El Poeta Calculista (1804)

El Poeta Calculista, Manuel García's operatic monologue for tenor, was composed in 1804 and premiered at the Teatro de los Caños del Peral (site of the present Teatro Real) in Madrid on 28 April 1805. It was a sensation at its premiere and also when first performed at the Odéon in Paris on 15 March 1809. On that occasion four of the eight vocal numbers had to be repeated. This is a testimony to the great stamina of García who had to sing, declaim spoken monologue, pantomime, dance and act for the duration of the work without intermission.

The story describes a poor poet, who was working as a scribe for another poor poet who has just died. Having inherited his master's manuscripts, the poet/scribe "calculates" how to use them to his good advantage. He thus embarks upon a magnificent daydream, imagining his future creations and  ultimate success (both literary and financial). At the end he realizes the futility of a career as poet and leaves to seek employment as a night watchman.

The concept of El poeta calculista was strikingly original in Madrid at the time—a refreshing change from the translations of maudlin French operettas that inundated the Spanish stage. The text has been attributed (without proof) to Diego del Castillo, but may well have been written by García himself. Throughout his career he wrote works with autobiographical touches and the plight of the poor poet could certainly be applied to García who was frustrated with the theatrical scene in Madrid and was soon to leave to further his career in Paris, Naples, Rome and London.

As regards the music, García, of course, composed it for his own voice and this gives the modern audience an idea of his talents at the time. Certainly El poeta caluclista required considerable skill: great agility, a range from low A to high C (and even a shouted high E), stamina to sing, speak, act and dance without stop for the duration of the work and—especially—a great sense of the comical, in order to hold in the palm of his hand an audience that could become demonstratively nasty if not pleased.

The single most famous piece from El poeta calculista, and the only composition of García to endure, was No. 5, the song of the horse, "Yo que soy contrabandista." It is difficult for us to imagine the hold that this little song had on French Romantics of the early nineteenth century. García's own daughters (Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot-Garcia) frequently interpolated it in the lesson scene from Il barbiere di Siviglia—always to thunderous applause. Apart from its musical charm (which would have seemed exotic to a French audience), the song's message struck a philosophical chord with the Romantics, as a symbol of independence and freedom (similar to poetic themes heard later in the century in Bizet's Carmen). Victor Hugo quoted the song in his first novel, Bug-Jargal, Franz Liszt wrote a Rondeau fantastique based on it, and Federico García Lorca used it as late as 1925 in his Mariana Pineda. It is George Sand, the lover of Frédéric Chopin, however, who gives us the clearest insight into the Romantic significance of "Yo que soy contrabandista" in the introduction to her 1837 play, Le Contrebandier,  inspired by the song. According to her, García's message was that the life of a smuggler was the model for the life of an artist! Certainly this was true at least for the Romantic artist and that model continues to the present day (one could argue that we, in the twenty-first century, are philosophically still in the nineteenth century as far as society's conception of the artist is concerned). Whether or not this actually was García's philosophical position is debatable, but clearly the generation after him took it as their starting point.

Garcia conserva toujours            García always retained a
une prédilection paternelle          paternal predilection for his
pour sa chanson du                    song of the Contrabandista. In
Contrebandier. Il prétendait,        his days of poetic verve, he
dans ses jours de verve              held that the movement, the
poétique, que le mouvement,      character, and the meaning
le caractère et le sens de            of this musical pearl summed
cette perle musicale étaient         up the life of an artist—for which,
le résumé de la vie d'artiste,        in his words, the life of the
de laquelle, à son dire, la vie       smuggler was the ideal. The
de contrebandier est l'idéal.         "ay, jaleo," this untranslatable
Le aye, jaleo, ce aye                  "ay" which makes the horse's
intraduisible quie embrase           nostrils flare and sends the
les narines des chevaux et           dogs yelping to the hunt,
fait hurler les chiens à la              seemed to García more
chasse, semblait à Garcia             energetic, more profound and
plus énergique, plus profond        better to put away chagrin,
et plus propre à enterrer le          than any philosophical maxim.
chagrin, que toutes les                He always used to say that he
maximes de la philosophie.          wanted, as the only epitaph on
Il disait sans cesse qu'il               his tomb, Yo que soy el
voulait pour toute épitaphe          Contrabandista,—so much
sur sa tombe: Yo que soy el         were both Othello and Don Juan
Contrabandista, tant Othello         identified with the imaginary
et don Juan s'étaient identifiés      character of the
avec le personnage imaginaire      Contrabandista.
du Contrebandier...

[George Sand, "Le Contrebandier,"  Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, 1 January 1837; quoted in James Radomski, Manuel García (1775-1832), p. 71)]

Read a review of Mark Tucker's recording of El poeta calculista by
Glyn Pursglove.

Download the libretto and vocal score of El poeta calculista:

El poeta calculista, Libretto
El poeta calculista, Overture
El poeta calculista, No. 1
El poeta calculista, No. 2
El poeta calculista, No. 3
El poeta calculista, No. 4
El poeta calculista, No. 5
El poeta calculista, No. 6
El poeta calculista, No. 7
El poeta calculista, No. 8
El poeta calculista, No. 9
El poeta calculista, No. 10
El poeta calculista, No. 11
El poeta calculista, No. 12
El poeta calculista, No. 13
El poeta calculista, No. 14

Libretto, translation, and vocal score are for personal use only.
All copyright restrictions apply.
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