Decades of U.S.-Cuba musical exchange shaped Tania J. León’s career


Over the past two years, Cuban-born composer Tania León has been on a meteoric rise. Recognized for decades as a pianist, conductor and composer, she is one of this year’s Kennedy Center for Her Award winners.The ceremony will air Wednesday night at CBS. Her career has spanned her 50 years and she has earned many accolades for working with top her ensembles and artists in the country. Kennedy Prior to her Center Honors, she won her 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her “Stride.” Her career is particularly noteworthy given the gender, race, and ethnic labels she has received (and which she actively resists) in the US classical music scene.

Her music and life extend beyond the borders of America. Leon’s career reveals a rich history of connections and exchanges between the United States and Cuba, particularly through culture and music dating back to the colonial era. But with the U.S. embargo on Cuba, tales of frozen-in-time Cuban pastels, vintage her cars, and poor islands have permeated popular culture. But as her biography of León shows, such a narrative ignores the lively and ongoing cultural exchanges between the two countries before and after the 1959 Revolution.

Cuban music’s influence on US jazz and mainstream popular culture may be familiar to many (Dizzy Gillespie’s recordings with Chano Pozo, Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, 20th Century Think about the mid-century television series “I Love Lucy”), Cuba and the United States have exchanged classical music since the 19th century.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk, from New Orleans, toured the island in the tumultuous backdrop of Cuban nationalists organizing an uprising against Spain in the 1850s. He gave several concerts, composed piano works inspired by his music of Cuban dance, encouraged Cuban musicians and composers, and wrote his first symphony, La nuit des tropiques (1859), in Havana. ) and premiered it. Gottschalk supported the independence efforts of the Cuban Criollos (descendants of Cuban-born Spaniards, but perhaps also of indigenous and black descent) who were fighting against Spanish rule. As a result, he encouraged Cuban composers to write music that imbued Western European forms with national idioms and sounds.

This elevated the Cuban contradanza as a genre of salon and classical music and laid the foundation for the subsequent development of Cuban dance music such as danzón, mambo and cha-cha-cha. Gottschalk and the Cuban composers Ignacio Cervantes and Manuel Saumer set the rhythms of Caribbean and New Orleans dances in salon piano pieces, distributed as piano scores in the Caribbean and the United States, and distributed to Cuba and the United States through parlors. entered the family of

In the early 20th century, Cuban composers Amadeo Roldan and Alejandro García Caturlla maintained relationships with US-based composers such as Henry Cowell, Edgar Varese, and Aaron Copland. Organizations such as the National Society of Composers and the Society for New Music also facilitated these connections. Composers from both countries exchanged letters and scores, organized performances of each other’s music, and prepared manuscripts for publication. Their common goal was to create and promote American modernist music by developing an American style and sound independent of the European model.

These were also the times of the United States’ “Good Neighborhood Policy,” in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought hemispheric unity, cooperation, and trade through diplomacy rather than military force. The State Department sent US composers and ensembles to tour Latin America. Most notably, Copeland toured Latin America as a cultural ambassador, including a stop in Havana in his 1941.

Copeland asked José Aldevol, professor of composition at the La Havana Municipal Conservatory of Music, to select one of the students to join Copeland in Tanglewood at the 1942 Berkshire Music Festival. His Harold Gramatges, a student at Ardévol, won his first scholarship to travel to Massachusetts. After 1942 Gramatches and Copeland maintained a warm relationship.

These activities are managed through the New York-based Cuban-American Music Group, established to facilitate the exchange of scores and scholarships for music composition studies in the United States for young Cuban composers. I was. In 1944, Gisela Hernández joined Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute to continue her compositional studies. In 1946 Julian Orbon was selected to participate in the Berkshire Music Festival, and in 1956 Carlos Farinhas also visited Tanglewood to attend the festival and study with Copeland.

Young Cuban composers who studied under Ardévol and Copland were encouraged to explore neoclassical approaches, but never abandoned musical elements of Cuban folk and popular music.

During the turmoil of the 1950s, many Cuban composers were also politically active, allied with the Cuban People’s Socialist Party and eventually joined Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement. Cuban composers continued to travel to the United States to study composition in the early days of the Revolution, before the United States embargoed all relations between the United States and Cuba. Leo Brouwer studied at the Hart College of Music at the University of Hartford and the Juilliard School in 1959. In the same year, Hector Angulo studied at Tanglewood and then the Manhattan School of Music. However, when the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in 1962, diplomatic exchanges between the two countries ceased.

Even then, however, Cuban composers continued to foster connections with US composers and the US classical music scene through “third party” or “surrogate” relationships. For example, Brouwer obtained scores and recordings of works by American composers at the Warsaw Autumn Music Festival in Poland in 1961, and later traveled to West Germany through a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship. While in Morton he met Feldman. Gramages served as Cuba’s ambassador to France in the early 1960s, trying to keep abreast of new developments in classical music in the West. Some Cuban composers who did not agree with the revolutionary regime, such as Orbon and Aurelio de la Vega, defected and eventually settled in the United States. On the other hand, avant-garde and experimental approaches to composition were cultivated in both countries.

Around the same year, Leon was studying piano playing in Cuba. She secured her one spot in 1967 when she left Cuba at the age of 24 on the “Freedom Flight”. Tensions between the United States and Cuba have affected Leon’s professional and personal life. President Jimmy Carter has agreed to allow Cubans living in the United States to return to the islands to visit family. The agreement also allowed her three-day music festival, the famous Havana Jam, held in March 1979, with US-based and Cuban musicians performing on the same stage in Havana.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, several young Cuban composers have left the island to pursue compositional training and careers. Some, such as Quira Orozco, Rui Aguirre, and Carlos Malcolm, settled in other Latin American countries and Europe, while others, such as Iliana Pérez Velazquez, found a place in music and academic institutions in the United States.

Ever since Cubans began to articulate their own Cubanness, which differs from Spanish customs and rules, the desire to communicate and connect with others across the sea and beyond has become a common practice of Cuban intellectuals and artists. was. The Career and Life Story of Tania León is one of many in the long history of musical exchanges between Cuba and the United States.

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