Ernesto Lecuona's centenary (1995) was celebrated in appropriate style with SGAE's publication of a complete catalogue of his works, accompanied by a handsome volume of essays and reminiscences El arte musical de Ernesto Lecuona. The Madrid books served as a tribute to Cuba's best known and loved performer-composer, world famous for his songs and piano works, but no less important for a sequence of powerful zarzuelas commencing with the collaborative Niña Rita, o La Habana en 1830 (written with Eliseo Grenet.)
There have been two previous, recent Cuban biographies of Lecuona, by Orlando Martínez (1984) and Carmela de León (1996). Lecuona, el Genio y su Musica is a collaboration between two historians, one of whom (Castellano) lives and works in the Canary Islands, where Lecuona died in 1964 and from whence his father had emigrated in 1860. Fernández is an official historian in Jagüey Grande, Matanzas, Cuba. Their book utilises a number of primary source documents, especially at the beginning and end of the composer's life. They adduce convincing proof that 1895, not 1896, was the year of his birth; and that his death was due, not as sometimes stated to drowning, but to a long-fought pulmonary emphysema.
Lives have middles as well as beginnings and ends. From about the age of six Ernesto Lecuona's was dominated by work. The endless round of concert tours, entrepreneurial ventures and occasional spells of relaxation at his beloved Cuban ranch, La comparsa - named after one of his earliest and most famous piano pieces - is blurred here. The composer's salad days are treated more or less in sequence, but anecdotally, everything being packed into in four "movements" which don't quite correspond to a chronological frame. Still, there is much of interest to be plucked from the bran tub, including extracts from contemporary press reports of Lecuona's pianistic wizardry; and verbal sketches of some of his artistic collaborators, notably his intimate friend the poet Gustavo Sánchez Galarraga, librettist of many of the zarzuelas, notably María la O, El cafetal and Rosa la china.
Neither of the biographers are specialist musicians. In the main they confine themselves to generalised praise of Lecuona's music and assertions of his importance to Cuban music. Although his position as one of the first crossover artists of the electric recording age is largely taken for granted, they do address Lecuonas championing of the Afrocuban movement in the 1920's and early 30's, and the intriguing enigma of his stance towards Communism and Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. Was he an exile or not? Their conclusions on this question - broadly that he was too ill and hard-worked to be anything other than politically detached - seem sane and humane, although the matter of his "last will and testament" as to where and when he should be buried remains an open one¹.
Ernesto Lecuona the man remains elusive and shadowy. In some ways the most valuable and touching contribution here is that of translator Dr. Rafael Lecuona, the composer's nephew. In an extended preface he describes his own family relations with "Tío Ernesto", at La comparsa and in Havana, painting a specially vivid picture of a late family Christmas in Tallahassee, Florida, at which the ailing Lecuona sat down at the piano and played for two and a half hours, non-stop, to a deeply moved circle of exiled family and friends. Otherwise Dr. Lecuona's translation style is personal, allowing one to sense the bones of the Spanish language through the English skin.
There are many typographical errors, which a more thorough proofing ought to have sorted out. Nevertheless, Dr. Lecuona's labour of love has given many - especially English speakers - access to a book which was originally limited to a print run of only 200 copies, and for that we should be grateful. Copious appendices contain amongst other things a (partial) index of works, examples of Lecuonas concert programmes, press cuttings, bibliographies and a genealogy. The inline graphics - many photos added by Dr. Lecuona himself from family sources - are another attraction. Altogether, for any English speakers wishing to learn more about Cuba's most popular and memorable composer, Ernesto Lecuona: the Genius and his Music is a most useful resource.
© Christopher Webber 2004
¹ Note: c.f. internet correspondence from Paul Rosete Lecuona (24/11/2002) on http://www.cuentos.8m.net/favorite.htm