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Life and work

Imagen cartel Agar Texts by Joaquín Pérez de Arriaga.

Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga y Balzola was born in Bilbao on the 27th of January 1806, at number 12, Calle Somera, where a plaque can be seen on the lintel in the doorway that recalls the event.

He left for Paris on the 26th of September 1821 and obtained a resident's card on the 13th of October in the same year. He entered the École Royal de Musique et Declamation (as the Conservatoire was known in the Restoration period from 1815-1830) in November, where he enrolled in harmony and counterpoint classes. Just over a year later he was to become a teaching assistant in his teacher François Joseph Fétis's counterpoint and fugue class, when Luigi Cherubini was head of the school.

Juan Crisóstomo died in Paris on the 16th of January 1826, shortly before his 20th birthday. Since March 1977 there has been a plaque on the lintel over the front door at 314 Rue Saint Honoré, which commemorates this tragic event, thanks to the efforts of Ramón Rodamiláns and the members of the Spanish Embassy at that time.



The residents of the Arriaga farmhouse, (arri=stone, aga= singular locative article, which is where we get arri-aga from =stony area) in Rigoitia, a village near Gernika in the province of Bizkaia, used the local name Arriaga. Juan Simón de Arriaga (1766-1836), born in Rigoitia, married María Rosa Catalina de Balzola (1767-1818), born in Gernika. They had nine children, the eighth of whom was Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga y Balzola, but only five survived childhood. Juan Simón and his family moved to Bilbao in 1804.

Among the information that has survived about Juan Crisóstomo it is especially worth mentioning the replies to letters from Juan Simón and his second son Ramón Prudencio in search of confirmation of the young musician's merits. These are signed by Manuel García, Francisco Vaccari, José Sobejano and Josef Luis de Torres. The only letter that has survived signed by Juan Simón is the one addressed to Alberto Lista. Finally, the letter that Pedro Albéniz wrote in San Sebastián dated the 30-7-1827 has survived which provides Juan Simón with details of the circumstances of Juan Crisóstomo's death in Paris.

Another very interesting source of information about Juan Crisóstomo's activities in Paris are the Conservatoire certificates with the marks and comments made by the teachers on the examining boards that assessed his progress in the various disciplines that he was enrolled in during his stay in the French capital, which lasted just over four years.

Due to the lack of information about Juan Crisóstomo's short life, the best guide that we can follow is provided by his own work. First of all, a quill drawing - dated the 20th of November 1817- of a large hall where a concert is being held in which nine musicians appear, including Juan Crisóstomo himself playing the violin and his brother Ramón Prudencio on the guitar. It is dedicated to Luisa de Torres y Urquijo, the person playing the keyboard instrument that appears in the middle of the drawing, who was a fifteen-year-old girl at the time. The same young girl is the one to whom Juan Crisóstomo dedicated his first musical piece that has survived, a violin trio known as Nada y mucho, dated the same year. The people attending the concert are sitting alongside the walls in the hall, with the women seated apart from the men.



The Overture Opus 1 from 1818 was published by the Arriaga Commission II in 1928 in an arrangement by José de Arriaga e Ygartua, Ramón Prudencio's great-grandson and hence, Juan Crisóstomo's great grand-nephew, for an ensemble of nine instruments.

From the following year, 1819, a Marcha militar for band Opus 2, and two Himnos patrióticos Opus 3 & 4 are catalogued. Shortly afterwards it was possible to catalogue a Romanza for pianoforte published by José Sobejano in El Adam Español, Madrid 1826.

During 1819 and 1820 Juan Crisóstomo devoted his efforts to composing an opera, based on a libretto by Luciano Francisco Comella, entitled Los Esclavos Felices, that Juan Crisóstomo subtitled Ópera semiseria en dos actos & cinco cuadros. Out of the more than thirty pieces in the libretto, only the Overture, the Marcha mora, the Cavatina de Elvira and the Dúo de Alfonso y Elvira have survived.

In the Liberal Guipuzcoano on the 14th of May 1821 a note from Península is reproduced from the previous day with comments on Juan Crisóstomo's musical activities in which it states that he had composed some 'quartets', 'overtures' and a 'semi-serious opera'. It praises the musical quality of the opera and quotes Manuel García's opinion in the letter that he had written to Juan Simón in 1820 as a reference.

Later on, Juan Crisóstomo composed an aria for tenor and orchestra, Aria de Beltrán, which judging by its nature, could well be a response to Manuel García's suggestion about adding a few comic numbers for it to be performed in Parisian theatres. The final reference to the opera score, which has now been lost, is provided by Fétis when he says: "in which some utterly original delightful ideas were to be found".

The Tema variado en cuarteto, Opus 17 is dated 1820, an autograph of which was donated by José de Arriaga e Ygartua to the Royal Theatre Library in Madrid in 1925 (it is now to be found in the Theatre Museum in Almagro). The Arriaga Commission II published the score in 1928.



The motet on the Stabat Mater Dolorosa sequence by Jacopone da Todi can be catalogued as Opus 21, as it is from before July 1821. The Overture Opus 20 for orchestra has also survived from this period in 1821, and this is perhaps his most ambitious work from his Bilbao period, which has still not been published.

And finally, in this period, Juan Crisóstomo even composed some variations for violin and bass ad libitum on the theme of the Húngara, Opus 22, or as Vaccari called it, "Thema de la Tirolesa", dated the 4th of August 1821. Judging by the technical difficulties that this work poses for performers, it might have been a result of the purchase of a violin from the Amati school that his father bought him for his studies in Paris. The opus number allocated to this work shows us that more than a dozen works from this period have been lost.

Juan Crisóstomo, a fifteen-year-old boy, set off for Paris on the 26th of September 1821 in search of the musical knowledge that nobody could now provide him with in his native Bilbao.

After arriving in the French capital on the 13th of October he obtained a resident's card and a few days later enrolled at the École Royal de Musique et Declamation, in Harmony and Counterpoint classes with the teacher François Joseph Fétis.

The first work in this new phase in his life is the arrangement for string quartet of the variations on the Húngara, following a suggestion by Vaccari, so that they could be performed before the King and Queen, since as he said in his letter "the King doesn't like the sound of solo strumming". It is dated the 16th of February 1822. Juan Crisóstomo allocated it the number Opus 23; a numbering system that he never used again.

Perhaps the aforementioned Aria de Beltrán could also be placed in this period, and he may also have composed the Tres Estudios or Caprichos for pianoforte in this first year of his stay in Paris, published by the Arriaga Commission I in 1890.
Although it is difficult to establish a date for it, a religious work, the motet O salutaris hostia, for two tenors and bass accompanied by a string quartet and double bass, might have been composed in 1823.

With the fugue for eight voices on the words of the Creed Et vitam venturi, which has been lost, we enter a period in which Fétis's reference to Arriaga's compositions, although it cannot be taken literally, does provide us with some valuable information about his activities. It also allows us to know that a Misa for 4 voices and a Salve Regina have been lost.

His following work, the Tres Cuartetos (1823) dedicated to his father, was published by Juan Crisóstomo. The edition only contains the parts and the date doesn't appear anywhere. Thanks to the reference by Fétis in his biographical note on Juan Crisóstomo in his Biographie Universelle des Musiciens (1835, 1860, 1866) we know "that it was published in Paris in 1824".

The second edition was printed in Bilbao in 1888 by the Arriaga Commission I, and owing to a lack of financial resources, once again only the parts were printed. Today, fortunately we have an edition of the scores and parts of the complete work for Quartet. The fact that the complete score of the Tres Cuartetos and the Variaciones has been published so late has prevented it from being studied and disseminated to a large extent. M. W. Edson (1980), S. K. Hoke (1983) and J. A. Gómez (1995) have carried out some interesting musicological studies in their respective doctoral theses.


También la Obertura de Los Esclavos Felices fue revisada y le dio un nuevo título: Ouverture Pastourelle (1824). Esta es la versión que se editó en 1950 en Bilbao, a partir de una copia parisina de las partichelas, y  es la habitualmente interpretada.

Según denuncia su magnífica factura, la Sinfonía para gran orquesta pudo haber sido compuesta hacia 1824. Como en el caso anterior sólo se encontraron las partichelas manuscritas parisinas de alguna interpretación y eso quizá dificultó su edición, que no fue realizada hasta 1950, en Bilbao.

La Sinfonía (1824) junto con la Ouverture Pastourelle (1824), y los Tres Cuartetos (1823) forman el conjunto de obras más interpretadas de su autor y han sido el fundamento de su apreciación universal.

Juan Crisóstomo debió de llegar a alcanzar cierta fama en París, ya que un autógrafo suyo, precediendo al de F. J. Fétis, ha sido hallado en el cuaderno del aficionado y coleccionista d'Henneville. La dedicatoria dice así: 'Canon perpétuel à la quinte et à l'octave inferieure. Composé pour l'Album de Monsieur d'Henneville par J. C. de Arriaga'. Se trata de trece compases a cuatro voces y ni siquiera se sabe si está completo o continuaba en la página siguiente. Este autógrafo se custodia en la colección de Rudolf Nydahl, en el museo por él fundado, Stiftelsen Musikkulturens Främjande en Estocolmo (B. Kenyon de Pascual, Nasarre, en 1993).

A continuación, en 1825, tenemos cinco obras para voz y orquesta sin fechar, pero que pudieran ser sus últimas composiciones. Por su mayor madurez en el contenido quizá se pueda situar como su última obra la escena de Agar en el desierto. Una secuencia posible es la siguiente:

  • Air de l'Opera de Médée. Escena lírico dramática para soprano y orquesta basada en una escena de la ópera Médée (1797) de L. Cherubini/F.-B. Hoffman.
  • Ma tante Aurore. Un dúo lírico cómico para tenor, bajo y orquesta basado en una escena de la ópera del mismo título (1803) de F. A. Boïeldieu/Ch. de Lonchamps.
  • ?dipe à Colone. Escena lírico dramática para tenor y orquesta basada en una escena de la ópera con el mismo título (1786) de A. Sacchini/N.-F. Guillard.
  • Herminie. Cantata lírico dramática para soprano y orquesta sobre un poema de J.-A. Vinaty.
  • Agar dans le désert. Cantata lírico dramática en cuatro partes para soprano, tenor y orquesta sobre un texto de Victor-Joseph Étienne, dit De Jouy. Las cuatro partes son: Recitativo, Romanza, Dúo y Aria. La misma escena fue utilizada por F. Schubert para su primera obra vocal D5, Hagars Klage, para soprano y piano, sobre texto de C. A. Schücking, pero quizá Juan Crisóstomo logró imprimir a su obra un mayor dramatismo y brillantez. También puede citarse a Désiré Alexandre Batton (1798-1855) que compuso una cantata con el mismo título y utilizando el mismo texto que Juan Crisóstomo.

    Texts by Joaquín Pérez de Arriaga