Ernesto Lecuona (1896-1963) remains Cuba's best known and perhaps the nation's most prolific composer. Of his more than 1000 compositions, his most popular works remain standards in Latin music. These include popular tunes such as "Malagueña" and "Siboney." His work was not confined to popular compositions, but spanned a variety of musical forms. Lecuona was also a noted pianist and conductor.
Lecuona was born Ernesto Sixto de la Asuncion Lecuona y Casado in Guanabocoa, Cuba, on August 7, 1896. His father was a newspaper editor. His siblings, two sisters and four brothers, were all musicians. He first studied with his elder sister Ernestina, also a classically trained pianist. Several of his other siblings also studied piano. Lecuona made his performing debut at five years old. He was considered by all accounts a prodigy.
He studied music theory with Joaquin Nin, the Spanish composer and father of the writer Anais Nin. His first composition, a two-step often performed by Cuban military bands, was published when he was 11. He was frequently performing and organizing various musical groups to perform in silent movie houses as well as in ballrooms in Havana throughout his teen years. Lecuona studied at the National Conservatory in Havana, graduating in 1913 with a gold medal in performance. His educational concentration was on teaching both singing and piano. He immediately began touring throughout Europe and the Americans with a repertoire including Mozart and Bach, often playing duets with his sister Ernestina on these tours.
The year 1917 was an important one in Lecuona's career. He made his debut in New York with his first piano recital and also began his recording career. During this time his tours continued to take him outside Cuba. He was performing primarily in the Americas and in Spain. He also performed regularly on radio broadcasts.
As a composer, Lecuona was tremendous. He created and published hundreds of songs, although the exact number varies widely. Once source credits him with composing more than 400 pieces, while another says he has produced some 1000 compositions. Lecuona studied composition under Maurice Ravel while in Paris and worked in a variety of musical forms. He remains best known for his songs, typically referred to as lighter fare by historians and critics.
Lecuona chose not to work at the piano while composing, preferring a card table. Typically, he would work in creative bursts that would produce astonishing results. He reportedly once wrote four songs that would become hits: "Blue Night," "Siboney," "Say Si Si," and "Dame tus dos rosas/Two Hearts That Pass in the Night," in a single night: January 6, 1929. The following year "Andalucia" and "Malagueña" were on the charts.
"Malagueña" is inarguably the best-known of his popular songs. It is considered his first major composition. This stirring piano instrumental has enjoyed enduring popularity as a recorded tune and in performance. Lecuona had debuted the composition at the Roxy Theatre in New York in 1927. Other notable popular tunes composed by Lecuona included "Always in My Heart," "Jungle Drums," "Dust on the Moon," "Aquella tarde," "Canto Carabili," "Como arrullo de palmas," and "Dame tus dos rosas." Some of his compositions were reworked. "Andalucia," for example, was given English lyrics and re-released in 1940 as "The Breeze and I." His "Dame tus dos Rosas" became "Two Hearts that Pass in the Night," which was a hit for big band leader, Guy Lombardo.
Lecuona was also in demand as a conductor throughout the 1930s and 1940s. His Cuban Boys, first known as the Palau Brothers Cuban Orchestra, was a popular dance band, which, according to Americas "Helped set the stage for the advent of Latin jazz and salsa." The group appeared in the film Cuban Love Song before being disbanded in the mid-1930s. Lecuona then became leader of the Orquesta de la Habana beginning in the late 1930s. He also conducted the Havana Casino Orchestra and continued to tour as a performer. During a particular European tour, he chose to perform his own works along with lighter compositions by various late nineteenth and early twentieth century Cuban composers.
Film scores were another popular medium for Lecuona. He was musical director of the MGM film Under Cuban Skies (1930). This led to work in other films including Carnival in Costa Rica (1947). He created a total of 11 film scores for major American studios including Warner Brothers and MGM. He also wrote scores for Mexican, Argentine, and Cuban films. Lecuona was nominated for an Academy Award in 1942 for the tune "Always in My Heart."
Lecuona appeared at New York's famed Carnegie Hall in October 1943. This was the premier for his orchestral work "Rapsodia Negra" (Black Rhapsody). This piece used Afro-Cuban instruments, atypical in so-called serious orchestral works and Cuban musicians were featured in the performance. Lecuona not only composed the piece, he also conducted and played piano for the concert that night.
"In the triple role of batonist-composer-pianist, Mr. Lecuona ranged over wide tracts of Latin-American rhy thms and motifs, woven into compact lyric and symphonic form. As featured premier, Black Rhapsody proved Lecuona's grasp of native idiom and his flair for heaving rhythmic sequences," as quoted in the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography.
It was this continuing popularity that seemingly obscured Lecuona's merits as a serious composer of classical music, particularly later in his career. Lecuona was formally trained in composition and his body of work does in fact show remarkable breadth. He created, for example, 11 operettas and some 37 concert pieces in addition to the compositions for solo piano and the popular tunes.
As Thomas Tirino, a concert pianist who has made several recordings of Lecuona's music, observed in an interview with Americas this popularity "may have contributed to the lack of scholarly attention that his considerable achievements do merit," said Tirino. "His music does have a popular appeal, because of the beautiful melodies and shortness of the pieces, but the works themselves are very challenging, if you perform them in the way Lecuona intended. I believe the danger has been to stress the popular element to his music, and with his serious compositions, not to fully realize what they are and the genius behind them."
Lecuona has often been described as "the George Gershwin of Cuba," because he both composed and performed pieces bridging classical and popular music. But this "isn't quite accurate," according to The Boston Globe 's Richard Dyer. "although his music, like Gershwin's does cut across the divisions between concert and popular music … Lecuona was essentially a miniaturist, and there is an element of charm and novelty in many of the pieces." Gershwin and Lecuona, who had the same publisher, met in the 1940s and were reportedly life-long friends.
As for his abilities as a performer, Dyer observed that he was capable of creating great music, but his piano performances ultimately ranged from excellent to quite bad. "Lecuona's best music is colorful and tuneful, sultry and firey by turns; he shows considerable ingenuity in imitating idiomatic guitar effects on the piano," wrote Dyer. "There is nevertheless a wide gap between Lecuona's best and his worst—bits of Rachamaninoff keep coming into view, along with keyboard figurations that sound like Liberace or the even efforts of cocktail pianists everywhere."
Lecuona was described as "a heavy-set, melancholic figure with famously dark eyes." He was "a popular host who invited friends to play music in his home in Jackson Heights, Queens, though he would escape on solitary walks when the company got to be too much," according to the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. "Besides liking to play the piano, and collecting wood and stone sculpture of the Aztecs, Mayas, the ancient Peruvian Incas, his greatest delight is brewing strong, black Cuban coffee."
Other hobbies reportedly enjoyed by Lecuona included raising small animals and exotic birds (particularly while he was living in rural Cuba), reading mysteries (Agatha Christie was said to have been a favorite writer), and playing poker. He was a baseball fan as well as an inveterate collector who treasured antiques, cigarette lighters, and music boxes.
Lecuona lived in New York and Havana, not unexpected given his touring schedule. He also reportedly had homes in Tampa and Tallahassee, Florida. Cuban President Fulgencio Batista named him cultural attache to the Cuban Embassy in the United States in 1943. With Fidel Castro's coup in 1959, Lecuona left Cuba. He reportedly took a vow in 1960 to never play piano again until Cuba was a free nation. He chose to live abroad, splitting his time between the United States, Spain, and the Canary Islands. Lecuona was in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands recuperating from a lung problem when he died of a heart attack on November 29, 1963. He is interred in Hawthorn, New York.
As Carl Bauman observed in American Record Guide in 1997, "Lecuona, as perhaps Cuba's outstanding composer, certainly deserves to be better known." He created more than 1000 compositions, among them 176 pieces for piano and 37 orchestral pieces during his career. In a later review of another Lecuona recording in that same publication, John Boyer describes his music as "Latin music distilled for the middle-classes in the same way that Brahms and Liszt distilled Hungarian music for the consumption of 19th Century Germans."
Lecuona's music has lasted, influencing generations of musicians in various genres all over the world. "When I was a little boy growing up in Australia, one of the most popular bands on the Australian airwaves was Ernesto Lecuona and his Cuban Boys," Don Burrows, the Australian jazz musician said in a 2001 interview with The Age. "In those days, Cuba used to export music to all over the world and Ernesto Lecuona was as important to me in those days as Duke Ellington. So by the time I was 10, I knew every song that Ernesto Lecuona had ever written. And these boys in the band just couldn't believe that someone over the other side of the world knew as much Ernesto Lecuona as they did."
Michel Camilo, the Dominican jazz pianist, told the All About Jazz website, "The first composition I remember enjoying as a child was 'La Comparsa' by Cuban renown pianist Ernesto Lecuona, performed by my favorite uncle at the piano. He played the tune in his debut at Carnegie Hall."
"He was able to translate the Afro-Cuban rhythms and put them in tails," Camilo told Americas. "Technically, he was very advanced, in the tradition of Ignacio Cervantes, another Cuban pianist and composer who came before him. But Lecuona's left hand is a direct link to someone like Chopin, with the ability to translate the African syncopations."
Lecuona's music was frequently recorded by a wide range of artists during his lifetime and continues to be recorded by artists well after his passing. Among those who have recorded Lecuona songs include Desi Arnaz, Guy Lombardo, Paquito D'Rivera, Katia Labeque, Los Super Seven, and numerous others.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980.
American Record Guide, July-August 1996; July 1997; May 2002.
Americas, November 21, 1996. Boston Globe, February 29, 1996.
"Cubans and Australians in music revival," The Age, February 26, 2001, http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/2001/02/26/FFX4NDSLLJC.html (February 28, 2003).
"Ernesto Lecuona," Space Age Pop Music website, http://www.spaceagepop.com/lecuona.htm (February 28, 2003).
"Interview with Raul Malo," The Mavhouse Archives, http://www.the-mavhouse.co.uk/archives.htm (February 28, 2003).
"Michel Camilo: From Dominica to Spain and Back Again," All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/iviews/mcamilo.htm (February 28, 2003).