Category: This Week in Basque History (page 1 of 6)

March 12, 2008: Death of artist Menchu Gal

On March 12, 2008 the Basque artist Menchu Gal Orendain, the first woman to win Spain’s National Prize for Painting (1959) and renowned for her colorful landscapes as well as portraits, died in Donostia-San Sebastián.

Menchu Gal

Born into a middle-class family in Irun, Gipuzkoa, in 1918, she developed an early interest in painting and by the age of seven was studying the art under local painter Gaspar Montes Iturrioz. Recognizing her talent, he encouraged her family to send her to Paris to continue her studies. This she duly did in 1932, enrolling in a school run by French cubist Amédée Ozenfant. She spent two years in Paris, taking advantage of the time there to visit the great museums and exhibitions in this major global art capital. She was particularly drawn to Impressionist and Fauvist works, and especially the oeuvre of Henri Matisse. Thereafter, she continued her studies in Madrid, at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts, where her teachers included the celebrated Basque artist Aurelio Arteta.

Menchu Gal at work in 1975

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, together with her family she took refuge in France. She returned to Madrid in 1943 and soon became part of the Young Madrid School of artists, a group of young contemporary artists who exhibited regularly through the 1950s. It was at this time that she focused on landscape painting, particularly representations of the Castilian Meseta, the famed plateau of Don Quixote, and her native Basque Country. As she exhibited more, so she  gained a reputation for her vibrant use of color and the joy she expressed in her painting. And in 1959 she was awarded Spain’s National Prize for Painting for a landscape of Arraioz in the Baztan Valley of Navarre – the first woman to win this award. She continued to exhibit through the 1960s and 1970s, returning to the Basque Country and sponsoring a new generation of young Basque artists. In this regard, she was particularly interested in spotlighting painters and paintings connected with her natal Bidasoa region of Gipuzkoa; organizing retrospective of her first teacher, Montes Iturrioz, and participating in a travelling exhibition, “Painters of the Bidasoa,” in 1986. And she was still painting and exhibiting to the turn of the millennium.

Asked in a 2006 interview to describe the colors of her own particular corner of the Basque Country, the Bidasoa region, she replied:

Green and gray dominate; the trees are green, and the ground gray. The houses are kind of ocher. They don’t have a lot of color. But I love the Aia Massif [a rocky massif straddling the border between Gipuzkoa and Navarre]. I’ve seen it in all its colors. San Marcial [a shrine on a hill overlooking Irun and the Bidasoa region] and the Aia Massif have featured a lot in my painting.

Besides the Spanish National Prize for Paining, she also won many other awards. She was the first woman to receive the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa’s Gold Medal (2005) and in 2007 Eusko Ikaskuntza (the Society of Basque Studies) awarded her the prestigious Manuel Lekuona Prize.

She died in 2008 and in 2010 the City Council of Irun, in collaboration with the Kutxa Foundation, established the Menchu Gal Room at the Sancho de Urdanibia Hospital in Irun, where some of her work–purchased by the city council itself–is exhibited. That same year, a foundation was established in her name.

Further Reading

Menchu Gal Orendain at the Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia.

Menchu Gal, una artista extraordinaria,” by José Javier Fernández Altuna in Euskonews & Media (2007).

 

 

March 1, 1750: Basque women’s protest results in bloody aftermath

Women’s march on Versailles, October 5-6, 1789. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On March 1, 1750, a group of women in Urruña (Urrugne), Lapurdi, rose up in protest at proposed measures to increase taxes on tobacco. Peasant revolts, often in response to price or tax rises on key goods or commodities by monarchs and governments, were quite a common feature of early modern European life and the Basque Country was certainly no exception to this phenomenon.

Urruña Town Hall today. Picture by Harrieta171, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Iparralde, the Northern Basque Country, women were especially prominent in several impromptu revolts of this kind in the eighteenth century. In 1750, too, for example, a group of women in Baiona (Bayonne) attacked French troops guarding tax collectors. Later, in 1782, women were front and center in Heleta (Hélette). Lower Navarre, in a violent protest against the French authorities for increasing customs duties, while still more plans to increase taxes resulted in a women’s revolt in 1784 in Hazparne (Hasparren). And as late as 1784, in protest at commercial advantages being granted to some areas over others, as Philippe Veyrin comments (p. 230) in The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre, “a tumultuous demonstration of women . . . spread rapidly into the neighboring parishes. To forestall the outbreak of any more violence, it was found necessary to send several regiments in to occupy the region and confiscate over five thousand rifles.”

Tobacco was first cultivated commercially in Europe in France, around the early seventeenth century, and thereafter became a staple crop and commodity in the French Kingdom. Veyrin (pp. 229-30) describes the context in Iparralde:

Lapurdi in particular cultivated tobacco in Nicot, and was happy to indulge in large-scale smuggling of it with neighboring areas. On one occasion the Farmers General enforced the uprooting of the plantations, and its officials distinguished themselves by their excess of zeal, searches, forcible entry, and so on, which provoked a quite legitimate hostility.

These uprisings, which official language treated euphemistically as “emotions,” were a characteristic of the Basque Country in the eighteenth century. What is unusual is that these were almost always started by women who, obsessed by the fear of new taxes and especially the salt tax, were very prone to often untimely demonstrations. There is a long list of those explosions of popular discontent, from those in Donazaharre (Saint-Jean-le-Vieux) in 1685, Mugerre (Mouguerre) and Hiriburu in 1696, Ainhoa in 1724, almost the whole of Lapurdi in 1726 (in connection with the tax on the fiftieth), Baiona in 1748, and Donibane Garazi the same year.

When plans were introduced to hike the price of tobacco, a group of women in Urruña rose up in protest. In response, the French authorities sent a detachment of the royal army to suppress the uprising. On arriving, they opened fire on the women, killing Gratianne de Suhibar, the lady of the house of Candirubaita, Marie Dithurbide, and Agustina de Irigoity. Jean Lapis, the master of the house of Bixitala, also appeared among the dead. It was later claimed, in order to insult his honor, that he had been dressed as a woman at the time of his death.

Memorial plaque on San Anton Church in Bilbao to those who took part in the Salt Tax Revolt. Photo by Zarateman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Such protests in the Basque Country were commonly known as matxinadak (from “Matxin,” a colloquial Basque way of referring to Saint Martin, the patron saint of iron workers and blacksmiths, most likely one of the original groups to rise up in these types of protest). These matxinadak included the famous Salt Tax Revolt (1631-1634) in Bizkaia; the peasant rising led by the rebel priest “Matalas” (Bernard Goihenetxe) in Zuberoa in 1661 against the increased and repressive taxation policies of Louis XIV–an uprising that ultimately resulted in the priest being executed and beheaded; the Customs Revolt of 1718, in which a widespread revolt at new fiscal measures introduced by Philip V abolishing the free-trade status of the Basque Country broke out in Bizkaia and then spread to Gipuzkoa; the Meat Revolt of 1755 in Gipuzkoa; and the Cereal Revolt of 1766 also in Gipuzkoa. By the nineteenth century, these protests, although largely spontaneous like their forebears, took on a more decidedly political dimension and were closely related to defending and maintaining the Basque foral system–the consuetudinary legal system by which the Basque provinces remained largely outside the common governmental structures of both the Spanish and French Kingdoms. Nineteenth-century protests of this kind included the so-called Zamacolada in 1804 in Bizkaia, the Gamazada in Navarre in 1893-1894, and the Sanrokada in Bizkaia in 1893.

Information sourced from Iñaki Egaña, Mil noticias insólitas del país de los vascos (Tafalla: Txalaparta, 2001), p.142 and the Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia.

 

February 18, 1934: Fashion icon Paco Rabanne born

On February 18, 1934, Francisco “Paco” Rabaneda Cuervo was born in Pasaia, Gipuzkoa. He would go on to become Paco Rabanne, the enfant terrible of the French fashion world in the 1960s and one of the most illustrious names in the history of fashion design.

Not long after his birth, the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 and that part of Gipukoa where he was from, close to France, witnessed an early invasion by rebel troops in an attempt to cut off access to the border. Indeed, his father, a colonel in the Spanish army who remained loyal to the democratically elected government of the Second Republic, was executed by the insurgent forces. The family subsequently fled to France, first to Morlaix (Montroulez in Breton) in Brittany and then to Les Sables-d’Olonne, a coastal town in the western Department of Vendée.

Iconic metal and plastic dress designed by Paco Rabanne (1967). Worn by Baroness Helen Bachofen von Echt at New York party at which she danced with Frank Sinatra. Image by Nadia Priestly, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Rabanne would have been aware of the fashion industry from an early age as his mother had been chief seamstress at the Balenciaga salon, owned by the other great Basque fashion icon, Cristóbal Balenciaga (see an earlier post here). Although he originally studied architecture at the French National Fine Arts School in Paris in the 1950s, by the end of his studies he was already designing jewelry for Givenchy, Dior, and of course Balenciaga. He founded his own fashion house in 1966 and gained a reputation for his radical and striking designs, often incorporating a diversity of colors and unconventional materials such as metal, paper, and plastic, and with more than a hint of a futurist or post-industrial elements. Indeed, he was responsible for the costume design in the iconic science fiction movie Barbarella (1968), starring Jane Fonda.  In the late 1960s he began a collaboration with Barcelona-based fragrance company Puig, which resulted in the launch of the Rabanne perfume line, one of the best-known brands in the world. More recently, from the 1990s on, he began exhibiting his drawings and paintings, but he remains one of the great fashion icons of the world today.

Check out the official Paco Rabanne website here.

 

February 16, 2015: First edition of rare Basque manuscript discovered

Cover of Dotrina christiana (first edition, 1617), by Esteve Materra. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On February 16, 2015 it was announced that a unique first edition of Esteve Materra’s Doctrina Christiana (Christian Doctrine, Bordeaux, 1617) had been discovered in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark. The discovery was made by the Aziti Bihia linguists’ and philologists’ association, a group of doctoral students at the University of the Basque Country whose interests lay predominantly in historical linguistics linked to Basque philology. The young people involved in the find were Borja Ariztimuño, Dorota Krajewska, Urtzi Reguero, Ekaitz Santazilia, Oxel Uribe-Etxeberria, and Eneko Zuloaga.

Flyer to promote the official announcement of the find, February 16, 2015. From the Aziti Bihia website.

Doctrina Christiana was one of the first ever books published in Euskara, the Basque language, and is written in classical Lapurdian. Its author, Esteve Materra (or possibly Materre), was a Franciscan monk and abbot of the La Réole monastery in southwestern France when the book was first published, although by the time it went to a second edition (1623) he had moved to the Franciscan monastery in Toulouse. Although not a native Basque-speaker, Materra spent some time in Sara, Lapurdi, where he had been sent at the height of the Counter Reformation to bolster the rearguard action of the Roman Catholic Church, including in its Inquisition policy. In barely twelve months in the Basque Country he learned Basque, although the very clarity and perfection of the text makes the members of Aziti Bihia suspect that he may have received help in writing it. Masterra himself notes in the prologue to the book that he was aided by Axular. Pedro Axular (1556-1664) was the parish priest of Sara and author of the first great literary text in Basque, Guero (1643). Whatever the case, the book is an important work when it comes to understanding the historical development of written Basque.

The first edition of the work is relatively simple in appearance, as if written for children or young people, in question and answer style; by the second edition, however, an additional section had been added, specifically for seafarers, and the work as a whole was more serious in tone and longer. This is important because originally the Aziti Bihia group had been working on transcribing the second edition of 1623, a copy of which is housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, before stumbling across a reference to the earlier edition in Denmark.

For more information on the text itself (including transcriptions) click here at the Aziti Bihia website.

 

February 7, 1842: A controversial marriage, or two

A pandero-jotzaile (tambourine player) and txistulariak (pipe players) lead a traditional Basque wedding procession. Marriage was a key social and economic event because it signified that those joined in union would become the etxekoandre and etxekojaun, the mistress and master of a baserri or farmstead; in sum, the sole proprietors of the central socioeconomic unit of Basque culture and life. Whoever was marrying into the property, man or woman, would bring with them certain possessions: material goods, animals, and even land. Hence the all important wedding procession, typically headed by an ox-drawn cart, which showed off these worldly goods.

On February 7, 1842 Jean Bonepelts married Marie Etxeberri, of the Behorlegi baserri (farmstead) in the Ondarrola district of Arnegi, Lower Navarre. Not untypically in such border areas of the Basque Country, although administratively Ondarrola was part of Arnegi (Arnéguy) and therefore subject to French civil law, in church matters it was part of the neighboring town of Luzaide (Valcarlos) in Navarre. However, the couple were married in the parish church of Arnegi by Father Jean Baptiste Errecart. Again not untypically, the couple were blood relations, on two levels, within the third and fourth degrees of consanguinity. Accordingly, they had been obliged to seek church permission prior to getting married, which they did from the Bishop of Baiona in Lapurdi. However, when word reached the curia (church council) in Pamplona-Iruñea, which as noted had religious jurisdiction over the district of Ondarrola, a formal complaint was lodged with the bishopric of Baiona and, receiving no response to its protest, it declared that, “the wrongly married couple should separate and make up for the error committed.”

That same year, on May 17, there was another marriage between two residents of Ondarrola, Jean Etxeberri and Catalina Caminondo, which also took place in the parish church of Arnegi. This time, the church authorities took stricter measures, with the Bishop of Pamplona-Iruñea excommunicating both couples and prohibiting entry into any church for their respective parents while “their children should remain in that state of concubinage.” In the end, both marriages had to be held again, this time in Luzaide and with the blessing of the Bishop of Pamplona-Iruñea. Etxeberri  and Caminondo went through the nuptial ceremony again in June 1843 while Bonepelts and Etxeberri did so once more much later, in April 1845. Only following these “second” marriages was the excommunication order withdrawn.

Information sourced from Iñaki Egaña, Mil noticias insólitas del país de los vascos (Tafalla: Txalaparta, 2001), p.185.

With respect to traditional Basque marriage customs, Philippe Veyrin’s wonderful The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre is worth quoting at some length (pp. 328-29):

Once the date of the wedding has been fixed (usually a Tuesday), everyone proceeds, a few days beforehand (generally two), to perform what is called hatüka. This is a matter of transporting to the house where the future couple will live the furniture and the trousseau brought by the newly arrived spouse, male or female. The father leads the first wagon harnessed with oxen in full livery: bells, thick fleeces to conceal the yoke, cloth mantles with wide blue or red stripes embroidered with giant initials. The artfully arranged trousseau is covered with a counterpane with a cushion on top. On a chair tied behind the wagon are placed clogs decorated with copper nails in the shape of an ace of hearts or of spades; there are also a broom, a pick-axe, and a rake. Previously, in the case of the bride, the distaff, the spindles, and the reels were prominently displayed, and these symbolic objects were often finely carved and decorated. On other wagons, more or less numerous depending on the wealth of the bridegroom, pride of place was given to the mattresses and the furnishings, all displayed to their greatest advantage. The seamstress and the joiner, the authors of all these treasures, formed part of the procession; it was they who, on arrival, arranged the bedroom of the newlyweds. Often in the same parade, but sometimes separately, the godfather led a magnificent plump sheep with ribbons and gilded horns to be eaten at the wedding feast—escorted by a whole crowd of ewes with tinkling bells, the tzintzarrada. Not long ago, the procession also included several girls carrying on their heads big baskets furnished with napkins and filled with chicken, loaves of bread, bottles of wine and liqueur, big “spit-baked cakes” decorated with flowers , and so on—all food provided by the guests themselves. A good meal is of course given to all these visitors, and it can be said that the wedding really begins on that day. Two days later, everyone gathers at the square once more: the best men will go to fetch the bride, who gives each of them a fine cambric handkerchief. And, to the sound of a merry zinkha or irrintzina, everyone jostles and bustles to the town hall, and then, with more ceremony, to the church.

A few superstitions, now vanished, used to be in evidence at the nuptial blessing. This was supposed to have the power to sanctify the clothes worn on that particular day; so the bride would apparently cover herself in several dresses, one on top of the other—later, these would be very useful for her, affording her long-term shelter from spells. On his side, if the bridegroom feared the evil spell known as esteka, “physical deficiency,” he had to keep a fold of his future wife’s dress on his knees during the mass.

In several villages, there is a touching custom: after the wedding mass, the newlyweds, slipping away for a few moments from their entourage, go alone to the cemetery and pray at the tomb of the house that they will perpetuate. Husband or wife—whichever of the couple was until then a stranger to the estate—is thus, so to speak, solemnly associated on that day with the cult of the dead of the new family.

 

January 30, 1669: Irun and Hondarribia almost go to war over weights and measures!

Overview of the siege of the fortress of Hondarribia in 1638 with ground troops and French squadron at sea. German engraving. Irun can be seen to the top left of the engraving. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On January 30, 1669, following a traditional custom, the neighboring town councils of Irun and Hondarribia in Gipuzkoa were due to meet to undertake their annual inspection of each other’s weights and measures in this commercially important and geopolitically sensitive border area. That year, however, the Irun council members informed their counterparts in Hondarribia that the visiting inspection had already been carried out. Not deterred by this, the Hondarribia council members swore to attend the planned visit. When they arrived, the representatives of Irun greeted them with a show of arms, which prompted those of Hondarribia to withdraw back to their own town. The latter then complained to he Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, which mediated between the two, rescheduling the meeting for February 7.

View of Hondarribia. Painting by Luis Paret, 1786. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

February 7 arrived and the appointed Hondarribia commissioners began their inspection of Irun’s weights and measures, only to discover that the Hondarribia stamps there had been removed from the weights in question, with the name of Irun replacing them. On reporting this to the authorities, these weights were declared legally null and void. This provoked the ire of the people of Irun, leading to many taking to street with sticks, stones, swords, and firearms in protest. Worried that this could escalate into a full-blown violent conflict between the towns, the chief magistrate had no option but to restore the legal status of Irun’s weights.

Furious at the decision, the people of Hondarribia waited a few days and then sent a nocturnal expedition to attack Irun. Arriving at night in small barges traveling up the River Bidasoa, the expedition alighted near the Irun hospital, made its presence known by firing several shots and threatening the people there, an then withdrew back to the safety of Hondarribia. Thereafter, the Provincial Council made another attempt to mediate but this was in vain. The matter was then referred to the higher authority of the Castilian Royal Council, which subsequently threatened anyone who dared take up arms again in the matter with prison or even worse, namely the infamous galleys (where prisoners were sentenced o “work the oar” or become human chattel, virtual slaves). The warning appeared to work as no further incidents were reported, although neighborly relations can hardly have been too friendly!

Information sourced from Iñaki Egaña, Mil noticias insólitas del país de los vascos (Tafalla: Txalaparta, 2001), pp.126-27.

January 25, 1853: Birth of pioneering Basque photographer and ethnographer Eulalia Abaitua

Eulalia Abaitua (1853-1943), a pioneering photographer whose work remains a key historical and ethnographic record of the Basque Country. Image by Kurt Reutlinger, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Born Maria Elvira Juliana Abaitua Allende-Salazar on January 25, 1853 into a wealthy Bilbao family, she was renamed in honor of her deceased mother (who died soon after she was born) and thereafter known as Eulalia Abaitua. She would go on to become a renowned photographer and one of the first people to record nineteenth-century Basque culture at a key transitional time in Basque history, taking her camera outside into the real world to capture images of fiestas, traditions, and working practices–and at the same time breaking with the convention of the time centered around studio-based montages–and paying special attention to the everyday lives of Basque women. In short, she remains one of the most important, if unsung, Basque ethnographers of the nineteenth century.

Mother and child, by Eulalia Abaitua (c. 1890). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Her father, Luis Allende-Salazar, had business interests in the growing trade operating between Bilbao and Liverpool in England and, with the deepening political crisis of the 1860s that would eventually result in the outbreak of the Second Carlist War, the family relocated to the vibrant English port city, “the New York of Europe” whose wealth for a time exceeded that of London. As noted in a previous post, the multicultural port city of Liverpool was already home to many Basques, and even though from the more economically comfortable echelons of society, the family continued in a time-honored Basque tradition of settling in a place in which they already had family connections. Once settled in Liverpool, Eulalia took photography lessons and discovered a passion for the newly emerging art form.

River Nervion scene, by Eulalia Abaitua. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On May 16th 1871, Eulalia married her cousin Juan Narciso de Olano (of the Liverpool-based Basque shipping firm Olano, Larrinaga & Co), at the church of St Francis Xavier in Liverpool, and the couple would go on to have four children. Following the end of the Second Carlist War in 1876, they returned to Bilbao, where would live there for the rest of their lives the Palacio del Pino, near the Basilica of Begoña, a home custom-built to resemble the red-brick Victorian merchant houses the family had seen in Liverpool. On her return to the Basque Country, Eulalia fully realized her passion for both photography and her homeland, setting up a studio in the basement of he family home and traversing Bilbao and Bizkaia in search of her subject matter.

 

The arrival of the sardines (1900), by Eulalia Abaitua. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

She worked wherever possible in natural light and sought out spontaneous rather than staged images. Among her most evocative works are images of the legendary sardineras, the women who transported sardines from the port of Santurtzi to the center of Bilbao on foot, selling their wares in the city center; the washerwomen of Bilbao, whose daily grind consisted of doing laundry on the banks of the River Nervion in Bilbao; and the rural Basque milk maids who also came to the Bizkaian capital to ply their trade.

Women selling their wares in Bilbao (c. 1890), by Eulalia Abaitua. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In A Collection of Prints (see below) Miren Jaio describes her work in the following terms (pages 11, 13, 17):

Eulalia Abaitua reflected the day-to-day life of the Bizkaian proletariat on glass plates. The insurmountable social inequality between the portrait photographer and those portrayed would also pervade the photographs of this high bourgeois woman who depicted normal people, especially women . . .  In a series of portraits of old people in the Arratia Valley, she recorded the physical types and dress and hairstyles that were on the verge of disappearing along with those who served as her models. This series demonstrated her curiosity in ethnography . . . In other prints, Abaitua collected work scenes. Images of women working the soil with laiak (two-pronged forks), water-carriers, housemaids, nannies and female stevedores reveal the process of change which Basque society was going through . . . Although she belongs to the social group of those who “represent,” she, like all of her gender, would have been denied the right to do so. This explains her choice of topic, one which she had easy access to, the working woman, a female other. Whatever the case, one should ask to what extent her photographs, in the mutual recognition of the portrayer and the portrayed they seem to reveal, do not transcend the hierarchy imposed by the social order and that of the camera.

Group of women (c. 1900), by Eulalia Abaitua. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Naturally, she also took many pictures of her own family as well, and she also traveled extensively throughout her life, recording her travels to Crete, Italy, Venice, Morocco, Lourdes (France), Malaga, Madrid, and the Holy Land. She lived a long and productive life, and died in her beloved Bilbao in 1943.

Further Reading

Eulalia de Abaitua at the Hispanic Liverpool Project.

A Collection of Prints by Miren Jaio. Free to download here.

January 20, 1935: First National Bertsolaritza Championship held

January 20, 1935 is a key date in Basque cultural history as it marks the first time a national championship was held for bertsolaritza (improvised sung oral poetry) one of the most dynamic and singular forms of Basque cultural expression.

Inazio Eizmendi or “Basarri” (1913-1999) in October 1937. One of the great figures of bertsolaritza who dominated the art form for thirty years. Image by Jesus Elosegui, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Termed at the time the First Bertsolari Day, the event was held in the Poxpolin Theater in Donostia and included the participation of some nineteen competitors. In the collective mindset of the organizers it was hoped that this relatively new format, an organized contest with a panel of judges evaluating the quality of the bertsoak (verses) on their technical features alone (or their degree of difficulty if you will) on a points-based system, would help to propel bertsolaritza into the twentieth century and away from what some at least considered its rather dubious connections with the raucous world of taverns and cider houses. That said, some of the traditional older bertsolariak (oral improvisers) who came from the latter tradition did take part in the championship, most famously of all Txirrita (Jose Manuel Lujanbio), the greatest of all cider house bertsolariak. As Gorka Aulestia observes in Voicing the Moment, “Txirrita, the elderly patriarch of traditional bertsolaritza –at the age of seventy five, weighing 260 pounds and dressed in the customary long black shirt– did not fit the image envisaged by” the more progressive organizers.

In the end, and much to their relief, the event was won by a young twenty-two-year-old from Gipuzkoa, born in Errezil but who had lived in Zarautz from age seven: Inazio Eizmendi, who went by the name “Basarri.” And the runner-up was Matxin Irabola from Senpere, Lapurdi. Basarri was the ideal winner for the modernizers who had encouraged the idea of moving bertsolaritza toward a championship format. He was young, forward-thinking, and would ultimately lead bertsolaritza out of the taverns and into more the neutral public settings of towns and squares. In short, this first national championship served a s a springboard to change the whole face of bertsolaritza, marking not just a generational change among its leading exponents but also a transformation in the very way the art form was conceived and performed.

Further reading

Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika. Free to download here. The definitive introductory guide to bertsolaritza in English that not only outlines the history and sociocultural impact of the art form in the Basque Country but also explains how it functions, the changes that have taken place in recent years with the coming of the technological age, and sets all this within a global framework by also discussing other worldwide examples of improvised oral art forms.

Improvisational Poetry from the Basque Country by Gorka Aulestia. An essential history of bertsolaritza to the modern age.

Bertsolaritza: The Reality, Tradition and Future of Basque Oral Improvisation by Joxerra Garzia. Free to download here. History and contemporary analysis of the art form by a leading theoretician of bertsolaritza.

 

January 9, 1844: Opera singer Julián Gayarre born

Julián Gayarre (1844-1890), the great Basque tenor. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On January 9, 1844 Sebastián Julián Gayarre Garjón, known more popularly as just Julián Gayarre, was born into a humble family in Erronkari (Roncal), the principal nucleus of the remote valley of the same name in the far northeast of Navarre. From these humble beginnings he would go on to a have a successful career as an opera singer, gaining international renown as the greatest Italianate tenor of his generation and one of the most famous tenors of all time in the history of opera.

Leaving school at 13 he was immediately put to work as a shepherd, one of the principal means of earning a living in his natal Pyrenean surroundings. A couple of year’s later his father found him work in a notions store in Pamplona-Iruñea. It was in the capital city of Navarre that he first came across professional musicians, and he was even fired from his job for leaving the store one day to follow a band parading in the street outside. He then moved back to his native Erronkari Valley to work in a blacksmith shop in Irunberri (Urunberri in the Eastern Navarrese dialect of Basque,  Lumbier in Spanish). Sticking with the blacksmith trade he found work once more in Pamplona-Iruñea, where he relocated in 1863. Hearing him singing one day, a coworker encouraged him to apply to join the newly founded Orfeón Pamplonés, the city choir, a decision that changed his life.

His rise to fame was in many ways meteoric. Making an immediate impact on the city’s musical elite with the beautiful natural timbre of his voice, a scholarship was arranged to send him to Madrid Royal Conservatory and train properly for a career in professional music. He finished his studies in Madrid in 1868 and was awarded a grant by the Provincial Council of Navarre to continue studying his craft in Milan. Shortly after beginning his studies in Milan, he made his operatic debut in 1869 and thrilled critics with both his voice and commanding stage presence. As a result of his performances throughout Italy in the 1870s he was soon in demand in the great opera capitals of Europe, Paris and London, traveling widely across the continent as a whole as well as to Brazil and Argentina, although his home stage remained the legendary La Scala opera house in Milan.

Gayarre on his debut performance at La Scala, Milan, in 1876. Image from Mundo Gráfico 38 (July 17, 1912), page 5. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Gayarre continued to enthrall audiences across Europe with his wide repertoire, ranging from bel canto works to Wagner’s earlier music-dramas. In the words of Karlos Sánchez Ekiza, in his Basque Classical Music (free to download here): “He was noted for his intense recitals, with a voice capable of incredible range in colour and intensity, all in a clarity of textual performance and perfect diction.” Between the mid-1870s and mid-1880s he consolidated his reputation as the greatest tenor of the age., but thereafter he began to suffer a serious respiratory illness that caused his voice to deteriorate. At what would turn out to be his final performance, at the Royal Theater in Madrid on December 8, 1889, he broke down mid-performance, retiring from the stage claiming he could sing no more. Just a few weeks later, on January 2, 1890, he died in Madrid. His body was thereafter taken back to his beloved Erronkari, to be buried near the very house in which he was born.

Today the principal theater in Pamplona-Iruñea, the Gayarre Theater, bears his name, as does a prestigious biennial international competition in the city, the Julián Gayarre Singing Competition. Moreover, the house where he was born is now the Julián Gayarre Museum-House, and well worth a visit to this beautiful part of Navarre.

Just an additional point of interest to the short but intense life of Julián Gayarre, it is worth underscoring the fact that his first language was Basque, and specifically the Eastern Navarrese dialect of Basque (a dialect that was sadly lost in the twentieth century but for which efforts are being made to revive). Gayarre is reputed to have often closed his solo performances, whether in Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, or any of the numerous Italian cities he toured in, with a performance of the great Basque anthem “Gernikako arbola” (The Tree of Gernika), on which see previous post here and here. Interestingly, too, from his global travels he would write home to his family in Basque, in the Eastern Navarrese dialect, and his letters are preserved to this day as an eloquent testimony to this beautiful, but lost, dialect. The following (somewhat rakish in places) letter, written in 1884, is one such example:

Barcelona 19 Diciembre 1884

        Ene tia Juana maitia

        Eugenia sin da [etorri da] arro[nt] ongui. Quemen gaude anisco ongui guciac eta ori [berori] nola dago?

        Nain din [nahi dun] sin [rin, jin, etorri] [xin]cona [honat, hona] ichasoaren ecustra? Anisco andia da, tia Juana.

        Nai badu nic dud anisco deiru orentaco vidagearen pagateco quemengo ostatiaren pagateco. Eztu eguiten quemen ozic batrere, chaten [xaten, jaten] dugu quemen anisco ongui eta güero artan [artzen, hartzen] dugu iror nescache postretaco eta gazte eta pollit.

        Ha cer vizia! tia Juana maitia, amar urte chiquiago bagunu…

        Gorainzi guzientaco eta piyco bat nescachi pollit erroncarico guziat.

Julian.

In English:

Barcelona, December 19, 1884

My dear aunt Juana,

Eugenia arrived safely. We’re all well here, and you?

Would you like to come and see the sea? It’s enormous, aunt Juana.

If you like, I have enough money to pay for your journey and pay for your hotel here. It’s not cold at all here, we eat very well and three pretty young girls for dessert.

Heavens, what a life!  Dear aunt Juana, if we were ten years younger…

Regards to everyone and a pinch for all the pretty Erronkari girls.

Julian

For more information check out the foundation in his name here.

January 6, 1899: Premiere of first ever opera in Basque

txanton-1

On January 6, 1899, the 3-act opera Chanton Piperri (also spelled Txanton Piperri) was performed for the first time in Donostia-San Sebastián.  It was the first ever full opera in the Basque language, with words by the renowned poet Toribio Altzaga (1861-1941) and music by Buenaventura Zapirain (1873-1937).

Reflecting the Romanticist tendencies celebrating nations that were sweeping Europe at the time, the Basque Country is itself front and center in the opera. The story concerns the damaging effects of the bloody medieval “clan wars” on the country, which only achieves a lasting peace at the dawn of the Renaissance following a miraculous appearance of the Virgin of Arantzazu.

As in other Romanticist operas, the chorus takes on the role of the “people,” in the case the Basque people, driving the dramatic narrative of the plot. Besides this, with three tenors, two baritones, and one bass among the principal singers, there is a marked presence of male voices. In contrast, only one soprano, in the figure of Maricho, takes center stage. That said, the character of Maricho is supported by other female voices in her major appearances: her entrance during the first act, at the end of the second act, and during the grand finale.

Information taken from Patricio Urquizu Sarasua, Teatro Vasco. Historia, reseñas y entrevistas, anotología bilingüe, catálogo e ilustraciones (Madrid: Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, 2010), pp. 158-59.

The music from the opera was performed during the opening ceremony to welcome in the awarding of the European City of Culture title to Donostia-San Sebastián in May 2016. See the full program for that event, with the music and scores (which can be downloaded) here.

If you’re interested in classical music, be sure to check out Basque Classical Music by Karlos Sánchez Ekiza, published by the Etxepare Basque Institute. It’s free to download here.

 

Older posts