Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cuban Art Music/Composers

Cuban art music, straightforwardly enough, is music from the island of Cuba that is “classical” and was not written for commercial purposes. Throughout the course of this blog, I will provide a timeline for the nation of Cuba that includes the important dates in the nation’s history, including significant musical events, as well as the life spans of the important art musicians (biographies and discographies will follow).

Cuban/Cuban Art Music Timeline

1492 - Christopher Columbus “discovers” Cuba and claims the land for Spain.

1513 – The first of many African slaves are known to be present in Cuba. This is significant because the slaves have a major influence on Cuban music for many years to come. (

1570’s - "Son de la Má Teodora," the oldest known Cuban Son (The most popular Cuban music and dance style of the 20th century. It is the oldest national form and is the precursor to Salsa), is composed. (

1762 - Britain invades Havana and occupies it for ten straight months. During this time British instruments, to include pianos, clavichords, flutes, and string instruments which have an influence on shaping Cuban art music.

1780’s – Large influx of African slaves, who bring their music traditions with them.

1791 – Haitian Revolution leads to an influx of African-Haitian immigrants.

1803 - "San Pasqual Bailón," the earliest surviving contradanza appears in Cuba.

1810’s – Importation of over 100,000 African slaves.

1836 – The earliest published Habanera (The musical descendant of the contradanza, the habanera or contradanza habanera (Havana-style contradanza), the habanera's distinguishing musical feature is its short, repeating 2/4 rhythmic figure in the bass line). The title is "La Pimienta". (

1870’s – Rumba and Danzon become popular in Havana.

1888 – Cuba outlaws slavery.

1890 – Gonzalo Roig (d.1970)

1896 – Ernesto Lecuona (d.1963)

1900 – Amadeo Roldan (d. 1939)

1906 - Alejandro Garcia Caturla (d. 1940)

1920 – Son style of music becomes popular in Havana.

1925 - Julian Orbon (d.1991)

1953 – Chachacha rises to popularity in Cuba.

1959 – Fidel Castro takes control of Cuba.

1970’s – Nueva Trova and Songo become popular in Cuba.

Gonzalo Roig was born on July 20, 1890 and lived until June 13, 1970. A pivotal figure for the founding of many Cuban orchestras, he began his musical career studying at the Havana Conservatory where he played the piano and took music theory. He co-founded the Symphony Orchestra of Havana and also served as its music director and in 1927 he was appointed director of the Municipal Music Band of Havana, fulfilling the role until his death. In 1929 he founded the Orchestra of Ignacio Cervantes, and he was instrumental in creating the National Theater in 1931. He went on, in 1938, to establish the National Opera in Havana. Further, he would found the Society of Cuban Authors, the National Federation of Authors of Cuba, the National Union of Authors of Cuba and the National Society of Authors of Cuba.


The author was unable to locate a discography for this composer, but it was clear that his two most famous works were as follows:

Cecilia Valdes


Ernesto Lecuona was born August 7, 1896 and died November 29, 1963. He was an excellent pianist and who wrote his first song at the age of eleven. Lecuona was first taught by his sister and went on to be formally trained at the National Conservatory in Havana (he would also study under the well-known Joaquín Nin). Upon completion of his studies, he graduated with a gold medal for interpretation. He was the band leader of the popular Lecuona’s Cuban Boys that traveled all over the globe. He moved to New York and wrote music for film and theater and was nominated in 1942 for an Oscar for best song. Dismayed by the way Castro was running the country, Lecuona left Cuba for good in 1960, settling in Florida until his death.


He wrote between four and six hundred pieces of music, making a complete discography beyond the scope of this blog. Please see the following link for the most comprehensible list of his works located by the author:

Amadeo Roldán Though born in Paris, he is undeniably a Cuban composer, emigrating there in 1919 after having studied at the Madrid Conservatory (which he had graduated in 1916). He was concert-master of the newly formed Orquesta Sinfonica de La Habana, in 1922, then moving on to be concert-master of the Orquesta Filarmonica of Havana in the mid-1920’s. Also as part of his short career, he founded the Havana String Quartet. He was known as being a pioneer in the afrocubanismo movement that incorporated afro-Cuban percussion instruments into classical Cuban music. Roldán was professor of composition at the Havana Municipal Conservatory and its director from 1935 until his death (it went on to be renamed in his honor after the Castro revolution). Roldán died of facial cancer at the peak of his career. He was 38.


Please refer to the following link to view the most comprehensive list of works the author was able to locate. (

Alejandro Garcia Caturla began his musical trainings at the age of eight when he learned how to play the violin and the piano. He continued his musical studies in Havana under the instruction of Pedro Sanjuán for composition and Arturo Bovi for his vocals from 1926-1927. He also trained with Boulanger in Paris for the greater part of 1926. Interestingly, he also studied law in Havana from 1924-1927. In 1932, he founded the Caibarien Concert Society, an orchestra he would conduct on many occasions. His “Obertura cubana” also won first prize in a Cuban national contest in 1938. Caturla was murdered at the age of 34 while he was a practicing attorney.

The author was unable to locate a reproducible and comprehensible discography. Please click on the following link to reference a partial works list for this composer.

Julian Orbon, though born in Spain, was an accomplished Cuban composer and essayist. He began his musical studies in 1935 at the Conservatory of Oviedo (Spain), which he continued upon moving to Havana, where he studied under José Ardévol while beginning to compose. In 1946 he came to the United States to study with the renowned American composer Aaron Copeland at the Tanglewood Musical Festival, in western Massachusetts. He returned to Cuba to lead the Orbon Conservatory until 1960 which had been founded by his father. He would later return to the United States to be a university professor. He received two Guggenheim fellowships (1959, 1969) and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1967).


  • Sonata Homenaje al Padre Soler
  • Prelude and Dance, for solo guitar (1950)
  • Canción para nuestro niño
  • Romance de Fontefrida
  • Capricho Concertante
  • El Pregón
  • Clarinet Quintet
  • Symphony in C (1945)
  • String Quartet (1951)
  • Three Symphonic Versions (1954)
  • Himnus ad Galli Cantum (1956)
  • Symphonic Dances (1957)
  • Concerto Grosso (1958)
  • Tres Cantigas del Rey (1960)
  • Monte Gelboé, Cantata(1962)
  • Partitas 1, 2 and 3 (1963)
  • Fantasía Tiento
  • Liturgia en tres días
  • Homenaje a la Tonadilla

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