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Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes, controversies and paradoxes

Date: 2018-08-10 14:45:03

Havana, Cuba. -  Some passages in the history of Cuban music are barely known and practically remain concealed, because the "purists" or more "scrupulous" think their disclosure tends to undermine the luster of its central characters.

Actually, that is not always the case. Well-told and most of all, properly used anecdotes, help in many cases to approach the characters involved in their right social, historical and human dimension.

One of those juicy testimonies was offered by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, who in 1924 hosted a Mexican musician named Ignacio Fernandez-Esperon ─ known as Tato Nacho─ who was visiting Havana.

The famous Mexican composer wanted to hear the best of Cuban folk music. Carpentier took him to an Abakua initiation ceremony, a society of Afro-Cuban origin, scorned by the so-called high society of the time. After witnessing the liturgical songs and dances, the visitor was captivated by what he saw and heard and he declared it publicly.

The most interesting part of this brushstroke came later, when composer and musicologist Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes criticized the fact for considering "this expression of popular culture to be detrimental to Cubans and should not, under any circumstance, be shown to foreigners [...] and also a national shame.”

Sanchez de Fuentes’ infuriation was a consequence of the strong racist prejudices that prevailed in the socio-class segment to which he belonged.

Jorge Ibarra, National Social Sciences Award 1996, said, “Maestro Ignacio Cervantes’ most outstanding disciple embodied the limitations and possibilities of musical nationalism.”  Even though his artistic mentor managed to comprehensively grasp the evolution of national sensibility, Sanchez de Fuentes advocated "the vision of a nation divided and torn against itself; by pretending that Cuban culture was just a derivation of Spanish folkloric expressions, utterly opposite, in his view, to everything that was African.”

Hence, his thinking drifted towards the folkloric tendency that advocated the aboriginal or indigenous precedents of Cuban music.

The author of the Habanera "Tu", labeled by Alejo Carpentier as the first hit of Cuban music, did not have the glory to recognize and accept the "black springs", in Fernando Ortiz's words, of Cuban music, but he had other noteworthy merits.

Paradoxically, Habanera, genre that Sanchez de Fuentes cultivated, shows the successful fusion of the African rhythmic pattern with the song, an European musical genre. According to Cuban musicologist Danilo Orozco, "Habanera emerges from a cluster of rhythmic-accentual relations of Afro-Bantu Dahomeyan origin."

His conservatism in musical matters led him to oppose US penetration in 1922, a stance consistent with the wish of bourgeois cultural nationalism to preserve cultural hegemony over the middle strata of the population, mainly the petty bourgeoisie.

Sanchez de Fuentes’ disapproval of the "undermining" of our cultural identity caused by the "influence of some grotesque dances brought by our North American neighbors” must be addressed within this context.

The author of beautiful songs like "Corazon", "Mirame asi" and "Linda cubana", also charged against the historically absorbing nature of American music in the social media of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie of the beginning of the century.  He said then, "at the moment, our people only dances Danzon, which will eventually perish at the multiform claws of Fox, in the same way that Tropical Waltz and Habanera died at the claws of the old Two Step."

He also stressed what Cubans’ musical awareness should be: "We must stray from the false compliments of triumphant snobbery. Let's build a strong barrier against this undesirable interference of foreign rhythms, melodies and dances."

In his advocacy of Danzon against the interference of foreign dances, Sanchez de Fuentes did not notice, or did not want to do it at the moment, the fact that the so-called national dance is mulatto music par excellence, with a strong presence of Afro-Cuban elements, like percussion and cinquillo.  When Danzon was born and expanded, it was branded by several newspapers of the time as "a dance that went against the prevailing moral values and a music of blacks; therefore a music for the black."

Another blatant inconsistency between his wish to find the true roots of Cuban musical soul and his work is that, of all the island authors of that time, he was the one that best reflected the influence of Italian music, mainly opera, in his creations.

His tendency towards the so-called "Italian verism", which originated in the European peninsula around 1890, especially stands out in the field of opera.  Such influence showed most of all in his tendency to transfer moments of speech to the orchestra, even through exclusively symphonic moments, and a higher presence of popular and rural themes in the compositions, two typical traits of Italian opera.

One of his opera compositions, "La dolorosa", is regarded by some experts as one of the most successful expressions of verism in America.

Sanchez de Fuentes is considered one of the most representative creators of the first years of the XX century. His catalog includes almost all genres of musical creation: opera, Spanish operetta, cantatas, ballet, chamber music, symphonic music, piano solos and a significant number of songs.

The lied¹, Habanera, Criolla and bolero were modalities of the song cultivated by the composer that showed a rapprochement of his musical production to popular music.  The composer himself once said, "It is necessary that our authors make a work of stylization, picking the most popular motifs of our music, dressing them harmonically and spiritualizing them."

The fact that this controversial musician was the first Cuban composer to write music for theatrical dance cannot be overlooked.  One of his greatest successes in this field was “Dione” ballet, premiered on March 4, 1940, at Havana Auditorium Theater, by promising young dancers Fernando, Alberto and Alicia Alonso.

The prima ballerina assoluta remembered that moment 75 years after the event: “Dione” was an enriching experience at the beginning of my career and, unquestionably, a landmark in the theatrical and musical evolution of our country.”  Sanchez de Fuentes showed the way for what would become Cuban classic ballet company.


¹ The lied, which means song in German, is a short lyrical tune whose lyrics are a poem set to music, written for a soloist and accompaniment, usually piano. (Editor's Note)

Translated by Pedro A. Fanego

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