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At some point in late January 1939, after two and a half years of civil war, the Spanish Republican Army’s Fifth Regiment disbanded. Its members crossed the Pyrenees into France, fleeing General Franco’s troops. Among their numbers were some thirty military musicians, all of whom were interned in the refugee camp of Le Barcarès, near Perpignan, as soon as they found themselves in French territory.

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On April 1, 1939, the musicians were greeted with the news of Franco’s victory and the end of the Spanish Civil War. Their fortunes changed in May: all of them were offered spaces on board the Sinaia to travel to Mexico, whose president, Lázaro Cárdenas, had pledged to welcome several thousand Spanish refugees.

On board the Sinaia, the musicians quickly organized themselves under the name of Agrupación Musical Madrid (or Banda Madrid, for short). Every afternoon on the ship, they gave concerts on the deck, while their fellow passengers, all of them Spanish refugees, gathered around in admiration and nostalgia, listening to music they had known well in their home country. For their first concert, for example, the Banda Madrid played instrumental excerpts from three zarzuelas, Spanish-language musical theatre plays (Los sobrinos del Capitán Grant, La leyenda del beso, and La boda de Luis Alonso), as well as Puenteareas, a pasodoble (a double step military march) by Reveriano Soutullo, also a zarzuela composer.

Present-day Spaniards might regard these repertoire choices as unusual. But as is the case with other musical genres indigenous to Spain, they initially developed with no ties to one political ideology over another. Zarzuela is nowadays perceived in the national imagination as an integral part of musical life under the Franco regime and, as such, outdated and conservative. It is not by chance that the Spanish ska band La Raíz chose zarzuela for their song “Zarzuela y castañuela,” a scathing critique of present-day Spain. But as is the case with other musical genres indigenous to Spain, zaruela initially developed without ties to any particular political ideology.

La Raíz portray Spain as a country held back by corruption, still suffering from an unsuccessful transition to democracy back in the 1970s. For this, “decades of the Right, god, fatherland and king” are held responsible. These current perceptions make it difficult to understand how Spanish Republican refugees who were fleeing Franco could be moved to tears when they listened to zarzuela on board the Sinaia. But the Banda Madrid continued cultivating the genre during their decades in exile.

From the 1880s up to the initial decades of the twentieth century, zarzuela had become a mass entertainment form that cut across social classes and political ideologies, even though not everyone liked zarzuela for the same reasons. Those with left-leaning, progressive tendencies were attracted by the genre’s focus on the pueblo (Spanish working and lower middle classes), sometimes coupled with moderate critique of the ruling classes. Those on the right might have appreciated the fact that zarzuelas rarely included a systemic or revolutionary critique of the status quo. The music was downright reactionary in some respects, such as in its treatment of women’s rights.

For several decades, zarzuela could happily cater to a number of different ideologies; during the politically convoluted years of the Second Republic (1931-1936), which preceded the Spanish Civil War, the same zarzuela could give rise very different readings. This was the case with Manuel Fernández Caballero’s instant classic Gigantes y cabezudos. In June 1932, at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, in Madrid, conservative audiences cheered in support of the religious procession staged in the final scenes of the play, with others cheering the Republic (which was known for its anti-Church stance) in return. A riot ensued. In October 1933, in Saragossa, the procession was not cheered, but booed; the zarzuela’s protagonist, Cora Raga, allegedly managed to prevent a riot by declaring at the end of the play that she was both a Catholic and a supporter of the Republic.

During the Civil War, zarzuela seasons were regularly organized on both sides. Even after the war ended, the Franco regime did not deliberately and immediately appropriate zarzuela. In fact, one of the most successful and innovative composers of the genre throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Pablo Sorozábal, supported the Republic (a crime for which he was investigated in the initial years of the Franco regime). His rival Federico Moreno Torroba was of more conservative leanings.

One thing united Sorozábal and Moreno Torroba, though: as successful zarzuela composers under the earlier Franco regime, they were exceptions in a genre facing decline, a decline that some argued had started back in the 1920s. With few composers producing new work, and the genre facing competition from more innovative entertainment forms, such as cinema and television, most zarzuela theatres were depleted and eventually closed. The Franco regime itself did not do much to support zarzuela theatres, despite some demands from music critics and impresarios.

Why did zarzuela come to be seen, in contemporary Spain, as a remnant of Francoist musical life? One potential reason is that, as the genre ceased to be a living art form, it lost its ability to portray the pueblo in a realistic, dynamic, and sympathetic way. Instead, successive generations of audiences became increasingly aware that what was being shown on stage was a fossilized impression of Spain, which bore considerable similarities to society under Francoism—for example, its traditional gender roles or the central role accorded to Catholicism.

But while zarzuela declined as a theatrical form, it found a second life in recordings and concert performances. The regime’s radio and television channel often broadcasted those, sometimes in the voices of Spanish opera singers of international fame, thus allowing zarzuela to reach audiences throughout Spain that no stage performance could ever dream of.

Zarzuela was not the only musical genre whose reception in contemporary Spain still suffers from its history under the Franco regime. Further examples come from classical music, which, although far less popular and widespread among the general population than zarzuela, received significant attention from the regime. Manuel de Falla—at the time the most successful Spanish composer internationally—was not spared from attempts to portray his music in ways that suited particular ideologies. Falla was deeply religious and initially regarded Franco’s uprising with some sympathy, as he thought it would protect the Catholic Church from the excesses of the Second Republic. He, however, soon become disenchanted, particularly after his friend, the poet Federico García Lorca, was executed by a fascist squad.

From then on, Falla systematically refused to accept the honors that the regime repeatedly bestowed upon him in an attempt to secure the support of an internationally prestigious figure, one whose neoclassical nationalism could (in some respects) embody the directions the regime wished to impose on younger musicians. When an invitation arrived in October 1939 to conduct a series of concerts in Buenos Aires, Falla seized the occasion to leave Spain and settle in Argentina. He never returned. Even after Falla’s death in 1946, the Spanish government engaged in a bitter fight over his mortal remains with the Spanish exiled community in Argentina. The latter community admired Falla’s music and regarded the deceased composer as a symbol of progressive Spanishness.

Flamenco Dance by Ricard Canals i Llambí via Wikimedia Commons

More than classical music and zarzuela, flamenco was perhaps the genre that suffered the most from Franco’s cultural policies. Flamenco is represented in the above-mentioned La Raíz song, with castanets (“castañuela”) being prominently used to accompany dance. Flamenco developed in urban centres (mostly in Andalusia, but also in Madrid) throughout the nineteenth century, and became extremely popular both in Spain and abroad. This gave rise to multiple debates and controversies.

In the early 1900s, one such controversy involved flamenquistas and antiflamenquistas—the former defending flamenco as a key pillar of Andalusian or Spanish national identity, the latter arguing that the genre was closely associated with crime and moral turpitude. They lamented that flamenco was better known outside Spain than other, allegedly more respectable, indigenous cultural forms. Other long-standing debates centered around the origins of flamenco: whether it could be considered a truly Spanish genre or whether its alleged roots in North Africa and the Middle East diluted its cultural purity, making it a foreign genre.

The Franco regime complicated the status of flamenco within Spanish national culture even further. Before and during the Civil War, advocates of the genre could be found across both sides of the political divide. García Lorca and Falla themselves were tireless champions of flamenco, having co-organized the Concurso de Cante Jondo in 1922. And many flamenco singers and dancers supported the Second Republic during the war. The legendary cantaor Antonio de Mairena was arrested by a fascist squad during the Spanish Civil War and made to undergo a feigned execution. Others, like singer Angelillo and guitarist Sabicas, were forced into exile.

Throughout the 1950s, past associations of flamenco with a left-wing or anti-Francoist stance were eroded. The regime aggressively pursued external cultural policies built around flamenco music, singing, and especially dance. The regime had relied on isolation and autarky throughout the 1940s, but, after the end of the Second World War, circumstances had changed. The Spanish government was now trying to establish itself as an ally to the United States and a staunchly anti-Communist member of the Western Bloc in its own right. Flamenco became the symbol of an exotic but appealing Spain, a country that still clung to the old ways in many respects (for example, patriarchal social structures or a lack of parliamentary democracy), but was at the same time not excessively threatening, willing to embrace some of the perks of Western modernity.

With flamenco having traveled abroad more easily and successfully than other Spanish cultural products, international audiences could expect to find something they were relatively familiar with. Within Spain, flamenco was also promoted to a considerable extent, and flamenco-themed films became enormously popular, with some actors developing successful careers on the basis of these. Some voices, though, resisted the new tide: from the 1960s, a new generation of flamenco singers appeared who did not always shy away from including explicitly political anti-Franco messages in their lyrics.

The legacy of these tensions around flamenco are still felt in present-day Spain. Critics of flamenco, for example, will often point out how the Franco regime promoted flamenco as representative of the whole of Spanish culture, obliterating the cultural and musical particularities of regions other than Andalusia, where flamenco originated. The prominent role accorded to flamenco in Madrid’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to organize the Olympic Games, in 2012, was met with criticism—as was a performance of the Galician national anthem in flamenco style in the Galician parliament in 2006. These and other similar controversies form part of the legacy that, more than forty years after its conclusion, the Franco regime still exerts in Spain.

The recent exhumation of Franco’s body from the Valle de los Caídos into a private grave elicited a 16-month judicial battle and sustained controversy from the Spanish right, particularly the relatively new extreme right-wing party, Vox. While music might be a small part of these controversies, it also illustrates how Spain struggles to articulate their national identity in a positive way, with many of its national symbols haunted by Francoism. Flamenco remains a popular and thriving genre in contemporary Spain, with practitioners and fans coming from a variety of political positions. Zarzuela is comparatively less popular, but it has seen recent efforts to appeal to diverse, younger audiences. It remains to be seen whether these Spanish genres will manage to free themselves from Franco’s legacy.

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