Ernesto Lecuona

Music, Cuba

Ernesto Lecuona Casado (1895-1963). Cuban composer, pianist and orchestra director, and considered one of the great figures of the Spanish American musical culture in the first half of the 20th century. He was born in Havana on Agost 7, 1896.

He carried out musical studies in Cuba, first under the tutorship of the renowned musician Joaquín Nin Castellanos, and later on with Cuban composer and pianist of Dutch origin Hubert de Blanck, at the Conservatorio Nacional (National conservatory) founded and directed by de Blanck. There, Lecuona finished his academic training with Gold Medal in 1913.

He developed a brief but intense stage as a pianist interpreting important composers of the international repertoire: Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Chopin, Gershwin, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Then he devoted, until the end of his days, to play his own creations in the field of songs and musical theater, and also the work of other Cuban authors.

His compositions for piano soloist are numerous and they are comprised in three main ideo-tematic and stylistic directions. The first inherits and develops, with new projections, the Cuban romantic piano tradition of the 20th century, expressed in his danzas cubanas (Cuban dances); some, in the style of precedent composers: La primera en la frente (The first in the forehead), A la antigua (The old fashion may), Ella y yo (She and I), La mulata (The mulattress), Al fin te vi… (I finally saw you…); others, without straying away from certain codes of the romantic dancing tradition, with more personal inspirations and freer elaboration of the musical material: No hables más (Speak no more), Ahí viene el chino (There comes the Chinese), Lola está de fiesta (Lola is having a party), En tres por cuatro (In three by four…) What Lecuona so-called Afro-Cuban dances are also composed here, in a renovating style, in a dramaturgically more complex and technically virtuous pianist style; with them he began, for the first time, using the Afro-Cuban term (later a concept of a musical aesthetics that worshipped the black-African roots of the national culture), and most important, to the conscious use of musical ideas, ways of expression and constructive forms in which an afroid (African like) style stood out, more for allegories and spirit than for procedures taken directly from folklore: La comparsa , ¡…y la negra bailaba! (… and the black woman danced!), Danza negra (Black dance) Danza lucumí (Lucumí dance), Danza de los ñáñigos (Dance of ñáñigos )... This tendency is also reflected in non-dancing works: Negra Macuta (Black Macuta), Rapsodia Negra (Black Rhapsody), or the symphonic poem Del manglar (From the mangrove swamp), the two latter for piano and orchestra.

The second direction comprises the Hispanic inspiration works, of great renown and dissemination for their originality, making and beauty, which have the merit of not being a copy or a poor imitation, but the sincere personal expression of the Spanish musicality, to the extent that some identify the regions inspiring them: the suite Andalucía (Suite Andalusia), composed of six pieces, one of which, La Malagueña (The Malaga woman), has countless versions, not only in Cuba and Spain, but in the whole world. This tendency also comprises Ante el Escorial (Before the Escorial), Granada, Zambra Gitana (Gipsy Zambra), San Francisco el Grande (San Francisco the Great). The works of the third tendency present a significant emphasis on features and structures of the later and modernist romantic piano style of Central European basis and cosmopolitan orientation, although with very singular and particular style and vision; his numerous concert waltzes and pieces belong to them: Preludio en la noche (Prelude in the night), Mazurka en glissado (Mazurka in glissado) and the suites Tres miniaturas (Three miniatures) and Diario de un niño (A boy's diary).

Within his wide musical spectrum, Lecuona composed many works with more popular making and style (many of them printed in pianola rolls or autopianos, as they were also called) both in Cuba (where he had his own printing company) and in the United States.

He was, together with Gonzalo Roig and Rodrigo Prats, one of the composers of the so-called golden era of the Cuban zarzuela. He composed, premiered and performed many works of this genre in international tours, in which he frequently was the musical director. Several Cubans and Spanish were the dramatic authors of them, although the most assiduous were his countrymen Gustavo Sánchez Galarraga (1892-1934) and Agustín Rodríguez (1893-1957). These musical and theatrical creations developed procedures coming from the scenic tradition of the Creole popular theater of the 19th century, and for their romantic spirit they showed special attraction for topics of Colonial Cuba; in this way we have El Cafetal (The Coffee plantation) and El Batey (1929); María la O (1930); Lola Cruz (1935); Cuando La Habana era inglesa (When Havana was English; 1942). He also developed themes of his time: Rosa la China (Rosa the Chinese; 1932); Julián, el Gallo (Julian, the rooster, 1934); La de Jesús María (Woman from Jesús María neighborhood, 1941); Mujeres (Women, 1946).

The third thematic direction in his productions is the so-called «fantastic», for the prevalence of the unbelievable: La tierra de Venus (The earth of Venus, 1927); La guaracha musulmana (The Muslim guaracha, 1923). He also produced musical magazines and other kinds of popular musical theater, and he developed a theatrical sense for the concerts, especially in the so-called Cuban Concerts, with a lot of success, where he presented and promoted numerous female singers and other interpreters. Also, in those concerts he played the piano and was accompanied by a symphonic format orchestra, created and directed by him and integrated by excellent instrumentalists, to which he called Orquesta de La Habana (Havana orchestra).

With his musical shows, Lecuona toured many countries in the Americas. Also in Spain, where the Montilla records label, in 1956, recorded three of his most celebrated operettas: María la O, Rosa la China, and El cafetal, with the choir and Chamber Orchestra of Madrid, and the orchestration and conduction of Cuban Félix Guerrero, in addition to the performance of prestigious Spanish singers. He also cultivated diverse genres of the popular song and the lied or concert song. Of the latter he left splendid samples in his cycles of songs with texts of Cuban poet José Martí and of Uruguayan Juana de Ibarbourou, among many others from the Island and the Spanish- American environment. His many songs were taken to the stage or recorded by famous Cuban singers, from his contemporary Rita Montaner, Esther Borja, Iris Burguet, Miguel de Grandy, the later Ramón Calzadilla, Alina Sánchez, Linda Mirabal, to the newest generations of lyrical singers in the country. Likewise, Mexican José Mojica and the Spanish Conchita Bañuls, Tomás Álvarez and Placido Domingo have interpreted them.

Lecuona´s Iberian-American vocation stands out in his topics of all kinds, where, besides the Cuban genres, waltzes the Creole way, tangos, tamboritos, zambo and other genres, and his pieces have integrated the repertoire of all great Cuban pianists in the 20th century and of those from Spain, Italy, the United States, Japan and Latin America.

He took his best known works to several Cuban films and from other countries, he wrote music for other films and in some he participated playing the piano. Outstanding are: Adiós Buenos Aires (Goodbye Buenos Aires, 1936); Sucedió en La Habana (it Happened in Havana) and Romance del palmar (Romance at the palm grove) of 1938; Una aventura peligrosa (A dangerous adventure), Cancionero cubano (Cuban song book), Siboney, La última melodía (The last melody) of 1939; and María la O (1947), made in Spanish America. The Hollywood cinematography was also prodigal with his music, and after his death, big masters of world cinema have taken it for their productions. Such is the case of Amarcord, by Federico Fellini (1973), where the recurrent appearance of Canto Siboney (Siboney chant), in diverse versions, acquires a dramaturgic protagonism.

The first and only catalog of his works, compiled and published to celebrate the composer's centennial in 1995, offers the following data: one hundred and thirty genres, kinds and musical forms which totalize eight hundred and eighty five works, of which five hundred and two are vocal, one hundred and fifty six for piano, eighty one for the stage, ninety seven for orchestra, three for camera music, one for sound track and eleven for cinema.

The picture of genres and kinds cultivated by Lecuona were extremely heterogeneous, as well as the diversity of terms, sometimes capricious, he used to designate them. Among the Cuban genres dance prevailed, for which he wrote sixty three pieces; but mainly the song, with a production of almost two hundred titles, besides other genres in pure state or distorted: forty boleros, twelve congas, ten guarachas; rumbas, habaneras, calls, Creole songs… His works have been subdivided in: • Scenic: opera, zarzuela, ballet, operetta, comedy, revue, sketch. • For orchestra alone and in diverse combinations with voices and instrument soloists. • For instrumental ensemble in diverse combinations. • For band. • For voice with instrument. • For piano. • Incidental music for cinema.

He died in 1963 in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where he had traveled to know his father's land.