La Copla Española: From start to finish

The Tonadilla is a traditional Spanish song style that has its roots in the jácaras, songs of arabic origin, that were sung between the acts in Golden Age Spanish theatre, alternating with dance numbers. The jácarandas were picaresque vignettes, stories recounting adventures, and the lyrics were often saucy and very much in the vernacular. Tonadillas were performed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the intervals of theatrical performances. This was a purely Spanish art form. The music was important but the songs were interspersed with recitations, with the emphasis on story telling rooted firmly in Spanish and especially Andalusian folklore.

The Tonadilla was created by the flautist and oboist Luis de Misón, born in Mataró in the Province of Barcelona in 1727. The first was performed in 1757 and over 100 of his works are conserved in the Spanish National Library. Another early composer was Manuel García, who also performed his compositions.

In all some 2,000 tonadillas have been catalogued; many with lyrics by respected writers such as Ramón de la Cruz and Tomás de Iriarte.

The singers were known as tonadilleros and tonadilleras, a name later inherited by the cupletistas of the twentieth century.

Tonadillas and Tiranas

During the second half of the eighteenth century a new singing and dancing style became fashionable: the songs dealt mainly with affairs of the court, love and everyday life. They were tonadillas called tiranas because the opening lines were “Ay tirana, ay tirana” Tirana being “tyrant” although this was more a reference to the injustices of love and life in general than a political statement.

With the Napoleonic invasion of 1808 and in subsequent years, the form disappeared from the stage, with Italian opera being far more popular. The tonadilla lived on, mainly in the court and as an entertainment for the aristocratic classes in their private celebrations.

El Cuplé

The tonadilla made a comeback in a new form known as Cuplé, a French influenced version of the song based around racy, rhyming couplets. A light hearted and lightweight genre that would later evolve into what we now know as “Copla”. If there is one artist who was instrumental in popularising French Cuplé in Spain and then participating in and defining its evolution into Copla Española, it is Raquel Meller. We are going to look at her career and will use it as a way of understanding the progression from Cuplé to Copla.

The librettos of the genre deal with passion and have a narrative style. Copla is far more about telling stories than Flamenco. These are grandiose stories where the protagonists cannot, or simply do not want, to control the passions that devour them. The vocal style is also very different. The genre calls for great control: a powerful voice but one that can dominate vibrato. Many of the songs are sung using an Andalusian accent although there have been many successful singers from all parts of Spain. And whilst there is a certain Flamenco ring to the tonality of many of the best singers, this is not essential as the great Concha Piquer demonstrates with her paused, passionate and clearly Mediterranean delivery.

The accompaniment for classical Copla is orchestral, similar to other traditional genres such as Zarzuela. There has been a tendency in recent times to fuse Copla with other genres, especially jazz.


Raquel Meller was the stage name of Francisca (Paca) Marqués López, born on March 9th, 1888 in Tarrazona, in the province of Zaragoza.

She was a singer, cupletista and screen actress in the 1920’s and thirties and was the most internationally successful Spanish artist of her time. She was the first to perform many classic of the genre such as La Violetera. There is a museum dedicated to her in her home town.

Her father was a blacksmith from Aragón and her mother a shopkeeper originally from the La Rioja region. She was brought up in France by a maternal aunt, a nun of the Order of Saint Claire, until she was able to rejoin her family in Spain, who by that time were living in Poble Sec in the Province of Barcelona. She went to work as a seamstress in Barcelona and it was there that she met the famous singer Marta Oliver, who noticed that she had a fine singing voice. In 1908 she made her début, performing as La Bella Raquel. Soon after, she changed her stage name to Raquel Meller – the German sounding surname a tribute to a childhood sweetheart from that country whom she had met while in France.

In September 1911 she performed for the first time in a major theatre, the Teatro Arnau in Barcelona, and showcased two songs composed by José Padilla: El Relicario and La Violetera. The version she recorded of El Relicario in 1914 went on to make international stars of both her and Padilla.

El Relicario

In 1917 she met the Guatemalan diplomat Enrique Gómez Carrillo and in 1919 they were married although they split in 1922, the same year that Raquel began to enjoy international success in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. In 1926 she toured the United States, visiting New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and Los Angeles. At the end of the decade she came into contact with Charlie Chaplin, who offered her a part in City Lights (1931). She turned him down but that didn’t stop him using the melody (uncredited) from La Violetera in the soundtrack.

La Violetera

In 1922 Raquel took her first steps in film. She had two big hits in the silent period, Violetas Imperiales (1923) and Carmen (1926). She made a new version (with sound) of Violetas Imperiales in 1932 and started work in 1936 on Lola, la de Triana. Production was interrupted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

Los Claveles de Sevilla

In the thirties Raquel lived in France, enjoying enormous success. For a number of years she was more popular and earned more than other greats of the time such as Carlos Gardel or Maurice Chevalier. Her voice, beauty, elegance and sultry, dark eyes were just a few of the keys to her success.

La Perricholi


Her admirers, who included the legendary Sarah Bernhardt, considered her a genius. Before she had come on the scene, Cuplé was considered lightweight and of little artistic value. Her interpretations of the genre and the style and elegance she brought with them elevated Cuplé to a more socially and artistically acceptable level.

Bajo los Puentes del Sena (1936)

The Spanish Civil War and The Second World war brought about a change in her fortunes. She moved to Argentina in 1937 and stayed there till 1939. At the end of the Civil War she returned to Barcelona and enjoyed some success in Padilla’s theatrical production of La Violetera. She married the French businessman Demon Sayac and although they ended up leading separate lives, they never divorced.

Ven y Ven

In the following years, little by little, Raquel found herself alone and half-forgotten in Barcelona. She never had children of her own although she adopted two. In 1962 she suffered a fall that aggravated an existing heart condition and on 26th July of that year she died in hospital. Thousands turned up for her funeral and it was widely reported in the press.

Raquel was one of the finest singers of Cuplé and paved the way both for the genre, through “Canción Española” and “Canción Andaluza”, to what we now know as Copla Española, as well as for a host of other artists such as Imperio Argentina, Manolo Corrales, Estrellita Castro, Concha Piquer, Miguel de Molina, Lola Flores, Marifé de Triana, Rocío Jurado, Juanita Reina, Manolo Escobar, Juanito Valderrama, Sara Montiel, and Antonio Molina.

Since Raquel’s death Copla has lived on in the voices of many artists, especially Isabel Pantoja and Carlos Cano. And recently other more modern artists such as Martirio, the cantaor Miguel Poveda, Pasión Vega, Clara Montes, Pastora Soler, Aurora Guirado, Diana Navarro, Concha Buika, La Shica, and Montse Delgado have explored new avenues within and beyond the confines of the genre.

But it all started with Raquel.

2 Responses to La Copla Española: From start to finish

  1. Thank you – very interesting. I particularly liked Bajo los Puentes del Sena. Interesting lady.

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