November 2022 | Interview with Clara Rodriguez
November 2022 | Interview with Clara Rodriguez
By RAY PICOT
The renowned pianist Clara Rodríguez presented her new programme Female Icons of Latin America at the Iberian and Latin American Music Society’s 2022 Echoes Festival. Clara discusses here the lives of the composers she featured, and how they achieved their artistic ambitions into a world that was slow to recognise female achievements.
Ray Picot: This and other concerts you are giving of Latina women composers are a great opportunity for you to tell their story when so many have been forgotten.
Clara Rodríguez: Indeed, I appreciate the opportunity ILAMS has offered me to play this recital and that it has given me green light to choose this programme that I adore, of mainly women composers from Latin America. Their stories are relevant, and full of passion for music and life, as well as being beautiful compositions.
These women have in common great talent, steely determination, creativity and how hard they worked to achieve their potential. They all had families, children, and husbands, many of them went through divorces plus all the responsibilities of their art and careers. Interestingly, I was not acquainted with the concept of 'Latina Women' until now. I understand it as being a term made up in the United States to denote women of Latin American heritage. It seems to me that these concepts, including 'Hispanic', try to define people as if they don’t really belong to the society they live in.
RP: Who are the composers you featured in your concert?
CR: The Venezuelans Maria Luisa Escobar, Teresa Carreño, Modesta Bor, Luisa Elena Paesano, Diana Arismendi, are played with regularity by the younger generations, especially Paesano and Bor. Teresa Carreño’s pieces tend to be technically quite difficult! Personally, I play their music often in concerts and I am happy that my pupils are interested in playing them too. I am trying to publish my editions of some pieces and I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the exam boards of the UK has recently included the Fugue No. 1 by Modesta Bor in their piano syllabus. I have had the privilege of recording on my Nimbus Records CDs a good number of these pieces, possibly, as premières.
RP: We’ve heard a lot more now about female European composers and musicians, particularly siblings or partners of famous composers and whilst they had careers they seem to have been written out of history books with a few exceptions.
CR: Unfortunately, the condition of women throughout history has been dominated by discrimination, sometimes even by powerful women themselves as in the case of Queen Victoria who was opposed to women's rights. On the other hand, we find great fighters of women's rights in, for example, writer Virginia Woolf who in her book A Room of One’s Own sketches observations of the condition of women artists throughout the history of her country. Amongst many other instances, she finds that she had access to her father’s library but not to any at Cambridge University, where women were banned from entering. She complained that she was not given the opportunity to be educated or have formal studies like her brothers were. She asks many essential questions; “How many books are written about women in one year? How many are written by men?” According to her, "women are objects of worship or of loathing. Half divine or lacking souls or brains”.
Another example is that it became impossible for Mozart’s sister Nannerl, as she grew older to continue her career as a composer. As soon as women reached a marriageable age they would not be permitted to have artistic careers. Some became great teachers, and most probably they improvised music in their drawing rooms, but as it was not positively seen, they would not consider their efforts as worthy. Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann’s wife, was trained by her father and went on to have a very important career as a performer but thought that women shouldn’t be composers. In the case of Fanny Mendelssohn, she was fortunate to have married a painter who appreciated her talent as a composer and published her pieces.
Another inspiring character was Parisian Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, who wrote many plays, novels, thousands of letters, who was not afraid of making her point and who fought for her ideas. Her literary talent was admired by the greatest male writers of her time. She had to obtain legal permission to dress as a man in order to take part in the literary salons.
But let us not just think that they had gloomy lives, those were the rules and those rules had to be broken. That was exciting! Perhaps it has taken too long but all these women fought hard to achieve some freedom and a place and a voice in society.
RP: Most male Latin American composers undertook advanced studies in Europe and courses in the USA latterly. Was this true of their female counterparts?
CR: Since 1870 there has been in Venezuela free education officially, for both sexes, a movement that started in the year of independence, 1811. Music has been an important part of that education, the first music school created dates from 1776 but it only accepted men. In the main cities, there were harpsichords, pianos, and French harps in many homes, and women sang, danced, and played to quite a high level but mainly for fun, as a hobby.
Women had to wait another century, 1897, to be taught music (by women teachers) in the conservatory and to be able to be more active in society as musicians, and a good number graduated as composers after completing their studies. Women-only symphony orchestras were founded in cities such as Valencia (“The beautiful sex orchestra”), Barquisimeto, Puerto Cabello, Ciudad Bolívar and in the Andean states, which means, in all the cardinal points of the country!
RP: Tell me a little more about the composers you have chosen to include in your concert as few are familiar to audiences here.
CR: The musical production in the history of Venezuela was described in journals during the 19th century by mainly German scientists and visitors, such as Alexander von Humboldt. Also, important periodicals such as El Cojo Ilustrado published music scores, including by women composers as in the case of Isabel Mauri. In the 1930s Uruguayan musicologist Kurt Lange coined the phrase 'Musical miracle of America' after observing such febrile activity in the country.
There is the notable success of Teresa Carreño (1853-1917) who was born into a musical family and began to compose as early as 1859. By the age of 8, she had her Op.1 piece, a waltz dedicated to Gottschalk, published in New York. She was taught by her father, Manuel Antonio Carreño, and became the first truly international artist of the American continent, performing in North and South America and Cuba, Europe, Australia, and South Africa, conducting, singing opera, and composing over seventy works for the piano, the Hymn to Bolivar, a few orchestral pieces and a quartet. She had five children and four husbands.
Maria Luisa Escobar (née Maria Luisa González Gragirena) was a Venezuelan musicologist, pianist, composer, and caricaturist, and who founded the Ateneo de Caracas and the Society for the Rights of Composers and Authors (Valencia, 1921; Caracas 1985). At the age of five, she began to study piano and a year later, she composed her first piece. Three years later, she travelled with her parents to Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, where she studied languages and music concluding with a Baccalaureate in 1917. Then, she moved to Paris to continue her musical studies in addition to singing under the tutelage of Jean Roger-Ducasse, Arthur Honegger, and Charles Koechlin. When she returned to Venezuela she composed pieces for musical theatre, piano, orchestra, and songs. She recorded for Victor Talking Machine Company her own songs. In honour to her career, María Luisa Escobar obtained the National Prize of Music in 1984, a few months before her death in 1985. Maria Luisa Escobar was my piano teacher’s godmother and I feel a special attachment to her music because of that fact. It was Guiomar Narváez who introduced me to her compositions. Escobar wrote one of the most beautiful boleros, called Desesperanza. She had four children and two marriages.
I had the pleasure of being acquainted with Modesta Bor when I was a young student in Caracas when I played her Children’s Suite. Especially I remember the piece called 'First day at school', but not because I enjoyed school! A courageous lady that must have thought that her career as a brilliant pianist would be ended when she contracted the rare Guillain-Barré syndrome, a year before taking her final degree examination at the Escuela Superior de Música de Caracas. She was born in a fishing village, in 1926 in Juan Griego, Isla de Margarita, and died in 1998 in Mérida -Venezuela. She became the first Venezuelan to graduate from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow.
I have also known her son, the cellist, Domingo Sánchez Bor who says about his mother: “At 25, Modesta Bor thought that in her fast-paced career as a pianist she had suddenly been given a final bar, the Guillian-Barré syndrome. The rehabilitation process was slow and painful, but when she began to feel the reminiscences of lost motor skills, she held on to her instrument. She sat in front of the piano and spent hours and hours playing. Now that I think about it, although she could hardly walk, with music she could run, she could fly.” Domingo was five years old when his mother travelled to the Soviet Union to audition for Aram Katchaturian who, impressed by her Viola Sonata gave her a scholarship and a place at the Conservatoire. “She did not encounter obstacles to leave the four of us so young in father's hands, but she was torn, of course. However, her father, who was also a musician, encouraged her to go to Russia to study. Deep down, she had a great thirst for learning and innovating.”
Modesta Bor composed many piano pieces including a concerto, over two hundred choral works, and Genocidio a symphonic poem where there is a struggle between a nationalist theme and themes extracted from television commercials from the time. Bor was against the cultural penetration through foods and music produced by transnational companies in her country. This work, due to its political content, meant that she did not win the National Prize for composition in 1970, but her music has become widely performed in Venezuela.
I met Luisa Elena Paesano at one of the festivals I organised in Caracas in the 90’s and was struck by her freshness, beauty, enthusiasm, and charm. She says that her musical education started at home during Sunday family gatherings where her grandad, uncles, and aunties would play music that ranged from Beethoven and Chopin to traditional Venezuelan folk airs. She had classical music training from Vicente Emilio Sojo at the Escuela Superior de Música in Caracas. She dedicated her art to composing in a Venezuelan folk style; she founded the El Trancao Trio with piano, double bass, and cuatro with which she performed her own music. She composed over one hundred works and used to say that Venezuelan music was "not easy to play, write, or even read. The way one strikes the keys is special, different from classical music." She was born in Caracas in 1946 and died in 2019. She had two daughters.
Diana Arismendi is of my generation, and we have known each other since our childhood. She has kindly dedicated her Elegos to me. Diana says that the piece “represents my regret for those who are no longer with us”. Diana Arismendi was born in Caracas in 1962 and has a catalogue of approximately fifty works that includes orchestral pieces, concertos, a children's opera, percussion, and piano pieces. They have been performed widely in Latin America, Europe, the USA, and Canada. Diana Arismendi studied in Paris with Yoshihisa Taïra and in Washington at the Catholic University of America, under the tutelage of Helmut Braunlich. She is a professor at the Universidad Simón Bolívar where she was the Graduate Music Coordinator for five years. She is currently the Culture Coordinator and Head of the Department of Social Sciences at the university. Since 1996, Arismendi has been the Executive Director of the Latin American Festival of Music of Caracas. Many of her works have been published in various labels and anthologies. Diana Arismendi has one child and is currently married to composer and conductor Alfredo Rugeles.
I had a recording in my flat in Richmond (Surrey) when I was a student at the RCM, which I used to listen to by Violeta and Angel Parra. Violetta Parra had the most beautiful singing voice, but it was her lyrics, melodies, and interesting rhythms that fascinated me, which were accompanied by a guitar, a charango and a Venezuelan cuatro. Violeta Parra was born in San Carlos, Ñuble, Chile in 1917 to a struggling family of many children. Her father was a music teacher and her mother was a seamstress. The family lived in great poverty which pushed her and one of her brothers, to wander on trains around the country singing to gain a few pennies to put food on the table. Violeta Parra had a tremendous force of spirit and composed many songs, and her eloquent lyrics are so poetical and true to the living condition of the people, politics, love, and even humor, they have touched the hearts of millions of people around the globe. She travelled around her country with her guitar and a tape recorder compiling folk melodies and dances as well as deeply investigating the output of composers from the Mapuche tribe, their difficult history, subjugation and marginalization in Chile and Argentina. But her own compositions are not considered folk, she invented her own idiom. Apart from composing and researching she was also a fine artist and the first Latin American to exhibit at the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1964.
Violetta Parra’s song Gracias a la vida has been sung by singers from many countries. It is a hymn to life, a thank-you to all the beautiful gifts life can offer. We celebrate these gifts with her great lyrics on a simple melody. She lived intensely, and sadly took her own life, broken-hearted and in debt in 1967.
The case of Chabuca Granda is also very special, perhaps less academic, but nevertheless very creative. She is also a poet, a free spirit who was concerned with class and racial differences in her native, beloved, Peru. Her inspiration comes from the people and the land. Her poetry and music have resonated around the globe and have become part of Latin America’s popular culture. She dedicated the song La flor de la canela (The cinnamon flower), to her friend Victoria Angulo, a black domestic worker. She says that she discovered, and was inspired by, Conny Mendez from Venezuela who sang to her country and to nature. “At that time, in Peru, people mainly sang to broken hearts” she says. These are songs that never go out of fashion. The miracle of the popular song is that different countries perform it in their own way.”
Chabuca Granda had to break with the moulds of a strict society where her husband had the right to keep their children after the divorce, allegedly because she was a singer. However, her career really took off after the divorce. Also, she could make her recordings after her father’s death, who incidentally was an engineer in a mining area of Peru, Cotabambas, Apurimacv department where Chabuca was born in 1920. She revolutionised the typical Peruvian waltz introducing new subjects and creating metaphors with her lyrics. She also included in her compositions percussion and airs from Afro-Peruvian music. Some of her most famous songs are Lima de veras with which she won the National Waltz Prize, La flor de la Canela, Fina estampa, Gracia, José Antonio, and Zeñó Manué. Later in her career, she wrote songs dedicated to the Chilean Violeta Parra Cardo o ceniza and to Javier Heraud, a Peruvian poet and guerrillero, who was killed in 1963 by the Peruvian army. Maria Isabel Granda Larco, A.K.A. Chabuca Granda, died in Fort-Lauderdale, Florida, USA in 1983.
RP: That is truly fascinating. These musicians lived very full lives and were dedicated to their art, and sometimes against insuperable odds. Returning to the concert, you have created a balance by showing connections with some important male composers.
CR: We all need each other! My friend, composer Federico Ruiz, has made a beautiful arrangement and free variations on Gracias a la vida and of La flor de la canela and my husband, Jean-Luc Muller, has incorporated the electric bass lines. I was also happy to perform a solo piano version done by Leticia Tagle-Gómez of the great orchestral score, Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez and to have invited my son, Leonardo, to accompany and play with Nina and me.
RP: Can we look forward to more projects like this from you to help redress the balance?
CR: That would be lovely! I shall always interpret the music that I love and the composers that I feel close to my heart.
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