THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF
GLORIA CASTIEL JACOBSON
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN
PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS
FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Gloria Castiel Jacobson
A MIS QUERIDOS PADRES
BELINA Y ALBERTO
CON TODO MI AMOR
This work has become reality only through the cooperation of a
group of people sincerely dedicated to the goal of preserving the
memory and music of Ernesto Lecuona.
I should like to extend my warmest thanks to Roberto Rodriguez,
Lecuona's impresario, for providing me with photographs, newspaper
articles, mementos, and vital information on the composer; Miguel de
Grandy, Octavio Alvarez, Ernesto Garcia, Rolando Lluis, Josefina
LeCerff, and Ernesto Grenet, all of whom knew or worked with Lecuona,
for the time they dedicated to my interviews and for their contagious
enthusiasm; Aurelio and Graciela Fox for lending me much of Lecuona's
music from their private record collection; John Sperry for his time and
for providing me with Lecuona's will and biographical notes; and Edward
B. Marks Music Corporation for their continuous help in locating and
providing me with numerous pieces of sheet music and for extending
To Dr. David Z. Kushner, professor and friend, I offer my heartfelt
appreciation for his interest, encouragement, advice, and inspiration
throughout this entire project. To Dr. Gordon Lawrence and Dr. Phillip
Kniseley I am grateful for their valuable contributions to the success of
And an especially warm thank you goes to the person who encouraged,
advised, and helped me with every aspect of this paper, my editor,
typist, and counselor: my wonderful husband, Ed.
The following compositions are the copyright of Edward B. Marks
Music Corporation. The measures or text cited are used by permission:
Por eso te quiero, 4-20
Noche azul, 3-18
Lamento africano, 6-22
Aquella tarde, 1-20
La comparsa, 1-19, 52-61
Danza Lucumi, 91-102
Danza de los Safigos, 77-100, 41-55
Y la negra bailaba, 55-69
Danza negra, 55-68, 1-10
Conga de medianoche, 37-45, 1-5, 98-110
&Por qu6 te vas?, 5-11
En tres por cuatro, 1-9, 21-26
Ahi viene el chino, 1-10, 27-38, 88-90
A la antigua, 1-8
Ante el Escorial, 1-8, 33, 34-41
San Francisco el grande, 1-10, 37-56
Malaguefa, 1-9, 28-35, 59-70, 87-90, 125-141
Andalucia, 1-11, 105-112
Gitanerias, 1-8, 72-88
Alhambra, 32-55, 85-99
Rapsodia negra, 161, 162-168, 270-283
Vals romantic, 33-49
La habanera, 1-8
Niia Rita: Damisela encantadora, 39-54
El cafetal: Lamento africano, 7-20, 81-95
El cafetal: Lamento africano, entire text
Maria la 0, 1-11, 21-37
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS . . . . . . . . .. . . . iv
LIST OF FIGURES. . . . . . . . . ... . . . .viii
ABSTRACT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . x
CHAPTER I--INTRODUCTION. . . . . . . . . . . 1
Purpose of the Study 1
Organization of the Study 1
Tasks of the Study 2
The Need for the Study 2
Background of Art Music in Cuba 5
The Research Procedure 7
Limitations of the Study 9
CHAPTER II--REVIEW OF THE RELATED LITERATURE . . . . .. 10
CHAPTER III--THE LIFE AND CAREER OF ERNESTO LECUONA. . . .. .15
Family Background 151
Early Years: Musical Studies and Achievements 16V/
Early Works for the Theater and International Successes 181
Trip to Paris: Friendship with Lortat, Orloff, and Ravel 19
Tours of Central America and a Hollywood Experience 20
1933: Formation of "Lecuona's Cuban Boys" 21
and Threats to Lecuona's Health
The Years 1935-1942 22
Lecuona as Cultural Attach6 to the Cuban Embassy 22"
Concerts in the Pan American Union and Carnegie Hall 23
Carnival in Costa Rica 23
The Last Ten Years -- 1953-1963 24
Physical Appearance and Personality 24
Friends and Friendships 27-
Always a Cuban 27-
Lecuona the Musician 28"
Fans, Friends, and Honors 29L/
CHAPTER IV--SONGS.. . . . . . . . . . . .
Characteristics of Songs
Types of Songs
CHAPTER V--PIANO MUSIC . . . . . . . . . . .
Andalucia -- Suite Espagnole
Estampas Infantiles ("Diary of a Child")
CHAPTER VI--ZARZUELAS . . . . . . . . . .
The Zarzuelas of Ernesto Lecuona
CHAPTER VII--CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS . . . . .
GLOSSARY . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
APPENDIX A--LIST OF MUSICAL WORKS OF ERNESTO LECUONA . . .
APPENDIX B--MEMORABILIA . . . . . . . . . .
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . .
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . . . . . . . . .
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1 Lecuona, "Por eso te quiero," Measures 4-20 37
Figure 2 Lecuona, "Aguinaldos blancos," Measures 1-16 38
Figure 3 Lecuona, "Aguinaldos blancos," Measures 45-48 39
Figure 4 Lecuona, "Aguinaldos blancos," Measures 81-87 40
Figure 5 Lecuona, "Noche azul," Measures 3-18 41
Figure 6 Lecuona, "Lamento africano," Measures 6-21 42
Figure 7 Lecuona, "En noches de luna," Measures 1-10 43
Figure 8 Lecuona, "Canci6n del amor triste," Measures 60-70 44
Figure 9 Lecuona, "Canci6n del amor triste," Measures 84-90 45
Figure 10 Lecuona, "Balada de amor," Measures 16-31 46
Figure 11 Lecuona, "Aguinaldos blancos," Measures 1-17 48
Figure 12 Lecuona, "Por un beso de tu boca," Measures 1-21 50
Figure 13 Lecuona, "Se fu6," Measures 1-17 51
Figure 14 Lecuona, "Como arruyo de palmas," Measures 20-37 52
Figure 15 Lecuona, "Bajo el claro de la luna," Measures 7-19 54
Figure 16 Lecuona, "Aquella tarde," Measures 1-20 55
Figure 17 Lecuona, "El frutero," Measures 17-32 59
Figure 18 Lecuona, "El frutero," Measures 4-16 60
Figure 19 Lecuona, "La comparsa," Measures 1-19 70
Figure 20 Lecuona, "La comparsa," Measures 52-61 71
Figure 21 Lecuona, "Danza Lucumi." Measures 91-102 73
Figure 22 Lecuona, "Danza de los Naiigos," Measures 77-100 74
Figure 23 Lecuona, "Danza de los Naiigos," Measures 41-55 75
Figure 24 Lecuona, "Y la negra bailaba," Measures 55-69 76
Figure 25 Lecuona, "Danza negra," Measures 55-68 78
Figure 26 Lecuona, "Danza negra," Measures 1-10 79
Figure 27 Lecuona, "Conga de medianoche," Measures 37-45 81
Figure 28 Lecuona, "Conga de medianoche," Measures 1-6 82
Figure 29 Lecuona, "Conga de medianoche," Measures 98-110 83
Figure 30 Lecuona, "jPor que te vas?" Measures 5-11 85
Figure 31 Lecuona, "En tres por cuatro," Measures 1-9 86
Figure 32 Lecuona, "En tres por cuatro," Measures 21-26 87
Figure 33 Lecuona, "Ahi viene el chino," Measures 1-10 88
Figure 34 Lecuona, "Ahi viene el chino," Measures 27-38 89
Figure 35 Lecuona, "Ahi viene el chino," Measures 88-90 91
Figure 36 Lecuona, "A la antigua," Measures 1-8 92
Figure 37 Lecuona, "Ante el Escorial," Measures 1-8 93
Figure 38 Lecuona, "Ante el Escorial," Measure 33 95
Figure 39 Lecuona, "Ante el Escorial," Measures 34-41 96
Figure 40 Lecuona, "San Francisco el grande," Measures 1-10 97
Figure 41 Lecuona, "San Francisco el grande," Measures 37-56 98
Figure 42 Lecuona "Malaguefa," Measures 1-9 101
Figure 43 Lecuona "Malaguefa," Measures 28-35 102
Figure 44 Lecuona "Malaguefa," Measures 58-70 104
Figure 45 Lecuona "Malaguefa," Measures 87-90 105
Figure 46 Lecuona "Malagueia," Measures 125-141 106
Figure 47 Lecuona "Andalucia," Measures 1-11 108
Figure 48 Lecuona "Andalucia," Measures 105-112 109
Figure 49 Lecuona "Gitanerias," Measures 1-8 110
Figure 50 Lecuona "Gitanerias," Measures 72-88 111
Figure 51 Lecuona "Alhambra," Measures 32-55 112
Figure 52 Lecuona "Alhambra," Measures 85-99 114
Figure 53 Lecuona, "El baile de la muneca, "Measures 1-8 115
Figure 54 Lecuona, "Carousel,"Measures 1-8 116
Figure 55 Lecuona, "Rapsodia negra," Measures 161 118
Figure 56 Lecuona, "Rapsodia negra," Measures 162-168 120
Figure 57 Lecuona, "Rapsodia Negra," Measures 270-283 121
Figure 58 Lecuona, "Vals romantico," Measures 33-49 122
Figure 59 Lecuona, "La habanera" Measures 1-8 124
Figure 60 Lecuona, "Damisela encantadora," Measures 39-56 133
Figure 61 Lecuona, "Lamento africano," Measures 6-20 135
Figure 62 Lecuona, "Lamento africano," Measures 81-95 137
Figure 63 Lecuona, "Maria la O," Measures 1-11 142
Figure 64 Lecuona, "Maria la O," Measures 21-37 143
Figure 65 Lecuona, "Lola Cruz," Measures 18-34 147
Figure 66. Last Will and Testament of Ernesto Lecuona 173
Figure 67. Lecuona at the Piano 178
Figure 68. Lecuona and Impresario Roberto Rodriguez 179
Figure 69. Lecuona on the podium 180
Figure 70. Members of the Orquesta Sinf6nica de Lima, Directed by 181
Figure 71. Lecuona's First Concert at the Teatro Municipal 182
de Lima, Peru; December 4, 1934.
Director: Ernesto Lecuona,
Pianist: Ernestina Lecuona, Soloist: Esther Borja
Figure 72. Lecuona Conducting 183
Figure 73. Lecuona the Pianist 184
Figure 74. Autographed Portrait of Ernesto Lecuona 185
to Roberto Rodriguez
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
THE LIFE AND MUSIC
OF ERNESTO LECUONA
Gloria Castiel Jacobson
Chairman: Dr. Gordon Lawrence
Major Department: Music/Curriculum and Instruction
Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), Cuban composer-pianist, achieved
worldwide recognition during his lifetime. There is, however, very
little information available on him. Nothing of consequence has been
written either in Spanish or in English on the influential composer;
sheet music is difficult to locate, and very few recordings are
available for study.
This paper examines both the personal and professional life of
Ernesto Lecuona as well as representative works chosen from his vast
output. These have been primarily selected from the composer's songs,
piano music and zarzuelas.
Data for the study have been gathered from a variety of sources,
including interviews with significant persons in Lecuona's life and
career, music publishers and foreign and domestic libraries.
Findings show that Lecuona was a prolific composer of music in a
great variety of media. His works appealed to everyone, from the
sophisticated musician to the layman. Many of his works became
international hits, such as "Malagueia," "Andalucia," "Always in My
Heart," and "Siboney." As pianist and performer of his own works, he
appeared in almost every major theater both in Cuba and abroad,
including Central and South America, the United States, and Europe.
The one factor, above all others, which won his music such wide
acceptance was the composer's use of Spanish and Afro-Cuban forms and
rhythms in almost every one of his works.
Lecuona's influence was not confined to music. He made statements,
through his zarzuelas, on the lifestyle and socio-political conditions
of Cuba; he was also influential in bringing recognition to a multitude
of artists. Most importantly, Lecuona inspired young composers by
demonstrating how fertile the field of Afro-Cubanism was, both in Cuba
Lecuona, in summary, was a musician in his own right. He was also
influential on Cuban society, music, and musicians. His music needs to
be performed, recorded, and analyzed, and his contributions to Cuban and
Latin American music included in all major music history texts.
Purpose of the Study
It is the purpose of this study to examine the life and music of
the Cuban-born composer-pianist Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), and to
provide a list, as complete as possible, of the composer's works.
The report traces Lecuona's life from birth, covering his early musical
training, family life, education, musical career, travels, and life-
style, as well as his personal and professional relationships.
The composer's output in the different musical genres is analyzed
in light of representative works selected for study. The report
investigates Lecuona's musical style, the influences upon it, and his
contribution to the music of Cuba. The list of his works identifies the
majority of Lecuona's output. Some of the works are published and
available; others are available but out of print; the rest are not
available, never having been published.
Organization of the Study
The study is documented in seven chapters, a glossary, and two
appendices. Chapter I contains introductory material: the purpose of
the study, tasks of the study, need for the study, historical back-
ground, research procedure, and limitations. Chapter II is a review of
the related literature. Chapter III deals with the life and musical
career of Ernesto Lecuona. Chapters IV and V are devoted to an analysis
of the composer's songs and piano music, respectively. The zarzuelas
are discussed in Chapter VI. The conclusions and recommendations are
found in the final chapter, VII. Appendix A contains the relatively
complete listing of Lecuona's works. Spanish terms used in the research
are explained in the Glossary. Appendix B contains memorabilia of
Lecuona, including photographs and his will.
Tasks of the Study
1. To determine the musical influences which played a role in the
formation of Lecuona's musical style through study of repre-
2. To study the composer's life and to identify the personal,
social, and political influences upon his work.
3. To locate, acquire, and list as much of Lecuona's musical
output as possible.
4. To assess the contribution of Ernesto Lecuona to the music of
5. To identify the importance of the study of Lecuona's music
outside Latin American countries.
6. To evaluate the need for the performance of Lecuona's music by
music students and professional musicians.
The Need for the Study
Ernesto Lecuona is credited with writing no fewer than 3,500 compo-
sitions (Sperry, 1981). He was a pianist and composer known worldwide,
who indefatigably toured Latin America, Europe, and the United States.
Many of his pieces became best-sellers outside the island of Cuba. His
works were arranged for most combinations of instruments and performed
by major pianists and orchestras all over the world, particularly in the
United States and Latin America.
But that was during the height of his career. It was a time when
Cuba, free and independent, prided itself on its national talents,
encouraged the import and export of musicians, and was eager to be
recognized abroad. With the advent of the new political regime in 1959,
music experienced a regression.
Today, among the Spanish-speaking community in the United States,
the name and memory of Ernesto Lecuona is clear and vivid. But time has
also taken its toll. With Lecuona and many of his contemporaries now
dead, the music of "Cuba's No. 1 Composer" (Sargeant, 1947) seems to be
suffering the same fate.
The unfortunate situation may be attributed to several factors. Of
greatest importance is the obvious difficulty in locating much of the
composer's music. Although some of it is published and readily
available, a major portion has remained in Cuba and its libraries.
Attempts of this author to establish communication with the National
Library in Havana, where many of his works are suspected to be, have
been unsuccessful. It appears that the Cuban government is not as yet
ready to cooperate. Some music remains in the hands of zealous exiled
colleagues who refuse to give it up or permit it to be reproduced for
study. Still other works, unpublished, are in the possession of rela-
Of almost equal importance is the fact that no one, in exile, has
had or taken the time to write on Lecuona. In the most recent book on
Cuban music, written by Crist6bal Diaz Ayala, the author makes the sad
statement that "...of Lecuona there is no biography, not even a cata-
loguing of his output" (Ayala, 1981, p. 305). This is the case even
though Lecuona's name is a household word among Spanish-speaking
musicians and laymen. Memory is failing among Lecuona's closest
surviving friends, and details of his life and works are
becoming less and less distinct. If not documented soon, Lecuona's
life and music will remain a secret to future generations.
Outside Spanish-speaking circles, there is a much greater lack
of knowledge concerning Lecuona. Reference sources give the composer a
few lines, compared to their otherwise lengthy entries. This is indeed
unfortunate, considering the impact Lecuona had on the music of
Cuba. Textbooks on music history and, more importantly, Latin American
music, have virtually nothing on Lecuona or his works, for example, the
most recent book on Latin American music, entitled Music in Latin
America, by Gerard Behague (1979).
Important to the telling of Lecuona's story are a few exiled compa-
triots now residing in Miami, Florida. They include several remaining
members of his family, close friends, and a considerable number of
musicians and colleagues. Some of these people are well advanced in
years, and their stories need to be heard.
Cuba has not had an abundance of composers to represent it inter-
nationally. Lecuona was one of those musicians who did, and a study of
his life and music has been needed to improve our otherwise minimal
knowledge of the rich musical heritage of the Island.
To summarize, this study serves the following purposes:
1. It is a comprehensive source of information on the music of
Cuba and its character.
2. It sheds light on the music of the once internationally-
acclaimed pianist and composer.
3. It helps to close the gap now evident in textbooks dealing
with Latin American music.
4. It puts onto paper Lecuona's life story, which up to now has
been plagued by inaccuracies and confusion.
5. It identifies new music for both American and Latin American
musicologists to study and explore.
6. It provides pianists new literature for their repertoires.
7. When translated into Spanish, it will be a valuable source of
information to Spanish-speaking musicians and laymen.
Background of Art Music in Cuba
Art music in Cuba may be traced back to the eighteenth century.
This is a rather late start, as compared to the vast amount of art music
already found in Europe at the time. Nonetheless, researchers have been
unable to provide documentation for any previous significant musical
activity in the Island.
It is with Esteban Salas (1725-1803), notable composer of religious
and secular music, that we begin tracing the line of composers of
serious music in Cuba. Antonio Raffelin (1796-1882) and Juan Paris
(1759-1845), the classical-style composers, succeeded Salas. Manuel
Saumell (1817-1870) and his contradanzas for piano represented musical
nationalism, and began an important tradition in Cuban art music -- the
stylization of folk music. The trend was continued and perfected by
Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905), undoubtedly one of the finest musicians
of his time. Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), the subject of this study,
provided the link between them and the twentieth-century nationalistic
composers, Amadeo Roldin (1900-1939) and Alejandro Garcia Caturla
(1906-1940), who cultivated Afro-Cubanism in art music. Jos6 Ardevol
(1911-) became a leader of modern music in Cuba, as well as an out-
standing teacher. Best known outside the Island are Julian Orb6n
(1925-) and Aurelio de la Vega (1925-). Juin Blanco (1920-) and Leo
Brower (1939-) have worked in the realm of electronic and serial music.
None of the composers, however, attained the popularity and
international renown of Ernesto Lecuona or had more impact upon Cuban
music. Affectionately referred to as "el maestro," Lecuona's popu-
larity rests, principally, on the wide appeal of his works. Often
called the Victor Herbert of Cuba, he engaged the love and respect of
the sophisticated musician and of the simple layman. He was a serious
composer of popular music and a popular composer of serious music; he
catered to all with his fertile imagination. Absorbing the influences
of both Spanish and Cuban folk music, Lecuona's output carries a stamp
uniquely his own.
Lecuona's works are well known in Latin American countries and are
occasionally performed in the United States. But it is within the Cuban
community that el maestro's music and memory are daily honored. He
is, among the exiled Cuban population, more than a well-known composer.
He is a household name, an admired musician, a loved human being. His
works are performed in almost every musical event, and his compositions
are a standard component of pianists' repertoire. Every year on the
anniversary of his death, a recital is staged in his memory, when
musicians and singers from the old times get together to remember their
friend and colleague by performing his music. The admiration for
Lecuona in Miami's Little Havana has culminated in the construction of
an impressive monument in his honor, bearing a sculpture of the maestro
at the piano, Cuba's national seal, and the inscription, "Ernesto
Lecuona--Cuba's world-renowned composer and pianist. Died in Exile.
The maestro is loved not only for what he was, but for what he
represents: the Cuba of old, sugar cane and palm trees, song and sea.
The Afro-Cuban rhythms and folk-like melodies in his music are a
constant reminder to the exiled Cuban of his cherished homeland and what
it once was.
The Research Procedure
The necessary materials for this research were gathered from three
principal sources: significant persons in Lecuona's life and career,
music publishers, and both foreign and domestic libraries.
Actors and singers who worked with or for Lecuona, musicians, and
friends of the maestro, as well as remaining family members provided a
variety of documentation pertaining to Lecuona's life and career. The
material included photographs, programs of old concerts, articles that
appeared in Cuban newspapers during the height of Lecuona's career,
pamphlets and sheet music which had been saved throughout the years, and
many other pieces of memorabilia. Most important, however, was their
eagerness to relate information they were able to recall about the
composer, filled with their personal outlooks, anecdotes, and that love
and admiration which runs through all of them as an underground current.
Those interviewed are named in the following list:
o Roberto Rodriguez, impresario for the Teatro Marti in Miami
and Lecuona's agent in Cuba
o Miguel de Grandy, producer of Lecuona's zarzuelas in Miami and
formerly a tenor, actor, and director
o Rolando Lluis, violinist who played under Lecuona
o Octavio Alvarez, actor
o Pedro Roman, creator of the park and monument in Lecuona's
o Ernesto Garcia, former actor and singer
o Ernesto Grenet, drummer and trombonist
o Josefina LeCerff, Lecuona's sister-in-law
Correspondence was established with John Sperry, lawyer and trustee of
Lecuona's estate. Edward B. Marks, music publisher and holder of the
rights to most of Lecuona's music, provided a great deal of the piano
literature studied throughout the work.
Domestic university libraries were used to locate some of Lecuona's
music -- both recordings and sheet -- as well as relevant articles in
periodicals and materials on Cuban and Latin American music. The
National Library in Madrid had in its collection the most significant
document discovered. The available music of Lecuona has been collected
and analyzed. Chapters IV, V, and VI represent the synthesis of their
study by this researcher.
The historical approach has been used to examine the data. Glen
Haydon, in Introduction to Musicology (1941), addresses the problems and
methods of historical research in music. In observations concerning
methodology, the author states that the researcher must be able to meet
three general requirements:
1. To be conscious of the existing problem
2. To define the problem, in such a way as to render it
susceptible of solution.
3. To seek the integration of his particular problem with more
general problems; to weave the findings into the general
history of music.
Haydon also addresses the systematic orientation to musical
research, which makes use of the various auxiliary sciences which
contribute to the understanding of music, such as acoustics, physiology,
and psychology in relation to music, aesthetics, theory, pedagogy, and
comparative musicology. He concludes that
the systematic and historical approaches constitute the two
axes in the frame of references in relation to which musical
intelligence is oriented. The two approaches are, of course,
complementary. The one cannot be maintained without reference
to the other. (Haydon, 1941, p. 10)
Information has been placed in perspective as it related to the
musical history of Cuba, taking into account the forces which shaped it
and those it helped shape.
Limitations of the Study
The limitations of the study derive primarily from the paucity of
extant sheet music and recordings of Lecuona's works. As stated
previously, much of the composer's music is now out of print or in the
hands of private individuals. Other compositions, probably housed in
Cuban libraries, are practically impossible to locate at the present
Particular difficulty was encountered in the process of studying
Lecuona's zarzuelas. None of the scores are available in the United
States, even though a few of the musical numbers have been preserved and
are relatively easy to find. Fortunately, recordings have been made of
three of Lecuona's zarzuelas: Maria la O, Rosa la china, and El cafetal,
permitting their study in considerably greater detail. It must be noted
that the music in these recordings has been reproduced from memory by
artists who had staged the works in Cuba and who, in exile, felt the
need to preserve them.
In summary, this research makes the most of the material available.
Items selected for study should suffice to illustrate those ideas
central to an understanding of the music of Ernesto Lecuona.
REVIEW OF THE RELATED LITERATURE
Literature related to the subject under study was virtually non-
existent. Even the most basic information on Ernesto Lecuona was absent
from standard music history texts and reference materials. Con-
scientious searches through domestic college and university libraries
were, for the most part, fruitless.
The most important item on Lecuona thus far located was found in
the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid Spain. The
document, an unfinished and unpublished manuscript by Arturo Ramirez
(n.d), is an interesting report on the artistic trajectory of Ernesto
Lecuona. Ramirez, a respected newspaper reporter, basically outlines
the composer's numerous tours throughout the world. Entitled Lecuona,
the manuscript is filled with a considerable number of reviews and
critiques of Lecuona's appearances. The author collected the material
from newspapers of many cities in several countries. The value of the
work lies in the amount of information on Lecuona's personal life and
the partial listing of the composer's works in an Appendix.
Regardless of its importance, the work has several serious draw-
backs. First, and most important, Ramirez devotes no time to the music
itself. A reader not familiar with Lecuona's output would be able to
gather no clue as to the characteristics of the composer's music. This
is understandable, since Ramirez was not a musicologist.
A more serious problem, given the stature of Ramirez, is the almost
total omission of essential bibliographic information on the items
quoted. Authors, dates, and names of the newspapers are more often than
not omitted. Although Ramirez was a respected reporter, and there is
probably no reason to doubt the authenticity of his quotations, it would
have been helpful to obtain those newspapers. It is beyond the scope of
this work to attempt such a task.
Finally, the work is not up to date. Completed before the death of
the composer, Lecuona leaves many important questions unanswered about
the maestro's last years.
It should also be noted that the manuscript is written in Spanish
and that the author overlooked several of Lecuona's works, both major
and minor, in his list.
One article each in Newsweek ("Jorge Gershwin Lecuona," 1943) and
Life (Sargeant, 1947) magazines, appearing in the bibliography, are the
only other sources that have dealt more or less directly with Ernesto
Lecuona; however, they are brief, outdated, and general, and they
provide no real insight into the composer's music.
The musical journal, Etude, has dealt in two brief articles with
Lecuona's "Malagueia," mainly its key and form (Gehrkens, 1953, 1954).
That is the only material which directly addresses itself to Lecuona's
There are other works which, although not dealing directly with
Lecuona, prove to be fine background reading for the musical history of
Cuba. The most recent and up-to-date is Crist6bal D. Ayala's MGsica
cubana: del areyto a la Nueva Trova (1981). In a readable style, Ayala
traces Cuban music from the displaced Indians to the present composers.
The book is well organized. It is divided into ten major parts:
I From discovery until the end of the eighteenth century --
II The nineteenth century
III The first twenty years of the Republic
IV The decade of the nineteen-twenties
V The decade of the thirties
VI The decade of the forties
VII The decade of the fifties
VIII Revolutionary Cuba until Communism
IX Cuban music in the United States
X Cuba in exile
Included in each major part are sub-sections which deal not only with
the major musical figures of each period (both popular and serious), but
with the musical trends, instruments used, and socio-political
atmosphere of each period.
Within the comprehensive scope of the 500-page book, Ayala manages
to treat each composer with due respect, pointing out his contributions,
however small, to the musical scene. Five pages are devoted to Lecuona,
in which the author briefly outlines the composer's life, career, and
major works. But Ayala states in the Prologue that, not being a
musician, he is unable to go into any analysis of representative works
of periods and composers. This is, of course, the major drawback of the
Other valuable works are La mGsica en Cuba by Alejo Carpentier
(1946) and Popular Cuban Music by Emilio Grenet (1939). The latter is
an essay on the evolution of Cuban music, including eighty revised and
corrected compositions. All popular Cuban musical forms are described
in detail, and most are notated. Grenet briefly mentions Lecuona when
discussing the musical genres bordering on the African. The book is a
fine resource for the popular music of Cuba. Carpentier's work concen-
trates primarily on the origins and historical development of Cuban
music. Chapters are devoted to the major figures such as Salas,
Saumell, Espadero, Cervantes, Roldin, and Caturla. Its coverage of
Afro-Cubanism is excellent and a requirement for the understanding of
Lecuona's music. The book is in Spanish, however, with no translation
Three additional and very fine related studies are Gilbert Chase's
definitive The Music of Spain (1941), Nicolas Slonimsky's Music of Latin
America (1945), and Gerard BShague's Music in Latin America: An Intro-
duction (1979). The study of these books was helpful in gaining a
better understanding of the Cuban musical scene. Neither here nor
elsewhere does any text or reference source contains substantive infor-
mation on the composer.
The Music of Spain is an excellent account of Iberian music from
the Middle Ages to the present day. One of the chapters most relevant
to this study is the one on the "Rise of the Popular Zarzuela," which
gives a fine overview of the form that was to influence so greatly the
music of Cuba and Ernesto Lecuona.
Slonimsky's book, although now somewhat outdated, was one of the
few books of its kind for many years. It is an encompassing account of
the music and musicians of "the twenty republics" of Latin America. The
book is divided into three parts: Panorama of Latin American Music,
Music in the Twenty Republics, and Dictionary of Latin American
Musicians, Songs and Dances, and Musical Instruments. In the middle
part, Slonimsky addresses the characteristic forms, dances, and rhythm
patterns of each of the countries discussed. He then proceeds to give a
short summary of each country's major musicians and their works.
Lecuona is included in the section on Cuba. In approximately fifteen
lines, Slonimsky provides a general outline of Lecuona's life, and
mentions five of his works. It is certainly a meager coverage, if one
realizes that Lecuona was at the height of his career during the decades
of the thirties and forties.
Music in Latin America is divided into three parts: the Colonial
Period, the Rise of Nationalism, and Counter-Currents in the Twentieth
Century. In each of the three parts, Behague looks at the representa-
tive music and musicians of the Latin American countries. He quotes
numerous musical examples, ranging from the sacred music of the Colonial
period to the electronic works of the twentieth-century composers.
Although Behague states in the Preface that the book provides "a closer
examination of some of the main works by the most representative compo-
sers of the various periods, trends, and countries," the name of Ernesto
Lecuona is never mentioned. This serious omission certainly invalidates
The review of related literature suggests that research on the life
and music of Ernesto Lecuona is seriously lacking and that the composer
has regretably been omitted from standard music sources. Considering
the achievements of Lecuona as a pianist and composer, the impact he had
upon the Cuban musical scene, and the contribution he made to it, the
neglect is incomprehensible. It makes this and future studies in this
area absolutely necessary.
THE LIFE AND CAREER OF ERNESTO LECUONA
The majority of information found in this chapter on Lecuona's life
is from Lecuona, by Arturo Ramirez, and direct quotations have been
translated by Gloria Jacobson. When other references have been used,
the source is indicated in a citation. Unattributed information may be
assumed to have been gathered from Ramirez's work.
It was August 6, 1895 (Rodriguez, 1979)*. For the preceding
months the small island of Cuba had been struggling for independence
from Spain. The populace was in turmoil. In Cereria Street (today
Estrada Palma), in the village of Guanabacoa, Ernesto Lecuona-Ramos and
his wife Elisa awaited the birth of their child. He was to be Ernesto
Lecuona y Casado, later to be known to the world simply as Lecuona
(Basque for "good place").
Lecuona's father was a Spaniard. Born in Islas Canarias (the
Canary Islands), Lecuona-Ramos settled in Cuba while still in his youth
* There is serious disagreement as to Lecuona's birth date. It has
been variously given as August 7, 1895 (Sperry, 1973), August 7,
1896 (Ramirez), and the one given here. Rodriguez asserts that
although the composer liked to celebrate his birthday on August 7,
his real birthday was August 6.
and soon was assimilated into the new land (LeCerff). He chose as his
wife Matanzas-born Elisa Casado Bernal, by whom he had 14 children.
Only seven survived to adulthood: Luis, Ernestina, Jos&, Fernando,
Teodoro, Elisa, and Ernesto, the newcomer (LeCerff, 1979). Although not
wealthy, Lecuona-Ramos was a hard-working, successful newspaper man,
eventually becoming the editor of El Comercio.
Elisa was a devoted wife and mother as well as a patriotic Cuban.
She supported the revolution taking place, and she never concealed from
her husband her dedication and commitment to the rebels' cause.
Together with the children, she would invariably wave the Cuban flag in
front of the house whenever any of her husband's Spanish friends
visited. Elisa would also secretly contribute, with her scarce
financial means, to the revolution.
It was to this family and amid political tensions that Lecuona came
into the world.
Early Years: Musical Studies and Achievements
Lecuona's musical genius was discovered at the age of three and a
half. His sister Ernestina was now a piano teacher, and at home kept
the instrument under lock and key to protect it from her brothers and
sisters. Little Ernesto was not to be feared, though, since he was too
small to reach the keyboard. One day, while mother Elisa was in the
kitchen, she was surprised to hear music being played on the piano. She
knew that Ernestina and Elisita, who was now learning piano, were not at
home. To her surprise she found young Ernesto at the keyboard. He was
playing the bolero "Alli en las lomas" (There on the Hills), continuing
with a waltz titled "Isabelita." Both of these works were often played
by Ernestina, and Ernesto had duplicated them exactly. To reach the
piano, he had climbed on a box nearby.
It was then that Ernestina decided to guide her brother's talent.
The musical relationship that was cemented between Ernestina and Ernesto
during these early years would last a lifetime.
By the age of five, Ernesto had a diverse repertoire of five
pieces, among which were "Las campanadas" (The Tolling), "La
Marsellesa" (The Marseillaise), and the Cuban national anthem. It was
at this tender age that Ernesto Lecuona staged his first recital,
standing up at the piano, at Havana's Hispanic Club. The reviews were
all extremely favorable, mentioning the child's sure and sensitive
playing and big tone. He was labeled a child prodigy.
The composer's early general education was received at the school
Hoyos y Junco (Martin). While Lecuona was still in school and not yet
seven, two important events took place: the establishment of the Repub-
lic of Cuba on May 20, 1902, and in that same month, a few days earlier,
the death of his father, of a heart attack, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
(His mother was later to marry Pedro Montells Gil.)
Two years later, at the age of nine, Ernesto enrolled in the Con-
servatorio Peyrellade. Here he stayed three years furthering his musi-
cal education. He continued to study with Antonio Saavedra (pupil of
Ignacio Cervantes) and Joaquin Nin (1883-1950), great Cuban-Spanish
musicologist and composer. From this period came a few unpretentious
piano pieces. By eleven he had written "Cuba y America," a two-step
which later entered the repertoire of Cuban military bands (Sperry,
1973). Trying to earn some money for his efforts, the young composer
went from door to door selling copies of his first work. He was also,
at this time, performing at the theaters Moulin Rouge and Alhambra. A
little later he would write music to the buffo libretti of Arquimedes
Pous and appear in several theaters accompanying singers who interpreted
excerpts from Spanish zarzuelas.
At the age of fourteen Lecuona was taken by Nin to the accomplished
Dutch-Cuban pianist Hubert de Blanck (1856-1932), who eagerly accepted
the promising young player as his student in the Conservatorio Nacional,
which he himself founded in 1885 (Parker). Lecuona graduated on April
4, 1913, at the age of 17. He earned a gold medal, the highest award
for piano, for his graduation performance of Schumann's A Minor Piano
Concerto ("Ernesto Lecuona, Composer of 'Siboney' Is Dead," 1963).
Early Works for the Theater and International Successes
During the next three years the young pianist displayed himself in
the theaters around the capital. Later, in 1916, the American public
had the opportunity to hear Lecuona during his first visit to New York's
Aeolian Hall (Sperry, 1973). It was then that he was contracted by RCA
Victor for recordings of his works, as well as by Ampico Piano Co. and
Duo-Art for piano rolls. His fame spread throughout the United States;
Lecuona's compositions were rich in inspiration and had his unmistakable
signature. His mastery of the keyboard and his very expressive style
impressed the severest critics.
In 1913 Lecuona came into the theater as composer of musica de
revistas, or musical reviews. Between 1919-1923, he set ten works to
music, including zarzuelas, reviews and operettas. Some of the best
known works from this period are Domingo de pinata (Sunday of Pifata;
1919), La Liga de las Naciones (The League of Nations; 1919), and
Diabluras y fantasias (Mischief and Fantasies; 1922).
The year 1922 brought Lecuona his first international success, when
he toured America, appearing for eight consecutive weeks at the Capitol
Theater in New York. It was there that he introduced "Malaguefa" and
"Andalucia" (Sargeant, 1947). During the same year Lecuona busied
himself with the formation of the Sociedad de Conciertos de la Habana,
an organization whose purpose was to further the dissemination of
symphonic music in the Island. The group eventually founded the Havana
Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Gonzalo Roig.
He took the first of what were to be many trips to Spain in 1924.
It was a four-month tour as accompanist to violinist Martha de la
Torres. In Madrid at the end of his tour, he was contracted to set
several libretti to music; the Spanish public loved him.
Trip to Paris: Friendship with Lortat, Orloff, and Ravel
Lecuona's first trip to Paris took place in 1928. He performed his
works for piano and voice at the theaters Pleyel and Gaveau. It was at
this time that he became friends with the pianists Lortat and Orloff,
and expressed a wish to study under the former (Sperry, 1973). Sperry
relates: "Lortat asked Lecuona to play a prelude by Debussy, Jeux d'eau
by Ravel, and some of his own danzas. Whereupon Lortat said that he had
nothing to give or contribute to this gifted pianist. In fact, for many
years he thought that this incident was a prank planned by their mutual
friends" (Sperry, 1973). Orloff was equally impressed.
It was also during this visit to Paris that Lecuona became friends
with Ravel. He had been invited to spend a few days at the villa of
Joaquin Nin in San Juan de Luz. Ravel was invited at the same time. So
much was the French composer interested in the Cuban's "La comparsa" and
"Danza negra" that he took notes with the purpose of "doing something"
orchestral with them (Sperry, 1973). Sperry also writes: "Ravel and
Lecuona became warm friends and the former once said of Lecuona that he
was so struck by the sheer romance and enchantment of his music that he
felt that 'Malaguena' was more melodic and beautiful than his own
'Bolero'" (Sperry, 1973, p. 2).
Tours of Central America and a Hollywood Experience
The successful Paris tour was followed, in 1929, by a tour of
Central America, to Panama and Costa Rica. Back in Havana in 1929
Lecuona premiered a series of reviews and zarzuelas which kept him
occupied until the end of 1930. They included Nina Rita (1929), La liga
de las senoras (the League of Ladies; 1929), and three of his best-known
zarzuelas: El cafetal (The Coffee Plantation; 1929), El batey (The Sugar
Mill; 1929), and Maria la 0 (1930), to be discussed later in more
The year 1931 brought Lecuona the death of his mother but also
great success on his first trip to Mexico, where he presented a series
of concerts in the Teatro Fibregas. He was immediately invited back for
another series of concerts in 1933. It was during this second trip to
Mexico that he was asked to present his zarzuelas there. Bringing a
company from Cuba was no easy task, for anyone but Lecuona, that is. By
1934 he had his company set up and premiered El cafetal, Rosa la china
(Rosa the Chinese Woman), and Canci6n de flor (Flower Song), among
several others, in the Iris Theater.
In between his trips to Mexico, Lecuona had his first experience
with Hollywood. In 1930 he was contracted by Metro Goldwyn Mayer as
musical director for the motion picture Under Cuban Skies, with Lupe
Velez and Lawrence Tibbett ("Ernesto Lecuona, Composer of 'Siboney' Is
Dead," 1963). Although it was a brilliant social and artistic adven-
ture, the purely cinematographic aspect of it was a disaster, according
to Lecuona. "Tibbett was no Cuban, even in jest. Vl6ez was good as a
Mexican, not as a Cuban, and there was not a single Cuban landscape in
the entire movie" (Ramirez, n.d., p.94).
Immediately after the completion of the music, Lecuona was invited
to present a program at Los Angeles' Paramount Theater. It lasted
several weeks and was very successful. Under Cuban Skies was the first
of several movies with scores or musical numbers by Lecuona. Others
included Carnival in Costa Rica, Always in My Heart, bearing the title
of the theme song, One More Tomorrow, and Pearl Harbor.
1933: Formation of "Lecuona's Cuban Boys"
and Threats to Lecuona's Health
The formation of the world-renowned Lecuona's Cuban Boys was the
result of a serious double pneumonia contracted by Lecuona during his
1933 visit to Madrid. The seriousness of the illness was such that
Cubans and fans all over the world were awaiting the news of his death.
The composer's delicate condition made headlines in newspapers through-
out the world. During his illness, his orchestra "boys" were touring
Spain. When he had recuperated and decided to go back to Cuba for the
warm climate, he learned that his boys had received an offer from an
European impresario to continue touring. Lecuona advised them to accept
it and authorized the use of his name.
The year 1933 was not to be one of Lecuona's most fortunate. While
back in Cuba recuperating from the double pneumonia, he seriously in-
jured his left hand, threatening the end of his pianistic career.
Miraculously, the operation on the broken tendon in his thumb healed
properly, and a few months later Lecuona was back at the keyboard.
The Years 1935-1942
This seven-year period was primarily one of travel. But first
Lecuona devoted 1935 to organizing La Orquesta de la Habana, the first
of its kind in the capital, and one which would have a long and healthy
future (Ramirez, n.d.). From 1936 to 1940 he was on tour through Buenos
Aires, giving recitals and playing radio engagements. He also traveled
to Chile and Peru. During that time he conducted concerts with symphony
orchestras and choruses and led the Lecuona Cuban Boys on tours of
Europe, Latin America, and North Africa ("Ernesto Lecuona, Composer of
'Siboney' Is Dead," 1963).
During the next couple of years he premiered more zarzuelas and
reviews. One of them was the popular La plaza de la cathedral (The Plaza
of the Cathedral). The composer suffered another career threat when he
broke his right arm in a car accident. He recuperated satisfactorily.
Lecuona as Cultural Attach& to the Cuban Embassy
The year 1943 brought Lecuona his first recognition in the politi-
cal arena. On March 24, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista appointed
Lecuona honorary cultural attach& to the Cuban embassy in Washington
("Ernesto Lecuona, Composer of 'Siboney' Is Dead," 1963). Although the
composer was certainly not a political figure, he was not above recog-
nizing the concerns of the Cuban people.
Always apolitical, he nevertheless would frequently discuss
with Fulgencio Batista the need to give some serious thought
to reforms to alleviate the plight of those poor, in his
native Cuba, that needed help. (Sperry, 1973, p. 3)
Concerts in the Pan American Union and Carnegie Hall
It was on March 31, 1943, in the middle of World War II, that
Lecuona presented a concert at Washington's Pan American Union. The
audience consisted of diplomatic representatives accredited in
Washington. In that same year, on October 10, Lecuona presented a
memorable concert in Carnegie Hall, celebrating Cuba's independence day
(Sperry, 1973, p.3). At that concert he premiered Rapsodia negra and
"Arag6n". The program consisted primarily of his own compositions with
some by his sister, Ernestina, who also appeared as pianist. The New
York Times observed the following morning,
The new works, along the same lines as Lecuona's earlier
output, proved like his conducting and pianism, clean-cut and
brilliant. . A large audience received the whole program
with fervent enthusiasm. ("Ernesto Lecuona Offers Cuban
Program to Celebrate Country's Independence Day," 1943)
And Sperry wrote:
It might be said, without fear of contradiction, that the capacity
of that hall has never been so taxed before, nor since, his
memorable appearance on that occasion. (Sperry, 1973, p. 2)
Carnival in Costa Rica
Two years later, in 1945, Lecuona had renewed his exclusive con-
tract with the Edward B. Marks Corporation when Twentieth Century Fox
offered him a contract for musical directorship of the film Carnival in
Costa Rica. Since his 1931 experience in Hollywood life had not been a
pleasant one, the composer decided not to move to that city while
working on the score. Instead, he bought a house on 86th Street in
Jackson Heights, New York, and worked from there.
The years 1948 to 1950 Lecuona again spent traveling. In 1948 he
performed in Washington and New York, where he once more appeared in
Carnegie Hall. He toured Florida during some of 1949 and 1950, and went
to Madrid towards the end of 1950.
The Last Ten Years -- 1953-1963
Madrid was the site of Lecuona's theatrical campaign in 1953. From
Cuba he imported many of his collaborators, among them tenor, actor, and
director Miguel de Grandy, Ernesto Garcia, Esther Borja, and Mimi Cal.
He completed his cast with a few Spaniards, and launched an extremely
successful season, opening with El cafetal at the Alvarez Quintero
Lecuona's saddest year was probably 1960, when he was forced, given
the political circumstances, to flee his native land. The hopes he had
nurtured for his country had all but vanished.
At first, he hoped that Fidel Castro might soon succeed where
others failed. But these hopes were soon dispelled. Lecuona
sought voluntary exile from his beloved land in 1960. At that
time he vowed never to play again until his country was free
from tyranny of the right or left. (Sperry, 1973, p. 3)
After leaving the Island, Lecuona went to Tenerife, Spain, and directed
various ensembles, which he took to the Broadway, San Martin, and Ateneo
He established residence in Tampa, Florida, and lived there until
his untimely death, at the age of 68, of a heart attack. He had been
visiting Tenerife at the time. The date was November 29, 1963. He was
buried in The Gate of Heaven Cemetery in New York (LeCerff, 1979).
Lecuona wrote in his will that his remains be kept there until Cuba is
once again free and sovereign. His remains are then to be taken back to
the land he loved and forever interred there (Sperry, 1973).
Physical Appearance and Personality
Ernesto Lecuona has been described as a melancholic version of the
late comedian Zero Mostel (Newsweek, 1943). Indeed, Jay Nelson Tuck
said that Lecuona's press agent once, finding no extra photographs of
the maestro, sent a copy of Mostel's snapshot with Lecuona's name on it
to the newspapers. The photo was printed, and the exchange went un-
noticed (Sargeant, 1947).
Six feet tall and large framed, the composer carried his stature
with dignity and natural grace. His hair, jet black, was always immacu-
lately kept. But by far the most attractive feature of Lecuona was his
large dark eyes. With a melancholy stare they always appeared to tran-
scend the immediate object in front of him and focus on some distant
place that no one else could see. His wonderful smile would brighten
his face which, as described by his friends, always carried an ex-
pression that seemed to ask, "What smells here?"
And then there were always those traces of childhood, the zest for
living, and the innocence that were so refreshing to those who knew him.
Rarely could one find a soul more affiliated to childhood than
that of Lecuona. The precocious artist that he has been
matured in the arts, but has conserved, in life, that faith
and creative enthusiasm which never gets old prematurely.
At home he is talkative, communicative, anecdotal, and main-
tains that childlike incongruity, that goes from one subject
to another, without maintaining the attention or serious order
of a narration. (Rosello, 1935, pp. 3-4, trans. Gloria Jacobson)
But he did have his moments of Cuban temperament, as the writer of
"Jorge Gershwin Lecuona" humorously remarked:
Brewing Cuban coffee, for instance, becomes a nerve-wracking
Schubert production with him. ("Jorge Gershwin Lecuona," 1943,
Affable, sincere, and unpretentious, Lecuona was never eager to talk
about his successes. He was indifferent to money, even though he was
quite a wealthy man. Much of his fortune went to assist maraca players
and aspiring cabaret singers, both in Cuba and abroad (Sargeant, 1947).
The artist, for the sake of being, does not have that
utilitarian ferocity that translates a theatrical attraction
into money. The gold that the world paid to listen to
Lecuona, he confided to his innocence, and it dispersed it to
all the winds. (Rosello, 1935, p. 3, trans. Gloria Jacobson)
Lecuona led an unconventional life. During his stays in Cuba he
lived exclusively on farms or ranches in the rural surroundings of
Havana. On some of his ranches the composer raised pigs, deer, poultry,
birds (he is said to have had a parrot that would sing his song "Noche
azul"), fish, and turtles, among many other creatures. He would get up
every morning, before any of his servants, and wearing a yarey hat and
work clothes, would feed his small zoo, and water, check, and care for
his plants and flowers.
He was a collector of antiques, ranging from furniture to music
boxes, of which he had an extensive collection. He also collected good
books, and his personal library contained volumes on world history,
music history, biography, theater, poetry, music critiques, and Cuban
literature. His favorite poets were Marti, Dario, Juan RamBn Jimenez,
and Garcia Lorca, among others. He was even an avid reader of Agatha
Baseball was one of his favorite hobbies, and the composer would
watch or listen to all the national championships, from October to
February, and to the Major Leagues and World Series from April to
October. He also enjoyed poker, dominoes, cooking, and entertaining
Friends and Friendships
The composer had more than a few friends. When he moved to his
most famous ranch, La Comparsa, the first thing he did was to build a
cobertizo, a kind of shelter, which he called "La Cobija." This was
done to accommodate the hundreds of people he called friends and who
would follow him wherever he went. La Cobija was going to be the
meeting place of present and future artists, known and unknown, who came
to look for advice or for an opportunity to work with the maestro and to
be introduced to the public. The gatherings of friends in La Cobija
would start at mid-morning and last until midnight, although Lecuona
himself would often have gone to sleep by that time (de Grandy).
He always had company eating at his table. He would usually cook
the meals, which invariably included black beans and rice. And, if his
friends were not there, Lecuona was known to sit down with his servants
for his meals. Everyone enjoyed his warm personality and interesting
conversation (Alvarez, 1979).
Notwithstanding his many friends, Lecuona never found a woman to
share his life. But he once humorously remarked, "I'd like to collect
American women. They are the most beautiful in the world" ("Ernesto
Lecuona, Composer of 'Siboney' Is Dead," 1963).
Always a Cuban
Due to the extensive traveling, Lecuona was a cosmopolitan man, but
only to the extent of adapting himself to surroundings and customs, and
for the appreciation of cultural interchanges. In his heart Lecuona was
as criollo and tropical as any could claim to be (de Grandy, 1979). In
between tours he always eagerly returned to his homeland. Sometimes he
would get homesick in the middle of a tour and come back to the sun and
palm trees that had become such a part of him.
His music was for Cuba and about Cuba, and on more than one occa-
sion he spoke of his love and devotion to the tropical island. He was
a Cuban, in his music and in his deeds, to his last day.
Lecuona the Musician
If the personal side of Lecuona's life showed traces of
eccentricity, so did the musical. Although an electrifying pianist who
would hypnotize audiences, Lecuona rarely practiced.
For about 42 years now, his sister and teacher, Ernestina, has
been trying to get him to practice. But he is strictly a man
of moods and won't go near the instrument unless his muse is
upon him. ("Jorge Gershwin Lecuona," 1943, p. 97)
But his performances were, nevertheless, faultless.
Lecuona sits on the bench and runs over the keyboard as though
caressing an old friend. Most of the difficulties of execu-
tion seem to leave by themselves, as though the instru-
ment were a tamed monster. When he is finished, el maestro
salutes, and not a hair of his head has changed places.
(Rosello, 1935, p. 4)
Even more peculiar than his failure to practice was the fact that
he never touched the piano while composing. Friends recall his indefa-
tigable jotting of notes in a hotel room, at a card table, or in a
restaurant, and almost never making a change. He would often send
compositions to publishers without having heard or played them ("Ernesto
Lecuona, Composer of 'Siboney' Is Dead," 1963). The composer maintained
that he did not need to play them because he knew how they sounded -- in
his head (de Grandy, 1979).
Lecuona loved it all; his life was his career. "Lecuona lived a
happy life because he lived doing what he wanted . doing what he
loved" (de Grandy, 1979).
Fans, Friends, and Honors
During his lifetime Ernesto Lecuona was surrounded by friends and
fans wherever he went. A warm, kind, and affectionate man, he was
always on the lookout for the well being of those he knew and loved, and
they, in return, showered him with respect and admiration. He be-
friended the wealthy and the poor, always finding gentle words for all
who came in contact with him (Grenet, 1979). With tears in their eyes,
friends and colleagues lovingly remember el maestro, who furthered their
careers but, most of all, was a trustworthy friend.
Lecuona creates a legion of singers that adore him, but it is
not easy to maintain harmony in this great family. Lecuona
achieves it, always affectionate, always patient, year after
year, dedicating to each singer the next romanza, the next
song, making them feel that it was especially for them.
(Ayala, 1981, p.136, trans. Gloria Jacobson)
During his serious illness in Madrid, Cuba mourned and prayed for
his recovery. His sister Ernestina was accosted by visitors and phone
calls of known and unknown friends who wanted to know how Lecuona's
recovery was progressing. Miguel de Grandy, who was with Lecuona in
Madrid at that time recalls:
I was playing at the theater two blocks away from Lecuona's
flat. Every hour I would pay someone to go and find out how
the maestro was doing. Our worry was beyond words. (de
Later on, when a man named Ricardo Lecuona was killed in a
Colombian airplane accident, radio stations all over Central and South
America went off the air for a silent minute of mourning, under the
mistaken impression that it was Ernesto who had been killed. Like Mark
Twain reading his own obituary, Lecuona said, "The news of my death has
been somewhat exaggerated" (Ramirez, n.d., p. 87).
Following Lecuona's death, Spain proclaimed days of mourning for
the composer who had sung the glories of that land, and many city and
town streets were named after him (Sperry, 1973). Cuba honored Lecuona
with the Gran Cruz de (Great Cross of) Carlos Manuel de Cespedes; the
municipality of Havana with the Medalla de (Medal of) la Habana; and the
municipality of Guanabacoa with the title "Hijo Eminente" (Eminent Son).
There stands in Miami, Florida, in Crandon Park, an impressive
marble and bronze monument, erected in memory of the composer. It was
completed in 1968, through the generous contributions of Lecuona's
friends in exile.
At the official ceremonies of the day, April 21 was designated
hereafter as Ernesto Lecuona Day each year by the mayor and
his official family. This signal honor was never before
bestowed on any composer from a foreign country. (Sperry,
1973, p. 3)
At the small ceremony which took place at the time, friends and
colleagues spoke of the maestro in these words, reported by Rosell
(n.d., p. 27), translated by Gloria Jacobson), which summarize the
feelings of those who knew him:
And that world of God, where your music, hugging the Cuban flag,
brought joy to its people, that world, maestro, will remember you
till eternity. (Osvaldo Farr6s)
Lecuona, contrary to the main character in his popular danza, did
not 'go never to return,' because his memory lives and will con-
tinue to live in us, while his music, rhythmic expression of our
Cuba, will continue to be heard under all the skies of the world."
And that is probably the greatest honor that Lecuona has ever
received. His music continues to be played everywhere the Cuban spirit
lives, and everywhere his songs have touched. And even in those places
where the name Lecuona is unknown, one can hear the strains of his many
popular works, being sung in the native language, by persons of all
creeds and backgrounds. Lecuona's music has been limited by no race,
people, or national boundaries.
Lecuona was a tireless songwriter, composing more than 200 songs,
spanning his entire career. It was through the wide appeal of many of
his songs that Lecuona became known in the international arena. His
"Siboney," "Canto Carabali" (Carabali Song), "Always in My Heart," and
"Noche azul" (Blue Night) are known the world over.
You will seldom meet an American who is unfamiliar with his
durable song hits. Some of them are such old familiar tunes
that people are always attributing them vaguely to some long
dead classical composer. Others are constantly nudging the
top numbers on each year's hit parade. (Sargeant, 1947, p. 152)
A number of his songs were, at the outset, written for his zar-
zuelas and stage works; but their popularity was so great that they
became independent entities, completely disassociated from the original
context. A few examples are "Canto Carabali" and "Siboney." Other
songs have been created from many of the composer's popular piano music,
such as "Malagueia" ("At the Crossroads"), "Andalucia" ("The Breeze and
I"), and "Para Vigo me voy" ("Say Si Si"). These songs will not be
dealt with in the present chapter, but in the one covering Lecuona's
piano music. This chapter will look exclusively at original songs and
those that have been extracted from his zarzuelas and stage works, where
such works are not available for study.
Characteristics of Songs
Most of Lecuona's songs may be classified in the several genres
characteristic of Cuban songs. We find boleros, criollas, danzas,
canciones, and pregones. There are also berceuses and caprices. In
this paper, the works will be studied under their particular categories,
with a brief prior discussion of the texts, melodies, and accompaniment.
As stated in the previous chapter, Ernesto Lecuona was a poetry
aficionado, well-read and familiar with the poets of the day. Many of
the texts are verses by well-known poets, enhancing the appealing
melodies. As Pedro Machado Castro, music critic, writes:
His Cuban songs form an unending rosary of beautiful melodies,
crowned with literary texts, admirable ones, which result in
great balance between the greatness of the music and the
inspiration of the verses in such cases. (Ramirez, n.d., p. 195)
Among the many poets whose words Lecuona set to music are Gustavo
S. Galarraga (librettist for most of his zarzuelas, to be discussed
later in more depth), Campoamor, Jos4 Angel Buesa, Jacinto Benavente,
Heine, Rosario Sensores, Mary Morandeyra, and Blanco Fombona. Following
are a few examples of those poems. They have been translated into
English by this writer, but it should be understood that they are only
literal translations. To appreciate the value of the texts, one must
make the effort to read them in the original version.
Ya todo lo he vivido I have lived everything
Y s61o siento ansias And only eagerness I feel
De que termine la jornada. For the journey to end
Para sentir ya no me queda nada, I have nothing left to feel with,
Todo lo devor6 mi pensamiento. My thoughts have devoured all.
Mi coraz6n, fogoso y turbulento My fiery and turbulent heart
Es hoy hoguera exhaust y apagada, Is today an exhausted fire,
Y mi voz, melanc6lica y cansada And my voice, melancholic and tired,
S61o exhala las preces Only exhales the prayers of the
del moment. moment.
No hay un camino que mi afan There is no road that will wake my
Porque s6 que despu&s For I know that, beyond each trail,
de cada senda
Se oculta el desencanto. Hides disenchantment.
Y s61o espera mi fatigado And my tired, childish heart only
coraz6n de niuo awaits
La mano fervorosa de un cariio, The warm hand of a love,
Que me cierre los ojos That will close my eyes upon death.
(words by Galarraga)
And this beauty by Campoamor:
"Nunca te perdonare" "I Will Never Forgive You"
Ya que 6ste mundo abandon Given that this world I abandon,
Antes de dar cuenta a Di6s, Before settling with God,
Aqui para entire los dos, Here, with just the two of us,
Mi confesi6n te dir&: I my confession will tell you:
Con todo el alma perdono, With all my soul I forgive,
Hasta los que siempre he odiado. Even those I have always hated.
LY a ti que tanto te he amado! And you, whom I have loved so much!
Nunca te perdonar&. You I will never forgive.
And, by Mary Morandeyra:
"Yo compadezco" "I Pity"
Yo compadezco los corazones I pity those hearts
Que no quisieron nunca sofar. That never wanted to dream.
Arpas de mirmol, liras inertes, Marble harps, inert lyres,
Que no supieron vibrar jams. That never knew how to vibrate.
Yo compadezco los corazones I pity those hearts
Que no quisieron nunca llorar, That never wanted to cry,
Los que vivieron anestesiados The ones who lived anaesthetized
Por los placeres y la maldad, By the pleasures and the wickedness,
Los que murieron sin recorder. Those that died without memories.
Yo compadezco los corazones I pity those hearts
Que no quisieron amar jams That never wanted to love.
We find, amid Lecuona's output, two collections of works for piano
and voice. One of the collections sets to music the Versos sencillos
(Simple Verses) of the Cuban poet-revolutionary Josi Marti. It is made
up of eight poems, including the famous "Una rosa blanca" (A White
Rose). The other collection is based on the poems of Juana de
Ibarbourou and includes the well-known children's song and lullaby, "La
Seiora luna" (Lady Moon).
"La SeKora Luna" "Lady Moon"
La seiora Luna Lady Moon
Le pidi6 al naranjo Asked the orange tree
Un vestido verde For a green dress
Y un vestido blanco. And a white dress.
La seiora Luna Lady Moon
Se quiere casar Wants to marry
Con un pajecito A little page boy
De la casa real From the royal house.
DuBrmete Natacha Sleep, Natasha
E iris a la boda And you'll go to the wedding,
Peinada de mono Your hair combed high
Y en traje de cola And with a long-trail dress.
Lecuona himself was a fine poet and he set many of his own verses
to music. His inspiration derived mainly from rivers, birds, flowers,
cities, and geographical regions. Consequently we find songs titled
"Pheasant," "Peacock," "Chrysanthemum," "Gardenia," "Madrigal," "Costa
Rica," and "Valencia mora." And then there are his love songs, some of
which have become standards in the Spanish language repertoire, such as
his "Noche azul."
Lecuona's melodic gift was probably unparalled, as far as Cuban
composers go. He produced some of the most attractive combinations of
notes written before or after his time. It is quite difficult to form
generalizations about the melodies, given that they were all so unique
and individual in their character. But it is safe to make a few state-
ments about them.
For the most part, Lecuona's melodies are within the reach of any
fine singer, although he tends to favor the higher registers, and some
parts are actually quite demanding. Nevertheless, we find melodies
written for all vocal ranges.
For example, the very singable "Por eso te quiero," shown in
Figure 1, achieves its beauty with a series of rather close intervals within
the range of a ninth.
In other songs, such as "Aguinaldos blancos" (White Aguinaldo
Flower), quoted in Figures 2, 3, and 4, the range spreads out to one and
a half octaves. It is a work full of charm and elegance.
The composer's melodies are generally melodic. A good example is
his famous "Noche azul" (Figure 5).
There are a few exceptions, however, among which is the one
appearing in Figure 6, "Lamento africano" (African Lament).
Lecuona's songs were all written with piano accompaniment. Since
the accompaniments were usually played by himself or his sister
Ernestina, an excellent musician, the composer felt comfortable writing
quite demanding parts. The obvious disadvantage today is the difficulty
in finding two able performers to carry out the songs successfully.
The selection in Figure 7 illustrates the point.
Note in the previous example the octave passages which also appear in
"Canci6n del amor triste" (Song of Sad Love) towards the end (Figure 8)
and in the last six measures (Figure 9).
Added difficulties in the same song are the sudden dynamic con-
trasts, which range from pp to fff, as well as continuous changes in
time and key signatures.
"Balada de amor" (Love Ballad), appearing in Figure 10, is another
good example of Lecuona's piano writing. within the space of a few
measures there is a wide range of dynamics.
TO qo: m paor ca- aao re .8
23 ai ==z
__ To I "W Md _____ To
Ym - Io o 1 1 yo are .. ztou a -
- aft eh. to -r -0- 1
Figure 1. Lecuona, "Por eso te quiero," Measures 4-20
f~-r~rgu L3rC- ats.... c-lo, ae ?r. v
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ u *la-&r d SL g.- _________ ?uin
-L dr.4 --aLb or.. ? T La ~ -
Figure 2. Lecuona, "Aguinaldos blancos," Measures 1-16
Figure 3. Lecuona, "Aguinaldos blancos," Measures 45-48
d" s e ,-.- c.__ __ __
Figure 4. Lecuona, "Aguinaldos blancos," Measures 81-87
1) Y ----- =:= ,
j l L lig -o rcar~~i- d
.14L 4vd. --f yo.a r~ o
a'- ~- 4-.,
Figure 5. Lecuona, "Noche azul," Measures 3-18
.g W- -t -tn~l8PoCan A. -ca soy v SWs lu cu..i ylum YU,
godts-" a pSLsae m en mi c-ra-zm la~t.L.-Opasmn pa-bdn
ja~lmas D ra ms o.ra ypwm c,,err. mlnmlor-r-ll
Figure 6. Lecuona, "Lamento africano," Measures 6-21
Ah4 I A, L ~
pc-~- C -dd POP 9Yzpr/ddfl-dr
c,~~~7 ,z,~ _ _
Figure 7. Lecuona, "En noches de luna," Measures 1-10
1eJ I -l
4. -di--. ~ Lzlr~d
Figure 8. Lecuona, "Canci6n del amor triste," Measures 60-70
, 7m ~ v-~, b Cr~ly
mn ma . .rr ..,
Figure 9. Lecuona, "Canci6n del amor triste," Measures 84-90
*4 p-J~ Str t-j'..a--~ua- t*,-e-
L - A-
r L- f
. - S, ,' e J-. ., -. r . n C .
S - - _- .
Figure 10. Lecuona, "Balada de amor," Measures 16-31
But in his writings, Lecuona was not always eager to impress with
his pianistic technique. In many of his songs he appropriately uses a
simple accompaniment to complement or enhance the melody line. For
instance, looking back at "Aguinaldos blancos" one finds verses dealing
with love at Christmas time. In the piano part Lecuona adeptly imitates
the continuous and awesome toll of cathedral bells (Figure 11).
Types of Songs
The bolero, a dance of undisputed Spanish origin, appeared on the
Island at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But the Cuban bolero
has little connection with its Spanish counterpart. After its introduc-
tion to Cuba, it was acclimated to the new environment. Its original
three-four time was promptly changed to the favorite two-four time of
the Island. Its form became standardized, consisting of a brief intro-
duction followed by two allegretto parts of sixteen to thirty-two
measures each, although there are not any exact rules concerning their
The rhythmic pattern of the bolero varies among the forms, although
not to a great extent. The most widely used and characteristic pattern
in its initial stages was
It was later changed to include the cinquillo and tresillo figures.
- as 'a 4i a s. ga- r .7A
Figure 11. Lecuona, "Aguinaldos blancos," Measures 1-17
tresillo: 4 =
The boleros found in Lecuona's output, as well as in many Latin
American dances, made use of the following pattern, among the others:
which is another way of writing the cinquillo, and
Notwithstanding the rhythmic pattern, what probably characterizes a
bolero more than anything else is its spirit or mood.
The bolero . is always lyrical, playful, and a merriment
which endeavors to send primordial bubbles through it. When a
trace of truth mars its perennial smile, this smile suddenly
emerges again with greater strength. (Grenet, 1937, p. 39)
Some of Lecuona's boleros represent classic examples of the form.
Among them are "Se fu,," "Aquella tarde," "Por un beso de tu boca," and
the second section of the popular "Como arrullo de palmas."
In "Por un beso de tu boca" (For a Kiss from Your Lips) the two
patterns described above are found interchanged throughout the song.
(Figure 12) The same is the case in the typical bolero, "Se fue" (She
Left), in Figure 13.
In the well-known "Como arruyo de palmas" (Like the Whispers of
Palm Trees), Lecuona strictly adheres to the J J pattern
* ~3.- -
Figure 12. Lecuona, "Por un beso de tu boca," Measures 1-21
r- YL~ ~i)-f
a'.. 44L, 0- m
Figure 13. Lecuona, "Se fu6," Measures 1-17
S a- ----- __ -r
Figure 14. Lecuona, Coma arruyo de palmss" Measures 20-37
Figure 14. Lecuona, "Como arruyo de palmas," Measures 20-37
Another group of Lecuona's songs falls into the category of
criollas, short for canci6n criolla (creole song). Derived from the
canto de clave, which was in turn a black creation, the criolla is a
genre which shows the influence of both the Spanish melody and the
African rhythm. Enilio Grenet provides a clear description of the form
of the criolla:
It consists of a brief introduction and two parts generally of
sixteen measures each in which the phrases attain two or four
measures. The extension of each part is not, however, limited
to a determined number of measures, nor is its modal aspect
limited. The measure is six-eight, and the air is slow and
cantable. (Grenet, 1937, p. 41)
The rhythmically interesting feature of the criolla is the hemiola
effect created by the juxtaposition of six-eight figures in the melody
against the three-four in the accompaniment. Some of Lecuonas's songs
in this form are "Bajo el claro de la luna" (Under the Light of the
Moon), quoted in Figure 15, "Nada tengo de ti" (I Have Nothing from
You), and "Hastio" (Boredom).
The criolla often appears in combination with other genres, parti-
cularly the bolero. The criolla appears in the first part. Lecuona's
"Aquella tarde" is a fine example of the so-called "criolla-bolero."
Figure 16 is a section of the criolla part.
"Como arrullo de palmas," discussed earlier as an example of the
boleros, also fits into the category of "criolla-bolero." One of the
reasons the criollas are paired with the boleros is, according to
Grenet, "to attenuate the harshness of its (the bolero's) rhythmical
yoke" (Grenet, 1939, p. 26).
Figure 15. Lecuona, "Bajo el claro de la luna," Measures 7-19
I od S iF F
Figure 16. Lecuona, "Aquella tarde," Measures 1-20
Danzas are yet another category in Lecuona's song output. These,
which originally developed from the contradanza and were later super-
ceded by the danz6n, are in two-part form. The introduction is made up
of eight measures, repeated to make a total of sixteen. The second part
is usually thirty-two measures. It is in two-four time and makes fre-
quent use of the cinquillo rhythmic pattern:
The larger instrumental form will be discussed in more detail in the
chapter on piano music. Suffice it to say that some examples of the
composer's danzas for voice and piano are "Mufequita," "Andar," and
Another group is labeled simply canciones (songs), and the works
comprised are extremely varied in character. They are all, nonetheless,
romantic, with a touch of dramaticism, which sets them apart from the
other genres. The canciones have not achieved a particular character-
istic form, admits Grenet.
It uses the most varied forms for its expression, employing
rhythmic measures of three-four, six-eight, quadruple, or two-
four time. This expression is tender, plaintive, melancholy,
sentimental, romantic, and it is developed in the most
measured harmonic environment. There are at times agreeable
modulative surprises aided by a slow and dramatic style which
follows classical technique in expression. (Grenet, 1939, p. 27)
"Noche azul" is probably one of Lecuona's best-known canciones.
Also popular are "Sefor jardinero" (Mr. Gardener), "Te quiero morena" (I
Love You, Brunette), and "Coraz6n: no pidas m&s" (Heart: Don't Ask for
The preg6n is probably the most characteristic Cuban genre. It is
the name given to the chant of the common street vendor or peddler,
while he announces the goods and quality of the goods for sale. "The
intonation of the voice announcing an article acquires a clear profile,
producing real musical periods" (Grenet, 1939, p.41) Cuban musicians
have always been inspired by pregones, and some of the Island's most
famous and loved songs fall in this category. "El manisero" (The Peanut
Vendor) by Mois&s Simons has toured the world.
Lecuona also felt drawn to the pregones of the Cuban vendors and
adapted them to music. He created some of the most picturesque and at
the same time nostalgic views of the common peddler on the streets of
the Island. Ayala asks concerning Lecuona's pregones, "How could anyone
purify, sophisticate, and elegantly dress the popular music without
losing its character?" (Ayala, 1981, p. 138).
Four of his best-known pregones are in a collection which includes
"El pirulero" (The Candy Vendor), "El frutero" (The Fruit Vendor), "El
dulcero" (The Pastry Vendor), and "El pulpero" (The Fruit-Pulp Vendor).
The texts of the pregones are usually humorous and piquant. It
must be remembered that the peddler's song was aimed at the housewives,
who were home alone during the day. Following is the text of "El
frutero," by Sinchez-Galarraga, translated by this author.
El frutero The Fruit Vendor
Yo llevo piias sabrosas I carry delicious pineapples
Y con doraditas conchitas. With golden skins.
Esas piias yo las llevo Those pineapples I carry
Para las nifas bonitas For pretty girls.
Tambien llevo calabaza I also carry pumpkin
Con otras frutas mezcla'os Mixed in with other fruits.
Esas no son para las nifas; Those are not for the girls
Son pa' sus enamora'os But for their lovers.
Tambijn yo llevo naranjas, I also carry oranges,
Y argunas(sic) las llevo secas. And some I carry dry.
Esas son para las viejas, These are for the old ladies,
Para las viejas cluecas. For the flirting old ladies.
Caserita, sal que tengo Little housewife, come out for I have
Muchas frutas en sas6n. Many fruits in season.
Soy el frutero que llevo I'm the fruit vendor who sells
Mamoncillo y rico an6n. Mamoncillo and tasty an6n.
Soy frutero, caserita sal. I'm the fruit vendor, little
housewife; come out.
Medio tablero doy por un real, Half a flat I sell for a dime,
Y a ti caserita te lo dare And to you, little housewife, I'll
Si te sonries como yo s6. If you smile, as I know you do.
Ya se va, si sefor, He's leaving, yes sir,
El frutero ya se va. The fruit vendor's leaving.
Caserita pronto sal Little housewife, come out soon
Si le quieres ti comprar. If you want to buy from him.
Que llevo los mamoncillo y el I carry mamoncillo and canitel
Y llevo tambien las naranjas And also oranges I carry
de la China 6 del Cajel From China or from Cajel,
Y el rico mamey. And the tasty mamey.
Y llevo tambien an6n And I also carry an6n
Tan dulce por su sabor. Tasting so very sweet.
Ay casera sal Ay, housewife, come out
Que ya el frutero se vs. For the fruit vendor is leaving.
Ay, que si senior, Ay, yes sir,
Que ya yo me voy I'm already leaving
Si ta no me quieres If you don't want
Comprarme na'. To buy anything from me.
Musically the preg6n is in two-four and is characterized by a rapid
progression of, most likely, eighth or sixteenth notes. This parallels
the fast delivery of words of the peddlers. The note range is usually
narrow with intervals no greater than a fourth. With many repeated
notes, they are accurate approximations of the chant-like intonations of
the street vendors (Figure 17). The accompaniment, as seen in that
example, is usually unobtrusive, although sometimes one can find the
bolero rhythm in the bass, as is the case in "El frutero (Figure 18).
Many of these pregones, it must be said, have been standardized to
the point that they are passed on from generation to generation without
suffering any major changes.
Figure 17. Lecuona, "El frutero," Measures 17-32
Figure 18. Lecuona, "El frutero," Measures 4-16
Lecuona's song output may be summarized with one phrase: unmistak-
ably Cuban. He did write a few songs labeled "berceuse," "impromptu,"
and "caprice," definitely inspired by the Romantic movement taking place
abroad. However, there are so few such examples that a detailed discus-
sion is immaterial to the task at hand. The overwhelming majority of
his compositions for voice were rooted in and inspired by the Cuban land
and its people.
What makes Lecuona's songs so unmistakably Cuban? Of foremost
musical significance is his use of native rhythms and forms, which he
applies accurately and tastefully. But more important to the man on the
street is that inherent Cuban character and flavor that permeates his
In Lecuona, Cubanism is a deep current that flows like an
emotional sap throughout his work. One of his songs, the
least rhythmic, which unfolds itself without a sensual cadence
or suggestion of syncopation is indefinably Creole. It is
enough to hear it, in any part of the world, to identify its
origin. A work of Lecuona, announcing its simple song without
the complementary left hand, expresses the entire tropics. No
one would mistake its affiliation or derivation. (Rosello,
1935, p. 2, trans. Gloria Jacobson)
Lecuona's songs are a good illustration of the composer's romantic
nature. He searched for texts that were filled with human emotions and
feelings. Banal subjects had no place in his output. Further evidence
of romanticism is the extreme dynamic markings and tempo changes that
invariably appear throughout the songs.
It may be safely stated that, although Lecuona's songs are not
landmarks in the history of the genre, their worldwide appeal rests on
the composer's ability to use the old, the traditional, the loved, to
create new and fresh means of expression. He gave a face lift to the
time-honored musical forms.
Lecuona's music for piano constitutes the most exciting, varied,
and representative genre of his entire output. Because of its impor-
tance, an attempt must be made to understand those factors which contri-
buted towards its form and character as we know it today.
Lecuona was an accomplished pianist from his earliest years. His
future in the concert world was practically assured when he decided to
devote himself to the performance of his own works. This chapter seems
the ideal place to relate the reasons for the composer's choice, which
was to influence the quality of his output so greatly.
The Afro-Cuban influence on Lecuona's music has been pointed out
repeatedly. It permeated almost every work, becoming such an inherent
part of the composer's music to the point of being considered one and
the same. Before embarking on the analysis of the literature, it is
therefore appropriate to expound briefly in this chapter on the meaning
of the term and its specific place in the music of Cuba.
Lecuona as Composer and Performer of his Own Works
Long before Lecuona's transition to composer and performer of his
own music, he was a serious interpreter of the classic repertoire. The
reviews of the times and the observations made by the established
pianists of the epoch attest to the fact that he was well on his way to
fame as a performer. Hubert de Blanck admitted, as early as 1913,
he's a player of extraordinary brilliancy, a perfect temperament,
and of great value" (Ramirez, n.d., p. 13). Emilio Agramonte was even
more effusive in his praise.
I have heard all the great pianists from Liszt to Thalberg.
Lecuona is a complete artist. He has temperament, easy and
nimble fingers. A surprising mechanism and a left hand simi-
lar to Rubenstein and Lavine (sic). His touch is pure and
clean like that of Joseph Hoffman. (Ramirez, n.d., p. 13)
It may be recalled that the maestro's graduating piece at the
Conservatory was Schumann's A Minor Concerto. Before, and also long
after that recital, Lecuona would primarily select works from the clas-
sical repertoire to form his numerous programs. Only at the end of the
performance would he add one or two of his own compositions for the
audiences to hear.
His future, then, seemed paved for success as a pianist of world
He could have appeared in all the world's stages, and today
his name would be among the universe's performers, but he was
too much of a composer and, most of all, too much of a Cuban
for that. (Ayala, 1981, p. 136, trans. Gloria Jacobson)
Ayala is completely correct in his observation. Lecuona was too
much of a composer and a Cuban. The maestro certainly did not reject
the idea of becoming a well-known performer; but he wanted to use his
pianistic ability to do what he enjoyed most. His dream was to become
an interpreter of his own works, which were indeed far from the classi-
cal repertoire in which he had been brought up. Lecuona recalled:
I had the ambition of being unique, my own. To be Lecuona:
theater, danzas, songs, and piano of Lecuona. To be it in my
country, and in Spain, Argentina, Norway, China, Japan,
Australia, Russia, ... .(Ramirez, n.d., p. 17)
What were the reasons for the road finally taken, for the abandon-
ment of the virtuoso route, which had proved to be so easy and acces-
sible to Lecuona?
First, Lecuona felt great admiration, almost to the point of
infatuation, for the American Louis Gottschalk. Interesting parallels
may be drawn between the early musical genius and rise to fame of both
composers. Lecuona was particularly interested in Gottschalk's music,
in his use of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Creole melodies, and virtuoso
passagework. He also admired the composer's full dedication to the
performance of his own works. Gottschalk had been mentioned in the same
breath as Liszt and Thalberg, just as Lecuona had been later. And
Gottschalk had relinquished the call to fame and followed his intuition.
This was probably the first push Lecuona received, however indirectly,
towards his goal.
Second, the Cuban environment was very limited in terms of opportu-
nities to develop the musical potential of a pianist trained in the
classical arena. Unfortunately, there were no societies or organiza-
tions that would provide scholarships for study abroad of talented
students. Lecuona did not have the means to take his musical education
The third problem, competition and financial difficulties, was
corroborated by Lecuona.
I was an artist dedicated seriously to the "serious" piano
literature, classic and modern. . But I realized that my
fight to universalize myself as a strict piano concertizer was
going to be terrible, my name not ending in "wsky" or in
another strange combination of letters. I did not have for-
tune or revenues, or anything like that to live on, except my
inspiration and my hands of a pianist. (Ramirez, n.d., p. 16)
Fourth, Lecuona liked applause and, from the very start, "I noticed
that even in concert halls, when Lecuona interpreted Lecuona, the
public, equally in Havana, Madrid, or Paris, vibrated with enthusiasm"
(Ramlrez, n.d, p. 16).
Although even up to 1932 the composer added classical works to his
repertoire, the trend towards popular music had already been estab-
lished. It may be recalled that while still eleven, the young pianist
accompanied singers of the day in segments from zarzuelas and other
popular music. It was at that time that he began to manifest a pro-
mising melodic talent, very popular and very Cuban. The various works
of his own that he included at the end of recitals were received with
frenetic enthusiasm, not only because of their brilliant execution but
because of the Cubanism they represented.
The decisive break came in 1932. He was then touring Spain, with
the soprano Maria Fantoli, presenting concerts of his own works for
piano and voice. The audiences loved it, and the critics gave glowing
reviews. Lecuona decided it was the time to make his definitive move.
Notwithstanding his success from then on, the maestro never refused
to play from the classical repertoire when asked to.
This giant of music was so humble that he never resented a
suggestion at a private gathering that he play Bach, Mozart,
Beethoven, and his response was invariably gracious and
cooperative. He would play any composer's piece without a
tinge of feeling that his should have preference. Without
fail, his admirers and friends would insist that he cap the
evening's entertainment with his own tunes. (Sperry, 1973,
Although the definitive transition came rather late in the com-
poser's career, Lecuona was elated. What he had always dreamed had
finally become reality: Lecuona was interpreting Lecuona.
The general feelings of the white community in the first years of
the Republic were reflected in hostile observations made by musicolo-
gists of the time concerning the presence of black rhythms in Cuban
music. Blacks had already been granted their freedom by then. But the
same country which was trying to parallel the cultural currents of the
time showed little, if any respect for its black population. Indeed, in
many ways blacks were severely repressed, as was the case with their
religious celebrations and other cultural expressions.
Up to that time, the blacks in the Island were conserving a poetic
and musical tradition which, unknown to them, would later be analyzed
and scrutinized by historians and musicologists everywhere. The purity
of many of those traditions was questionable. The freed slaves in the
nineteenth century had, of their own will, rapidly acculturated into the
Cuban-Spanish way of life. Many of these blacks would deal exclusively
with the music of the whites and would refuse to play the role of blacks
in the stage works of the time. But it was difficult to relinquish
those enculturated rhythms that were so much a part of their heritage.
At the same time, it must not be forgotten, ships kept unloading
black laborers, fresh from the African homelands. Those blacks, in
contrast to their freed counterparts, had little if any contact with the
outside world. To some, the boundaries of their master's farm would be
as far as they would ever go. Their work was made less arduous by the
singing of their traditional songs, which were passed on to the younger
generation. Furthermore, the blacks were frequently required to dance
their dances and sing their songs for the white overlords, who believed
it to be good for their health. Most of the songs and dances were
religious in nature.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century to its end, an Afro-
Cuban secular music developed. It came to the attention of the white
population through the public performances given by lower class benefit
societies. Largely Negro, although not exclusively, these societies
appeared in public, dancing, singing, and drumming, on such feast days
as Epiphany. They would wear elaborate masks and costumes at these
The sound and rhythms of the African drum fascinated the white
population and, at the end of the century,
Spanish melodies were superimposed on the secular Afro-Cuban
music, and the guitar was added to the drums, producing, in
the words of Ortiz, 'love affairs of the Spanish guitar with
the African drum.' The dances and rhythms that resulted from
this mingling -- the rumba, conga, son, and bolero -- spread
to much of the world. (McGaffy, Wyatt, and Barnett, 1962,
As stated before, though, whites in early twentieth-century Cuba
were still not ready to accept the contributions of the blacks, and the
Afro-Cuban movement was violently received. But it did not take long
for the fever to cool down. After all, that was the time when
Stravinsky, in his revolutionary Rite of Spring, was making use of a
barrage of complex and interesting rhythms. Milhaud had already been
influenced by the Brazilian sambas, and the Mexican painter Diego Rivera
y de Orozco had impressed Cuban intellectuals with the possibility of
tapping their local creole cultural resources. And suddenly, all eyes
turned to the Negro.
That is the way that the Afro-Cuban tendency was born, that
for more than ten years would feed poems, novels, folkloric,
and sociological studies. In many cases, the extent was to
the superficial and peripheral, to the 'negro under the sun-
intoxicated palm trees,' but that constituted a necessary step
to the better understanding of certain poetic, musical,
ethnic, and social factors that had contributed to giving a
unique character to the creole. (Carpentier, 1946, p. 236,
trans. Gloria Jacobson)
Best known in Lecuona's piano repertoire are his three sets of
danzas: Afro-Cubanas, Cubanas, and A la antigua ("Nineteenth-Century
Cuban Dances"). As Grenet correctly states, "His production in this
genre constitutes the most interesting manifestation of this highly
popular composer" (Grenet, 1939, p. 31).
The ballroom danza as a form developed from the contradanza, as
described earlier. The contradanza (from the English "country dance")
was imported to Cuba by the French in the eighteenth century. It be-
longed to the typical square dances where all the couples in the ball-
room collaborated to form different figures.
The danza, however, was danced independently by couples. Its form
was two-part, the second of which was a sharp contrast in character to
the first. In two-four time, it was a rapid dance, full of joy and
gaiety. It is probably the tempo, unsuited to the warm tropical climate,
that caused the danza to be replaced eventually by the danz6n, in a
The danza disappeared completely. It was instead stylized and
placed in concert halls, with little remaining of its original relation-
ship to the dance. Lecuona was one of a few composers to produce in
this new form.
Ernesto Lecuona has enriched the genre with his abundant
production and has redeemed it definitely from the dance
steps. His control of piano technique makes him dally with
delicious sonorities of a realism which is at times surprising
and in which the idea bubbles in the impenetrability of a
rhythm which is uncontrollable, dominating, and obsessing.
(Grenet, 1939, p. 31)
1. "La conga de medianoche"
2. "Danza negra"
3. "Y la negra bailaba"
4. "Danza de los naiigos"
5. "Danza Lucumi"
6. "La comparsa"
The obsessing rhythm of which Grenet speaks is best exemplified in
"La comparsa." A comparsa is a traditional procession which takes place
yearly during the Carnival season in Cuba. Thousands of Negroes and
mulattos dance down the streets, singing their exotic melodies to the
accompaniment of rhythm instruments. Composers have always tried to
capture the spirit of these festive times.
In his danza, which Lecuona wrote at the early age of fifteen, the
composer carefully depicts the gradual approach of the comparsa. After
developing it through all the climactic moments of the second part, the
music begins to diminish. The parade is disappearing in the distance,
and its last sounds get lost in a melancholy diminuendo. As Ayala
writes, "'La comparsa' is music that describes; it is a symphonic poem,
probably the most compact one ever written" (Ayala, 1981, p. 138, trans.
The persistent rhythm of the African drum is heard continuously
through the danza, imbuing the work with the liveliness and gaity typi-
cal of the Cuban comparsas (Figure 19). The effect is even more drama-
tic in the climactic second half, in a new key (Figure 20).
The same rhythmic fervor may be observed in "Danza Lucumi," which,
along with "La comparsa" and "Danza negra," captures the Carnival spirit
so well. The Lucumis were the Cuban descendants of the Nigerian Yoruba.
They brought to Cuba their complex religious beliefs and their drums,
which were an integral part of their religious ritual, Santeria Lucumi.
Figure 19. Lecuona, "La comparsa," Measures 1-19
/'1. 1 -----------
(s -____ ^ ^
Figure 20. Lecuona, "La comparsa," Measures 52-61
Figure 21 illustrates a portion of the frantic music. Note the
repeated rhythmic pattern in the bass. It is the J :J J bolero
rhythm. It is a work of unequalled feverish excitement. The constant
and sudden changes in dynamics clearly evoke the soulful expression of
Another interesting work in the suite is the "Danza de los
NaHigos." The Rafigos were members of a cult which maintained its
unique religion, worship, customs, and rituals, even after their arrival
in Cuba. There was a certain kind of fear and mysticism associated with
the Rafigos, which Winthrop Sargeant describes:
Upper class Cubans sometimes frighten their children by tel-
ling them the Sanigos will get them if they are not good. The
Cuban police keep the Manigo tribal rituals under surveillance
and are ready to pounce the minute there is a change from
harmless voodoo to political agitation. Once a year, at
Carnival time, the Sanigos come into the open as the big event
of the Cuban comparsas....The streets of Havana stream with
joyous throngs of fantastically costumed Negroes, prancing
along to drumming and chanting that sounds as though it came
straight from the heart of Africa. (Sargeant, 1947, p. 151)
In "Danza de los aiiigos," it seems that Lecuona wants to express
that yearly moment of elation when the Saiigos can openly sing of
themselves. The composition opens with no more than a pp passage of
constant hand crossing, shown in Figure 22. It all builds to an almost
uncontrollable fff strepitoso, achieved by different rapid octave pas-
sages in the right hand (Figure 23). The work ends, again in a ppp,
probably symbolizing the return of the Ratigos to their secret world.
Lecuona was favored with hands that could easily span a tenth on
the keyboard. He exploited them by constantly writing demanding octave
passages in the great majority of his works. A case in point appears in
Figure 24, the piu mosso section in "...Y la negra bailaba" (And the
Black Woman Danced).
-- -- -- -- -- -- -
It 1 4
4: 41 -4 $:~I ;
Figure 21. Lecuona, "Danza Lucumi," Measures 91-102
~I 'AT L-
I, S. ~-,- -
p -vS. S.
Figure 22. Lecuona, "Danza de los lanigos," Measures 77-100
Figure 23. Lecuona, "Danza de los Fanigos," Measures 41-55
S. . . . . . . .. . o o . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Figure 24. Lecuona, "Y la negra bailaba," Measures 55-69
Another example, shown in Figure 25, appears in "Danza negra." In
the same piece, Figure 26 shows that rhythmic obsession which charac-
terizes most of the compositions in the suite. The repeating pattern
appears here in the first and last section.
By far the most challenging of the Afro-Cuban danzas is the "Conga
de medianoche" (Midnight Conga). Congas are dances of African origin.
"The 'conga,' whose name comes from a large drum, probably of the Congo,
is a manifestation of African joy without any preconceived formality"
(Grenet, 1939, p. 45).
The dance is in two-four time, with essentially a march rhythm. It
is based on a two-measure pattern; the first is symmetrical, but the
second is syncopated, the second beat anticipated by a sixteenth note.
The conga is danced on ballrooms and in the street. In a ballroom
it is danced by couples or, as is more often the case, in a conga line,
wherein participants hold on to the waist or shoulders of the person
ahead. The dancers simply march to the beat of the rhythm, marking the
syncopation by a kick and a brusque movement of the body. In the street
the conga is similarly danced, except that the dancers are often not
holding on to one another.
It should be added that, from the time of the Republic, the conga
became an instrument of political propaganda. The texts almost always
dealt with the defeat or victory of a particular candidate. In writing
the "Conga de medianoche," Lecuona probably recalled the noises and
popular sones he heard as a child during nights of typical political
Figure 25. Lecuona, "Danza negra," Measures 55-68
2 ~ I I~U ~ ~~)3 ~) ~~- -
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Figure 26. Lecuona, "Danza negra," Measures 1-10
Lecuona's conga is an extremely interesting piece to analyze. In
the first place we do find the continuous conga rhythm throughout
(Figure 27). However, in listening to the work we find that it is
practically impossible to dance to it. "La conga de medianoche" is a
very delicate composition. Its elegance and refined character make it a
great listening piece, but out of place on a dance floor. Moreover, it
is not at all a singable melody. "La conga" is one of Lecuona's most
dissonant works. The opening measures, quoted in Figure 28, give a
brief glimpse of the unconventional harmonies.
The dissonances are brought about through the superimposition of
major and minor seconds. This is also seen in the climactic B section,
"strepetoso e largamente." Figure 29 illustrates the unusual harmony
for early twentieth-century Cuban music.
1. "No hables mis" (Speak No More)
2. "No puedo contigo" (I Cannot Deal with You)
3. "Ahi viene el chino" (Here Comes the Chinaman)
4. "4Por qu6 te vas?" (Why Do You Go?)
5. "Lola est& de fiesta" (Lola Is Celebrating)
6. "En tres por cuatro" (In Three-Quarter Time)
This representative set of Cuban dances is next in popularity to
the Danzas Afro-Cubanas. Four of the compositions are in the two-four
time typical of popular music. "Ahl viene el chino" is in four-four, and
"En tres por cuatro," as the title says, is in three-four. They are all
in simple ABA form.
Characteristic of the danzas is a repetitive rhythmic pattern in
the bass which continues throughout the entire A section of the works.
Figure 27. Lecuona, "Conga de medianoche," Measures 37-45
V2 3F ]F
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Figure 28. Lecuona, "Conga de medianoche," Measures 1-6
Figure 29. Lecuona, "Conga de medianoche," Measures 98-110
In "No hables mis" we find the pattern Jj fl, and in ".Por qu& te
vas?" it is 4J J (Figure 30). In the B section Lecuona pro-
vides the contrast by changing the rhythm pattern which, once again,
remains constant throughout the part.
The two best known Danzas Cubanas are "En tres por cuatro" and "Ahi
viene el chino." In the former, Lecuona places the accents in the weak
beats, creating a syncopated three-four piece full of grace and
freshness. The repetitive left hand pattern and the right hand octaves
are also illustrated in the example of Figure 31.
The B section has one of the most contagious melodies found in the
suite, defined more by its rhythmic character than by its melodic
pattern (Figure 32).
"En tres por cuatro" is, overall, an extremely exciting rhythmic work
and at the same time, one which exudes emotion from every note.
"Ahi viene el chino" follows the pattern of the other danzas, but
this particular one is so descriptive that one can easily picture the
subject of Lecuona's music. The A sections, with continuous grace notes
give the tinkling effect reminiscent of far-eastern music. It also
brings to mind the delicateness and diminutive stature associated with
the people (Figure 33).
And then comes the intense middle section which almost seems to
express in music the strength of body and mind acquired by the dedica-
tion and hard work of the Chinese coolies on the island of Cuba
In the words of Ayala referring to the danza, "One really sees him
walking more than hearing him, and one almost understands the big words
V _____ -
Figure 30. Lecuona, "EPor qu6 te vas?" Measures 5-11
Figure 31. Lecuona, "En tres por cuatro," Measures 1-9
i- ff+r ~
Figure 32. Lecuona, "En tres por cuatro," Measures 21-26
All IZvo 11 1 o 1 11, ti ppo
Figure 33. Lecuona, "Ahi viene el chino," Measures 1-10
Iy f I.
-i ; -(:< ? ,.<* -t ^ ^ ^ _
- .,4iI2I ,=-- __
3 pp =
Figure 34. Lecuona, "Ahi viene el chino," Measures 27-38