18th/19th centuries

Among internationally heralded composers of the “serious” genre can be counted the Baroque composer Esteban Salas y Castro (1725–1803), who spent much of his life teaching and writing music for the Church.[5] He was followed in the Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba by the priest Juan París (1759–1845). París was an exceptionally industrious man, and an important composer. He encouraged continuous and diverse musical events.[6]p181 Aside from rural music and Afro-Cuban folk music, the most popular kind of urban creole dance music in the 19th century was the contradanza, which commenced as a local form of the English country dance and the derivative French contredanse and Spanish contradanza. While many contradanzas were written for dance, from the mid-century several were written as light-classical parlor pieces for piano. The first distinguished composer in this style was Manuel Saumell (1818–1870), who is sometimes accordingly hailed as the father of Cuban creole musical development. In the hands of his successor, Ignacio Cervantes (1847–1905), the danza (as it was more typically called in the latter 1800s), achieved even greater sophistication as a piano idiom.

“After Saumell’s visionary work, all that was left to do was to develop his innovations, all of which profoundly influenced the history of Cuban nationalist musical movements.” Helio Orovio  Cervantes was called by Aaron Copland a “Cuban Chopin” because of his Chopinesque piano compositions. Cervantes’ reputation today rests almost solely upon his famous forty-one Danzas Cubanas, which Carpentier said, “…occupy the place that the Norwegian Dances of Grieg or the Slavic Dances of Dvořák occupy in the musics of their respective countries”. Cervantes’ never-finished opera, Maledetto, is forgotten.[6]

In the 1840s, the habanera emerged as a languid vocal song using the contradanza rhythm. (Non-Cubans sometimes called Cuban contradanzas “habaneras.”) The habanera went on to become popular in Spain and elsewhere. The Cuban contradanza/danza was also an important influence on the Puerto Rican danza, which went on to enjoy its own dynamic and distinctive career lasting through the 1930s. In Cuba, in the 1880s the contradanza/danza gave birth to the danzón, which effectively superseded it in popularity.[8]

Laureano Fuentes (1825–1898) came from a family of musicians and wrote the first opera to be composed on the island, La hija de Jéfe (the Chief’s daughter). This was later lengthened and staged under the title Seila. His numerous works spanned all genres. Gaspar Villate (1851–1891) produced abundant and wide-ranging work, all centered on opera.[6]p239 José White (1836–1918), a mulatto of a Spanish father and an Afrocuban mother, was a composer and a violinist of international merit. He learnt to play sixteen instruments, and lived, variously, in Cuba, Latin America and Paris. His most famous work is La bella cubana, a habanera.

During the middle years of the 19th century, a young American musician came to Havana: Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–1869), whose father was a Jewish businessman from London, and his mother a white creole of French Catholic background. Gottschalk was brought up mostly by his black grandmother and nurse Sally, both from Dominique. He was a piano prodigy who had listened to the music and seen the dancing in Congo Square, New Orleans from childhood. His period in Cuba lasted from 1853 to 1862, with visits to Puerto Rico and Martinique squeezed in. He composed many creollized pieces, such as the habanera Bamboula (Danse de negres) (1844/5), the title referring to a bass Afro-Caribbean drum; El cocoye (1853), a version of a rhythmic melody already present in Cuba; the contradanza Ojos criollos (Danse cubaine) (1859) and a version of María de la O, which refers to a Cuban mulatto singer. These numbers made use of typical Cuban rhythmic patterns. At one of his farewell concerts he played his Adiós a Cuba to huge applause and shouts of ‘bravo!’ Unfortunately his score for the work has not survived.[10] In February 1860 Gottschalk produced a huge work La nuit des tropiques in Havana. The work used about 250 musicians and a choir of 200 singers plus la tumba francesa group from Santiago de Cuba. He produced another huge concert the following year, with new material. These shows probably dwarfed anything seen in the island before or since, and no doubt were unforgettable for those who attended.

20th century classical and art music

“Amadeo Roldán (1900–1939) and Alejandro García Caturla (1906–1940) were Cuba’s symphonic revolutionaries though their music is rarely played today”. They both played a part in Afrocubanismo: the movement in black-themed Cuban culture with origins in the 1920s, and extensively analysed by Fernando Ortiz. Roldan, born in Paris to a Cuban mulatta and a Spanish father, came to Cuba in 1919 and became the concert-master (first-chair violin) of the new Orquesta Sinfonica de La Habana in 1922. There he met Caturla, at sixteen a second violin. Roldan’s compositions included Overture on Cuban themes (1925), and two ballets: La Rebambaramba (1928) and El milagro de Anaquille (1929). There followed a series of Ritmicas and Poema negra (1930) and Tres toques (march, rites, dance) (1931). In Motivos de son (1934) he wrote eight pieces for voice and instruments based on the poet Nicolás Guillén’s set of poems with the same title. His last composition was two Piezas infantiles for piano (1937). Roldan died young, at 38, of a disfiguring facial cancer (he had been an inveterate smoker).

After his student days, Caturla lived all his life in the small central town of Remedios, where he became a lawyer to support his growing family. He had relationships with a number of black women and fathered eleven children by them, which he adopted and supported. His Tres danzas cubanas for symphony orchestra was first performed in Spain in 1929. Bembe was premiered in Havana the same year. His Obertura cubana won first prize in a national contest in 1938. Caturla was a fine man, and an example of a universal musician, happily combining classical and folkloric themes with modern musical ideas. He was murdered at 34 by a young gambler who was due to be sentenced only hours later.

Gonzalo Roig (1890–1970), was a major force in the first half of the century. A composer and orchestral director, he qualified in piano, violin and composition theory. In 1922 he was one of the founders of the National Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted. In 1927 he was appointed Director of the Havana School of Music. As a composer he specialized in the zarzuela, a musical theatre form, very popular up to World War II. In 1931 he co-founded a Bufo company (comic theatre) at the Marti Theatre in Havana. He was the composer of the most well-known Cuban zarzuela, Cecilia Valdés, based on the famous 19th century novel about a Cuban mulata. It was premiered in 1932. He founded various organizations and wrote frequently on musical topics.

One of the greatest Cuban pianist/composers of the 20th century was Ernesto Lecuona (1895–1963). Lecuona composed over six hundred pieces, mostly in the Cuban vein, and was a pianist of exceptional quality. He was a prolific composer of songs and music for stage and film. His works consisted of zarzuela, Afro-Cuban and Cuban rhythms, suites and many songs that became latin standards. They include Siboney, Malagueña and The Breeze And I (Andalucía). In 1942 his great hit Always in my heart (Siempre en mi Corazon) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song; it lost out to White Christmas. The Ernesto Lecuona Symphonic Orchestra performed the premiere of Lecuona’s Black Rhapsody in the Cuban Liberation Day Concert at Carnegie Hall on 10 October 1943.

Although, in Cuba, many composers have written both classical and popular creole types of music, the distinction became clearer after 1960, when (at least initially) the regime frowned on popular music and closed most of the night-club venues, whilst providing financial support for classical music rather than creole forms. From then on most musicians have kept their careers on one side of the invisible line or the other. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, a new crop of classical musicians came onto the scene. The most important of these is guitarist Leo Brouwer, who made significant innovations in classical guitar, and is currently the director of the Havana Symphonic Orchestra. His directorship in the early 1970s of the Cuban Institute of Instrumental and Cinematographic Arts (ICAIC) was instrumental in the formation and consolidation of the nueva trova movement. Manuel Barrueco is also a classical guitarist of international renown. Ernesto Tamayo, a former student of Leo Brouwer, performs internationally.

Cuban-born classical pianists include many who have recorded with the world’s greatest symphonies, including Jorge Bolet (friend of Rachmaninoff and Liszt specialist), Horacio Gutiérrez (former Tchaikovsky Competition silver medalist), and prize-winning pianist and owner of the “Elan” classical CD company, Santiago Rodriguez, a Russian-music specialist. Cuban-born classical pianist Zeyda Ruga Suzuki has been recorded on labels in Japan and Canada.