APRIL 2019 | Cuban Music: Finding a Voice

APRIL 2019 | Cuban Music: Finding a Voice


Cuban musical rhythms and styles are recognised all over the World today, influencing artists at home and abroad for over 200 years. This cultural fusion, is less to do with the pre-Columbian inhabitants but rather a confluence of the competing influences of African and European cultures. This fusion may not be unique in Latin America, but for an island the size of Cuba, the music consistently remains fresh and impactful. Ironically outside Cuba the dances and rhythms are better known than the musicians themselves; according to the book Latin American Classical Composers, nearly a 100 composers are listed over this period, but only a few have achieved international recognition. Arguably Ernesto Lecuona is the best known 20th Century composer to emerge, though he is relegated to a lower division when compared with other Latin American composers like Chavez, Villa-Lobos and Ginastera.

I would like to try and address this imbalance and with the help of some expert opinion further explore the country’s rich vein of music and meet some of the musicians who brought about the changes, staring in the 19th Century there is a rich vein of inventive and distinctly Cuban music, much of which, remains to be rediscovered, starting in the 19th Century.

For anyone looking for an erudite musical history, they should refer to Music in Cuba, the iconic book by Alejo Carpentier, published in 1946 and now translated into English. Despite some limitations in 20th Century developments, it remains an essential guide to the country's musical history to that date. I also found the encyclopaedic Cuban Music from A to Z by Helio Orovio indispensible, though this covers the whole gamut of popular and ‘academic’ musicians.

The Contredanse and Manuel Saumell

It is a curious fact that something innocuous as the French contredanse kicked-started a musical revolution in Cuba, which developed, through active musicians, a variety of dance rhythms and a distinctive Cuban style. Moreover, the irony is that it was the black underclass, who’s music traditions and remembered cultures became imposed on the European dances and expressions. Of course the upper classes were not entirely happy with this trend, but then they did not consider a life in music to be a good career move (the professions of lawyers and doctors were to be preferred) because of its lack of financial stability. This left a gap in the market for the black or mulatto musicians, which they were quick to exploit, as music offered them an opportunity to better themselves and move up the class ladder.

One of the favourite dances was the contredanse, which was spread by emigres from French Saint-Dominique following a slave revolt, and took root in Santiago de Cuba (the east of the island), to be adopted in the early 19th Century throughout all parts of Cuban society, (all things French being con-sidered highly cultured) including the African slave population. The music was played by pianists and more importantly by 'orquestas tipicas’ which usually comprised black or mulato musicians, who played the music with different rhythmic inflections and styles. With these new and exciting dances, these musicians introduced a dynamism and rhythmic acuity that proved very popular at the urban clubs, which the middle and upper classes frequented, gradually metamorphosing the ‘contredanse' into the 'contradanza criolla’.

At the same time music teaching and publishing began in Cuba with two Academias founded in 1814 and 1816. One of the earliest surviving pieces of music to be published in 1803, was an instrumental contradanza, titled San Pasual Bailon, whose composer is unknown (it is written in the classic rather than creolised form). Other popular dance forms at this time include the guaracha and bolero. Salon music soon dominated sheet music production, as in the surrounding Latin American countries. Italian and French opera was the cultured fare in the theatre and concert hall.

Whilst the contredanse may not have been a favoured form in the French court, in the colonies it took root very quickly. An early exponent of this genre was Antonio Raffelin (1796-1882) who preferred the ‘classic’ form of the dance, which is hardly surprising given that his best known works at the time were his 3 Haydnesque symphonies (the first symphonies by a Cuban composer?), chamber works and latterly choral compositions. He moved to Paris for a period from 1836 where he had successes and returned in 1848 and energetically got involved in the music scene, before departing for Philadelphia.

Enter Manuel Saumell (1817-70), who despite his modest beginnings became the first composer of real distinction to emerge, who posterity dubbed ‘the father of Cuban musical nationalism’. He had a modest upbringing and was ini-tially self-taught before taking formal lessons that equipped him for writing and performing. He was energetic and generous and adopted a peripatetic lifestyle to sustain himself, which left him little time to compose. Saumell was inspired by the music that surrounded him, and sought to create a national Cuban opera in 1939, but a hapless love affair ended his aspirations. This ambition perhaps explains the determination of Saumell to create music with a national identity, but with precious little time to write, the more modest form of the contradanza proved a perfect vehicle for his talents. He wrote a variety of pieces but is chiefly recognised for his 50 contradanza, where he altered the dance’s structure and incorporated distinct creolised elements, using characteristic melodies and rhythms. Additionally many of them were written to be listened to rather than danced, which was a major step forward. The stylistic and formal innovations proved to be highly significant for the next generation of composers who also tapped into his latent nationalism. Politically this was important too as the country fought to achieve independence from Spain. Saumell was recognised professionally in his lifetime, though he tragically died aged 53. During this time he also became good friends with a certain touring American pianist/composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, of whom we shall hear much more.

The influence of Chopin

We now need to look at the influence of Chopin’s music, which was introduced whilst Saumell was developing his style, by the Polish composer’s life-long friend, the pianist Julian (known as Jules) Fontana (1810-1869). He arrived in Havana in the summer of 1844 and performed popular European music of the time but more importantly for the first time, Chopin. The style and dance elements of Chopin’s music strongly influenced an emerging generation of musicians with its exoticism, unlocking a door to international culture and their own identity. Fontana is perhaps better known for the work he did in the posthumous publication of some of his late friend’s music, but during his stays he imported a key influence, whilst writing some charming music of his own clearly influenced by the colourful island.

One of Fontana’s pupils was the pianist and composer Nicolas Ruiz Espadero (1832-1890), who turned from writing the more popular contradanzas to music clearly influenced by Chopin, which he felt was more serious temperamentally and carried more emotional weight. The contradanzas he wrote in the 1850’s follow the popular style, and are engaging without Saumell’s distinctive creolisation. He was a very sensitive musician and due to a sheltered family upbringing developed a reclusive nature. He was less inspired by the colourful creole music scene, than by the contemporary European forms, in a more serious romantic style which proved less popular with the Cuban publishers and public. Espadero’s music became less widely played and slipped into oblivion after his death, which occurred in bizarre circumstances. The irony was that he was probably the most internationally famous Cuban of his time, which was due to the unlikely friendship he formed with the extravagant and extrovert American pianist/composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), who arranged for his friend’s music to be published abroad. Espadero’s music is generally well written but much has been lost, and his late works, considered to be his best, were never published.

Gottschalk on Tour

Gottschalk first visited Cuba in 1854, during one of his many America-wide tours; he wrote like a typical piano virtuoso of the day but unusually also de-veloped a creole style (from his native Louisiana) which due to its exoticism proved immensely popular. He had a sure gift for the attractive melody, which is evident in his four Danse Cubaines, which incorporate the emergent creolised styles and rhythms. His popularity was bolstered by his multi-piano extravaganzas performed in Havana, including his 1st Symphony, known as Night in the Tropics, complete with massive indigenous percussion on stage with 41 pianos. His so-called one act opera, Escenas Campestres Cubanas, though somewhat repetitive in content was colourfully orchestrated and not without its influence (and given a rare outing at ILAMS’s PamAmericana concert in 2017). After Gottschalk’s untimely death, Espadero was asked to edit his posthumous works for publication. He also made his own arrangements and orchestrations. It is interesting to note that in 1859 the young Cuban violin virtuoso, José White, joined Gottschalk and Espadero on stage and performed an improvised tarantella, which years later turned into Gottschalk's Grand Tarantelle for piano and orchestra. After Gottschalk’s death, with the score lost, Espadero re-orchestrated the piece.

Espadero taught extensively and one of his pupils was Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade (1840-1908), who took over and expanded the first Cuban conservatory. This had been founded in 1885 by the Dutch pianist Hubert de Blanck (1856-1932), who due to his political sympathies was arrested and deported after the Cuban War of Independence. Ernesto Lecuona was among its graduates.

The Violin Virtuoso - José White

Gottschalk’s hand was evident in the career of José (also known as Joseph) Sylvester White Lafitte (1836-1918), recognised now as one of the first important black musicians (his father was Spanish and his mother Afro-Cuban) to emerge in the 19th Century. Gottschalk was impressed with the talent of the young violinist and encouraged him to study in Paris, having accompanied him at his first public concert in 1854, and helped to raise the money for the journey. He immediately impressed with his talent and two years later José White won first prize in cello and violin in Paris and was admitted to the Conservatoire where he studied with Alard. His progress was interrupted after his father taken ill so he to returned to Cuba, where he concertised with great success.

White returned to Paris in 1860 to a successful career as violinist and composer. This is the time when we see him writing confidently for the violin and performing widely to great acclaim - famously Rossini wrote complimenting the expressive qualities of his playing. A key composition from this time was his only Violin Concerto, premiered in Paris in 1867, unusually written in the key of F sharp minor, which was critically very well received. The music is thoroughly European in style, (specifically Franco-Belgian) and idiomatically written throughout, with virtuosic solo work which clearly demonstrates the performing skills of the composer. At this time he also wrote 6 solo violin Etudes which were approved for use at the Conservatoire.

Whilst in Paris, White met fellow Cuban Ignacio Cervantes, who was also studying there, and discovered a common interest in their homeland’s struggle for independence. He also knew the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño, who was also in Paris at this time, and accompanied him on at least one occasion including at his marriage ceremony in 1866. White returned to Cuba in 1874 with Cervantes, and they raised money for the independence cause through concerts, where he also played his Violin Concerto. However, the authorities were less than impressed with the pair’s money-raising efforts and after a brief detention they left for Mexico, and later White toured America. From 1877-89 White took up the post of director of the Conservatoire in Rio de Janiero, after which he returned to Paris where he stayed until he died. Some 32 pieces of music of his has survived, which also includes a string quartet (interestingly White performed Beethoven and Mozart) and works for violin and piano, many in a lighter virtuosic vein, including the popular, La belle Cubane.

Cuban nationalism and Cervantes

Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905) was arguably the most important 19th century composer to emerge in Cuba. In terms of musical development, despite a life tragically cut short, his achievements built on Saumell’s work, where he disregarded virtuosity and developed a style that embraced the Afro-Cuban and Guajiro (country) traditions. He carried the nationalist torch forward into the next century and as importantly wrote for the concert hall rather than the dance hall. As a pianist Cervantes was a child prodigy and his teachers included Espadero who introduced him to his friend Gottschalk, who after giving some lessons encouraged him to apply to the Paris Conservatoire. He did so in 1865/6, studying under Marmontel and Alkan, and quickly achieved academic distinction. His style was more expressive than fashionable virtuosic. It was in Paris that he met Jose White, and struck up a friendship, partly founded on their strong patriotism. In this he recognised the importance of developing a national musical style that would underline Cuba’s latent independence supported by a sophisticated musical style founded on Chopin’s examples. The two musicians performed together in Cuba during 1875, raising funds for the independence cause and despite accepting voluntary exile for 3/4 years, playing in Mexico and living in the United States, he continued giving concerts to raising money through his concerts for the cause. Further disruption occurred to his time in Cuba and after liberation was won he returned. During this time, Cervantes had become a highly respected pianist and teacher on the island; and it was at this time he started producing his influential collection of 41 Danza Cubanos, along with the famous Serenata Cubana for solo piano. It is not realised perhaps that he also wrote zarzuelas, an opera and chamber pieces which consistently demonstrate the composer’s vision. Perhaps the culminating honour to Cervantes arose in 1902 when he represented the newly created Republic of Cuba, when he attended the Charleston Exposition as the ambassador for Cuban music. Tragically at that time it is believed he was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and he died 3 years later.

A National opera

According to historic records it seems that a large number of operas were produced in Cuba, compared to other Latin American countries, though it seems few have retained a foothold in the repertoire. Gaspar Villate y Montes (1851-91) is now remembered as a composer of popular contranzas, written in an attractive style. He also wrote light-weight piano music which was appreciated in the salons of France and Spain, where he worked from 1868. However, his heart was in opera and writing in an Italian-influenced style, he achieved some success, though now these works are largely forgotten. Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes (1874 -1944) was taught by Cervantes, and whilst still a teenager wrote an habanera, Tu which as a song achieved popular recognition in Spain and Latin America. He wrote popular songs, some on Cuban subjects, and many are still remembered with great affection today. His first opera in 1898, Yumuri, was set to a national subject and whilst he wrote a few instrumental pieces it was opera and later choral works that gave him his greatest successes. Several of these were of considerable importance in their time. However, in critical terms La esclava by Jose Mauri (1856-1937) achieved the best synthesis of a distinctive Cuban style; produced in 1921, the action is set in an 1860’s sugar mill and whilst some Italian styling remained, contemporary rhythms permeated the work. Interestingly, Cervantes considered Mauri to be the most important composer of his day. Born in Valencia, to Cuban parents, who moved back to the island, where he studied, and eventually became a professor, and conducted the National Band of Colombia with whom he toured. His numerous compositions including religious works, contradanzas, symphonic poems, a symphony, also songs and zarzuelas, which all contributed to his latter day stature.







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