“Dos canciones Afro-Cubanos” by Alejandro García-Caturla (1906-1940)

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Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla

When planning my upcoming Latin American Song: A Panoramic View recital on October 27th in Manhattan, I decided to program the diptych by the Cuban modernist composer Alejandro García Caturla.  I have been interested his Dos canciones Afro-Cubanos since I heard his voodoo inspired Juego Santo in a recording from the mid 50’s by the American soprano Phyllis Curtin.  This disc is probably one of the first US recording of Latin American Art Song by an artist and label outside of Latin America.

My disc of “Canciones y Cantigas” by American soprano Phyllis Curtin

I started looking for a score and found it almost immediately, thanks to New York based tenor and voice teacher Andrés Andrade.  His great aunt in Cuba had studied piano with Caturla.  Currently working from a photocopy of the cycle,  the songs were originally edited by Maurice Senart in 1930 and are a fruit of the collaboration between the Cuban poet and intellectual Alejo Carpantier (1904-1980) and García-Caturla when they were both in Paris in  the 1920’s.  The young Caturla was at the time studying with Nadia Boulanger.  The edition carries the dedication to the Cuban  soprano Lydia de Rivera, who premiered Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanos in 1929 in Paris.  In this photograph I found of de Rivera in the internet, she looks like the 1920’s American actress of the movie Pandora ‘s Box, Louise Brookes:

Cuban soprano Lydia de Rivera

Lydia de Rivera  (1906-1990) was at the time the only Cuban (perhaps the first!) classical singer actively singing and promoting art song from Cuba both in her country and internationally, playing in concert halls of great prestige.  Her notoriety must of been wide, as the cycle Tres Sonetos for voice and piano by the Spanish composer Joaquín Turina are dedicated to her.  I found this photo of Lydia de Rivera and Turina by the  Eiffel Tower (Archive Fundación Juan March, Madrid Spain).

Spanish composer Joaquín Turina and Cuban soprano Lydia de Rivera, from the Joaquín Turina archive at the Fundación Juan March, Madrid (Spain)

Tres Sonetos by Joaquín Turina, dedicated to Lydia de Rivera

Back to the actual songs, The first of which is Mari-Sabel: I had no actual recording of this piece, as it was not included in the recording I have by Ms. Curtin. I had put off learning this song for years…difficult to learn, with jagged rhythms and harmonies and scales that baptize the Afro Cuban modernist style of which Caturla pretty much inaugurated, the song switches from a “son” tune as well as other various dance rhythms to primitive sounding soliloquies that describe a sunny lazy afternoon, disturbed first by a a peanut vendor, ending with a rambunctious drive to a final dramatic ending with the “son” gone wild.  I started reading up on the piece and how it came about in Google Books, and found the excellent biography and study about this composer by Charles W. White, “Alejandro García Caturla:  A Cuban Composer in the 20th Century”: in 1929 at age 23, Caturla sailed from his native Cuba to Spain, were he was welcomed in Madrid by the most prominent composers and music critics of the day (Ernesto Halffter, Afolfo Salazar, Joaquín Turina among others). He subsequently went to Barcelona to present his Tres Danzas Cubanas at the Festivales Sinfónicos Iberoamericanos.  While in Barcelona, he received an urgent call from his friend Carpantier.  He was asked to compose two songs for Lydia de Rivera’s upcoming concerts in Paris to texts by said poet.  Leaving other extremely important prospects in Spain, such as his debut as conductor as well as premiere of his Tres Danzas Cubanas by Ernesto Halffter, he traveled to Paris to see his name in kiosks around the city announcing his new composition to be premiered by the Cuban soprano.  Caturla finished the songs in a matter of days, and the premiere of Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanos on November 19, 1929 at the Salle Gaveau took place to resounding success.

In White’s book about Caturla, he signals this diptych as a true masterpiece without equal in the new musical aesthetic of Afro-Cuban modernism.  There is an in-depth analysis of both Mari-Sabel and Juego Santo with musical examples.  It was in this cycle, White writes, that the composer does a decisive about face from writing songs closer to popular rhythms to the Avant-garde Afro Cuban modernism that he is now know for.  In the Phyllis Curtin CD is also his “Bito Manué”, using the sarcastic text by Cuban nationalist poet, Nicolás Guillén,

My copy of “Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanos” by Caturla

The second song, Juego Santo relates a voodoo ceremony.   The text evokes vodoo dieties and shamanistic practices.  The ABA song starts with an African drumming theme that is strong and in your face, with Afro-Cuban Spanish words mixed in.  The B section is a dramatic soliloquy describing the rite itself:

They tied the goat, they killed the crow, they cooked the crab and the took out the Devil!

Intense stuff…I will be doing a close up study of this song, information on how to perform it with  background I hope to learn about Cuban voodoo practices.  I have also become very interested in the soprano Lydia de Rivera and have begun asking here in NYC among my contacts to find out if anyone here knew her. According to the article I found on the internet she migrated to the US in 1960, living in NYC until her passing in 1990.  After her triumphant recital tours of Latin American songs in the 1920’s, in her native Cuba she became the muse and interpreter of the songs and zarzuelas of Ernesto Lecuona as well as a voice teacher in her native Cuba.  At this point I do not know of her activities in NYC.

Alejo Carpantier was the subject of three didactic concerts at the Fundación Juan March in Madrid (Spain), which examined his ties to musical culture to both Cuban and Spain, there is the link to the PDF of the program notes, which are filled with information, including a small essay about Caturla.  I enclose here a video clip of the presentations:  The Musical Universe of Alejo Carpantier

Back to our composer, had it not been for his untimely death at the age of 33 years old, Caturla would of surely be considered one of the giants of Latin American music besides the well-known Heitor Villa-Lobos, Carlos Chávez, Manuel Ponce and Alberto Ginastera.  This highly original composer, who was at the forefront of a new musical movement in classical Latin American composition is not very well-known outside of intellectual circles.  His Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanos is really an achievement of three artists: the composer, the poet Carpantier and the Lydia de Rivera.  The cycle represents all three of these artists, all of whom are important to the musical culture of Cuba and beyond.    I hope to do them justice!

An additional note, while wandering the stacks of the New York Performing Arts Library and totally by coincidence, I discovered an orchestrated version of this cycle for voice and full orchestra, in Caturla’s hand writing, dated 1930.

Orchestrated version of Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanas  by Caturla

Orchestrated version of Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanas by Caturla

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