated in the recovery and performance of her two chamber operettas, Cendrillon and Le dernier sorcier. And, finally, this research has given me something inconceivable for me for many years, the contact and friendship with Teresa Berganza, a great admirer of Manuel García, his music and that of his family.

Given that yours is the only book that deals with the García family as such, bringing together all its famous members, what prompted you to write it?

After reading practically everything that has been published about the members of this family I saw that there was a common thread in all of them, their involvement with the preservation and promotion of a “family” singing school, the García School. There were strong family and musical ties that span several generations and in which it is easy to detect nostalgia for Spain and its music. That’s why I had the idea of writing a family history from that perspective. And I was thrilled that the last living descendant of the Garcías, Diana García, who lives in Canada, discovered through my book the true human and artistic dimension of her family and was finally able to understand some things about herself. The prologue that she wrote for my book is one of the things that moved me the most in my entire life.

What do you think about the recognition of the García family in Spain?

Here we live in a somewhat schizoid situation with regard to our patrimony. We spend a lot of money and efforts in its recovery, but then we postpone its valorization (in this case its performance in concert halls and theatres) due to a kind of snobbish attitude towards foreign repertoire. It takes a lot to convince Spanish artistic directors and programmers that this family’s music deserves an opportunity to be heard in the same quality conditions enjoyed by other composers. In most cases the reason is the laziness and ignorance of these programmers, who do not bother to read what is published or the scores that are sent to them. Fortunately, institutions such as the Fundación Juan March, the Teatro de la Maestranza or the Festival de Música Española de Cádiz have been able to overcome these prejudices and are actively collaborating in the programming of many of the works by the García family.

Regarding the role of Manuel García in Spanish musical creation, do you think that his importance as a composer should be re-evaluated?

The recent publication of the first two volumes of the monumental history of opera in Spain by Emilio Casares (one of the main people responsible for the recovery of Manuel García’s scores) makes it very clear: García is the first Spanish composer of operas in terms of the number of his compositions and their international circulation throughout his life. But, in addition, as we get to know these operas thanks to modern editions, we discover a versatile and inspired author who composes not only in the most casticist Spanish style, but also measures himself against Rossini or shows his mastery of the French Grand Opéra. Not to mention his essential and pioneering role in the European popularization of Spanish music with his songs, establishing the origin of Spanish fashion in romantic Europe.

What do you think is his place in the history of the development of nationalist music?

Not enough research has been done on it yet, but there are clues to this question. In Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Chanson du gitano” for piano one can identify the Dúo del bolero y la caña by García. It is the same caña that Rossini was so passionate about, he heard it from García himself and wo quoted it directly in the aria “Omaggio all’augusto duce” of his opera Il viaggio a Reims. And in one of Turina’s Danzas gitanas the sound of the polo Cuerpo bueno, alma divina can be heard clearly. Not to mention Lorca’s famous Anda jaleo and its direct relationship with the Yo que soy contrabandista of our Manuel. By this I mean that musicologists, flamencologists and folklorists have not sufficiently appreciated the essential role of Manuel García in the transition from Spanish popular music at the end of the 18th century to the music of nationalist inspiration because of the way in which the Sevillian composer poured what he heard in the taverns and squares onto the staff paper, giving it an elaborate form that could be assimilated by European culture.

Looking at the corpus of vocal music written by Manuel García, María Malibrán and Pauline Viardot, let us talk about the importance of a repertoire written by singers: it consists of a rich production from a musical point of view but above all of it is a writing that reflects a great knowledge of the voice and its possibilities and that is written according to that knowledge.

Of course, these works are almost always created for themselves or for their disciples or singing friends. That’s why they are so idiomatic. As complex as they may seem (those of Manuel García, above all), they always take into account the singer’s needs in terms of breathing, intervalic jumps or expressive resources. They are in themselves authentic singing lessons.

What do you think about the promotion of this repertoire not only in the concert hall but also as working material for training centres?

I think García’s chamber operas, like those of his daughter Pauline, could perfectly serve as the basis for an Opera Studio or an Opera Workshop. They are works born precisely with a didactic purpose, but always from the premise of the utmost demand on students. This is why I advocate their validity as an instrument for training young singers.

Does the absence of this type of repertoire in the training of singers, as well as the absence of materials written for the voice by the great masters of history, such as the solfeggi by Lamperti, Marchesi, Panofka, Fétis, Cinti-Damoreux, Lablache, Concone, evidence the difference between the current artistic and vocal training and the training given, for example, throughout the nineteenth century?

In spite of the variety of subjects that a student of singing has to take today, the teaching of those teachers that you quote and, above all, of the García family, was much more integral and sought to train authentic musicians as well as singers. They were taught to compose their own cadenzas and fioriture, to improvise in many different ways and to create for themselves at a given moment. Something that today is very difficult to find in the graduates of conservatories.

From your point of view as a historian, how would you characterize the training of the artists during the time of the García family with respect to the current training?

As I have said, it was a more integral musical education, without the dichotomy between theory and practice that can be detected today in formal education. It is surprising to see the early age at which the students of the nineteenth century began to give concerts or sing operas, making the work before the public an extension of the lessons from very early on.

What do you think about the approach that a singer of today can have to the works of the Garcias, which are the fruit of such a different education and time? What aspects do you consider unavoidable in order to build a bridge between the singer and the work in the current musical and artistic context?

For a long time most of the operatic repertoire of the 19th century has been approached from technical and aesthetic assumptions that were developed much later. This blurred the true aesthetic and stylistic dimension of music prior to Wager or Puccini, for example. These were emission and phrasing techniques that were of no use to Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini or Mozart. As with so many issues, we should turn to the sources to find the right path. And in this sense, the exercises of Manuel García, the Treatise of his son, the lessons of his daughter Pauline or of his granddaughter Louise or the methods of his disciples are ideal for finding the authentic way to approach the interpretation of the works of all these composers, while also giving the singer the role of re-creator that was demanded of any soloist at that time.

What do you consider to be the García family’s legacy to the singers of today, especially through their compositions?

The love for the voice, for its care, for its demands and its possibilities as the instrument with the greatest expressive power of all that exist. And the attitude of continuous artistic self-demand.