Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Forbidden Songs, Forgotten Treasures-The Canciones Líricas of Cuba: Part I

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Forbidden Songs, Forgotten Treasures-The Canciones Líricas of Cuba: Part I

Article excerpt

THE LOVELY ISLAND OF CUBA, just 90 miles south of Key West, Florida, is an enigma to most U.S. citizens. We are enchanted by stories of Cuba's exotic past-the decadent nightlife of the 40s and 50s and its depiction in movies such as Havana with Robert Redford and Lena Olin. The writings of Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes tantalize us, and the island that made Cuban cigars, Havana Club Rum, and mojitos and daiquiris famous whets our appetites for more knowledge. Even I Love Lucy reruns with Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz, a native Cuban) captivate watchers and spark creative imaginations. These images, however, become haunted and dark as we contemplate the rise of Fidel Castro and his rigid communist dictatorship. The Bay of Pigs Invasion in the early 1960s, the loss of personal property, images of poverty, decaying buildings and infrastructure, the flight of Cuban refugees, Operation Peter Pan-all these reflections tarnish Cuba's exotic façade.

Still, despite the travel and trade embargo, some singers dream of Cuba's sensuous melodies, its fusion of African, European Spanish, and Cuban folk rhythms, and its sultry and coquettish poetry. Because the island was forbidden to U.S. citizens for decades, we continue to be intrigued and fascinated by its mystery-so close and yet so impossibly far.


Does Cuba have a classical music heritage? Specifically to singers, did native Cuban composers create and develop art song in the 19th and 20th centuries? From an island so small, is there Cuban song repertoire available to singers? Was this remote island so monopolized by slavery, sugar plantations, and chaotic governments that the arts couldn't survive or flourish? Which Cuban song composers bridged the semiclassical/classical world?

What constitutes true Cuban art song? Who is a true Cuban? If the composer immigrated to the U.S. as a child and was educated here, what is the nationality of the composer, Cuban or U.S.? Maya Hoover in A Guide to the Latin American Art Song Repertoire: An Annotated Catalog of Twentieth-Century Art Songs for Voice and Piano lists Joaquín Nin Culmell (1908-2004) as a Cuban composer. Nin Culmell was born in Berlin, educated in the U.S., Paris, and Spain, and after returning to the U.S. in 1938, he lived here until his death in 2004. Of his 96 years, Nin Culmell spent perhaps three years in Cuba (1909-1912). Is the decision regarding nationality based on parentage? Yes, Nin Culmell is considered a Cuban national because his father Joaquín Nin Castellanos (1879-1949) was born in Havana, and his mother was the Cuban-born singer, Rosa Culmell (1871-1954).1

At what point does one consider oneself culturally assimilated? In this researcher's opinion, Nin Culmell could be better categorized as a western European cosmopolitan composer who crafted songs on a variety of themes-Cuban, Catalán, Castilian, and Sephardic. He cannot be classified as purely Cuban because he spent most of his life outside of Cuba and was not educated there. Questions regarding nationality and primary influences, among other considerations, seek clarity on a variety of levels.


Another problem in researching and performing Cuban repertoire has to do with accessibility. Although the Cuban publishing houses-Editora Musical de Cuba, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Carasa & Co., Universidad de La Habana, Ediciones del Patrimonio Musical de Cuba, Excelsior Music, Tipografía Musical Acosta, Imp. Molina y cía-printed many volumes of art songs in the first half of the 20th century, as of 2014 only Editora Musical de Cuba still exists. Sadly, most repertoire published after 1960 is held in only a few libraries worldwide and is not generally available for purchase.

Four art song anthologies, however, include Cuban song. Kathleen Wilson, editor, published a song by Orlando García (b. 1954) and one by Alejandro García Caturla (1906-1940) in The Art Song in Latin America (see Selected Bibliography). …

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