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Ernesto Lecuona and “Malaguena”

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Ernesto Lecuona y Casado (August 6, 1895 [some sources give 1896] – November 29, 1963) was a Cuban composer and pianist of worldwide fame, the most important musician in Cuban musical life during the first half of the 20th century, who composed over six hundred pieces, mostly in the Cuban vein, and was a pianist of exceptional skill. His father was Canarian and his mother was Cuban. Born at Guanabacoa, a small suburban village across the bay from Havana, Cuba, on August 6, 1895, but for an unexplained reason he actually observed his birthday as August 7, 1896, he started studying piano at an early age, under his sister Ernestina Lecuona, a famed composer in her own right, and gave a public recital at the age of five. All five children in the Lecuona family were musically gifted, four as pianists and one son as a violinist. At just seven years old, the sudden disappearance of his father, director of the periodical “El Comercio”, forced him to help contribute to his family’s income by playing piano in the first silent theatres of the capital.

As a child prodigy, Ernesto composed his first song at the age of 11, a two-step titled Cuba y America. From 1904 to 1907, he studied at the Peyrellade Conservatoire under Antonio Saavedra and the famous Joaquin Nin, where he struck up a strong friendship with the young Rita Montaner, who would soon become a central figure of Cuban poetry. Between 1908 and 1909 he worked at the Teatro Martì, where, particularly attracted to opera, he put on his first musical comedy, Fantasia Tropical. In 1912 he composed his first ballet, La comparsa, which marks the beginning of his most original musical pursuits. Lecuona graduated from the National Conservatory of Havana, where he studied piano and composition with Hubert de Blanck, the Dutch composer who migrated to Havana, receiving a Gold Medal for interpretation when he was sixteen. And he performed outside of Cuba at the Aeolian Hall in New York City, NY in 1916, making his first public appearance outside of Havana. A year later he recorded his first record, which included Vals España and La comparsa.

In 1918, having returned to Cuba, Lecuona opened the “Instituto Musical de La Habana”. Also in 1918 Lecuona collaborated with Luis Casas Romero, Moisés Simons, Jaime Prats, Nilo Menéndez, and Vicente Lanz in setting up a successful player piano music roll factory in Cuba producing Cuban music and also copies from masters made by QRS in the USA. The brand label was “Rollo Autógrafo.” In 119, he wrote his first professional opera, Domingo de Piñata, which was performed at the Teatro Martì with lyrics by Mario Vitoria. A few years later, Lecuona achieved international success as a pianist in 1923, once more in New York. Also in 1923, Lecuona performed the Concierto Tipico Cubano for the first time at the “Teatro Nacional.” However, thanks to the huge success of pieces like Malaguena from his Andalucía Suite (1927) and Siboney, composition superceded pianism as Lecuona’s primary activity

Still, Lecuona continued to actively tour and perform widely as pianist and conductor for most of his life. Among Lecuona’s many achievements was the founding of the Havana Symphony (with Gonzalo Roig). Lecuona also formed a dance band called Orquesta Cubana, which mainly performed arrangements of popular Cuban dance pieces and songs. The group quickly became well known and made many tours of the United States, Europe, and South America. Ironically, Lecuona was not the band’s pianist. That role was left to Armando Fichin Oréfiche, a skilled artist and composer in his own right who also did some of the group’s musical arrangements. Lecuona first travelled to Spain in 1924 on a concert tour with violinist Marta de la Torre. His successful piano recitals in 1928 at Paris in the “Gaveau Hall”, an exclusive space for famous composers and performers, coincided with a rise in interest in Cuban music. He then decided on further musical studies, taking in France, from Maurice Ravel. Lecuona was a prolific composer of songs and music for stage and film, writing a great deal of film music in the ’30s and ’40s for such major studios as MGM, 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers. In 1931 alone, he turned out three: Under Cuban Skies, Free Soul, and Susana Lenox, all for MGM.

Besides eleven film scores, Lecuona’s works consisted of zarzuelas such as Rosa la china (1932), 170-odd piano pieces, Afro-Cuban and Cuban rhythms, 37 orchestral works including suites, five ballets, an opera, six pieces for piano and orchestra, three violin works, a trio, a number of incidental arrangements, and many songs–over 400, which are still very famous. They include Siboney (Canto Siboney), Malagueña and The Breeze And I (Andalucía). In 1934, during a tour in Spain, following a lengthy bout of pneumonia, Lecuona was forced to withdraw from the dance band on the advice of doctors and return to Cuba for health reasons. The group was thereafter known as the Lecuona Cuban Boys, a popular touring group to which Lecuona gave not only the use of his name but other help as well. Though he did not play as a member of the band, he did sometimes play piano solos as the first item on the bill. In 1942, his great hit, Always in my heart (Siempre en mi Corazon) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song; however, it lost to White Christmas. Lecuona was a master of the symphonic form and conducted the Ernesto Lecuona Symphonic Orchestra, employing soloists including Cuban pianist and composer Carmelina Delfin. The Orchestra performed in the Cuban Liberation Day Concert at Carnegie Hall on October 10, 1943. The concert included the world premiere of Lecuona’s Black Rhapsody. One of his more popular postwar film efforts was for the 1947 movie Carnival in Costa Rica.

Lecuona’s talent for composition has influenced the Latin American world in a way quite similar to George Gershwin in the United States, in his case raising Cuban music to classical status. He wrote in an approachable, often popular style, especially in his songs, and exhibited Latin and Afro-Cuban elements in his music. In some of his later compositions, he wrote in a more serious, somewhat neo-Classical style. He returned to Cuba after living for a long period in New York City, but following the Communist takeover, in 1960, Lecuona, thoroughly unhappy with Castro’s new régime, moved to Tampa and lived with relatives in the home of singer Esperanza Chediak. Lecuona lived his final years in the US. Three years after settling in America, on November 23, 1963, he died at the age of 68 while on a trip in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, as a result of an attack of asthma, a disorder which had persecuted him his entire life. He was interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, NY, but his will instructs that his remains be repatriated once the current régime runs its course. A great deal of Lecuona’s music was first introduced to mass American audiences by Desi Arnaz, a fellow Cuban and Lucille Ball’s spouse.

My collection contains the following works by Ernesto Lecuona:

Andalucia, Suite Espagnola (1919): Gitanerias, Andalusia, Malaguena, Cordoba, and Guadalquivir.
Danza Lucumi.
Danzas Afro-Cubanos (Set III, 1930).
In ¾ Time.
Jungle Drums.
La Comparasa (1913).
La Tierra de Venus: Siboney.
Rhapsodias Negra (1943).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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