Aurelio de la Vega, the Cuban Ariel

Perhaps the strengthening of cultural ties between Cuba and the United States will make it possible to appreciate on the island the work of this singular and authentic musical creator whose compositions are as enigmatic and universal as well as very Cuban.

Foto: Tomada de

Aurelio de la Vega can be considered an almost happy man. Not many artists can celebrate nine decades of useful existence. In his Californian home, together with his wife, the also musician Anne Marie Ketchum, he can collect recognitions from institutions, essays about his work written by prestigious authors and a wide-ranging list of records, to feel that his long life has not been in vain. However, together with those triumphs there is always a dull sorrow: in the country where he was born he is practically a stranger, even among his composer colleagues. For almost half a century his work was not played live, or broadcast on the radio’s cultural spaces, the island’s music history books ignored him. Less than 10 years ago his name started coming up in some concert programmes and some records even got to the CMBF radio station. But the authentic “thawing” of his work has not advanced too much.

This conspiracy of silence began a long time ago, perhaps together with the career of this restless creator who decided to assume a frankly cosmopolitan attitude when his colleagues were unable to go beyond the budgets of musical nationalism, incarnated in the paradigmatic figures of Amadeo Roldán and Alejandro García Caturla. He described that atmosphere as “enervating, limited, smelling of cultural ghetto” and as he said years later to Manuel Gayol Mecías in an interview: “I chose to open the doors to the extensive and revolutionary musical world at that time represented by the Second Viennese School, headed by the Schönberg–Berg-Webern trio.


He had been born in Havana on November 28, 1925. He studied music, first in the Ada Iglesias Conservatory and later with Viennese composer Fritz Kramer, but already in 1947 he travelled to Los Angeles, California, where several avant-garde European composers had sought refuge due to World War II, from Bela Bartok to Stravinsky; and there he studied with Ernst Toch and Arnold Schönberg.


Interviewed in 2002 by Jesús Hernandez Cuéllar, he alluded to the singularity of his formation and tastes during those first years:


“I listened to Wagner when I was seven or eight years old. My grandfather bought me Tristram and Isolde, and when I was 12 or 13, I was already introducing myself in philosophy and the German world…. The creator, the great poet, the great novelist, the great musician, is always in the future, always finds a new way of expressing himself. In this sense one reaches the atonality, which does not have a natural scale. Atonal music is not easy, especially because hearing is the most primitive of the senses. Sight, however, instantly accepts everything. That dodecaphonic music was unknown in Cuba in the 1940s. Arnold Schoenberg is the creator of dodecaphonic music. I studied it with Fritz Kramer in Havana (1943-1946), and afterward with Ernst Toch in Los Angeles.”


This would have serious consequences for the reception of his work on the island, as he would recognise in his article “Nacionalismo y universalismo” (Nationalism and Universalism).


“In the middle of the 1950s I felt totally isolated: the public in general estimated that I was a daring deranged person with no possible redemption, the musical colleagues accused me of being anti-Cuban, and a few intellectuals, who condescendingly tolerated me because they thought I was stupid, would give me friendly pats on the back and solemnly recommended that I study more the writers of the fathers of the Nation, from Saco to Martí, from Luz y Caballero to Sanguily.”


In 1950, after finishing his studies in the United States, he returned to Cuba and for some time was the music dean of the then young University of Oriente, a task only interrupted by his trips to the United States, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela to give lectures as well as to the country’s capital where he sporadically executed his works. On December 16 and 17, 1951, in the Auditorium Theatre, the Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Frieder Weissmann, executed his Obertura a una farsa seria (Overture to a serious farce), inspired on the piece Frenzy by Charles de Peyret Chapuis. The same orchestra, under the same baton, included in its programmes of March 22 and 23 of the following year his symphonic score Introducción y episodio (Introduction and Episode).


His Leyenda del Ariel criollo (Legend of the Cuban Ariel), composed in Havana in 1953 for cello and piano was premiered the following year in the Concert Society by Adolfo Odnoposoff and Berta Hubermann and recorded by the PANART label. This work in which certain local subjects, or better said, his reminiscences are transformed according to postimpressionist musical procedures and even with certain proclivity to pantonality, has been  one of his most executed creations in the world. Somehow a poetics was enunciated there that was secretly linked to the Cuban cultural tradition, but refused to remain anchored in the picturesque and affirmed his need to open up to the world as a genius drawn by Shakespeare’s Tempest.


It is affirmed that he was the first Cuban composer to incursion in atonalism, though not with the strict orthodoxy of the followers of Schönberg. Testimony to this are Elegía (1954), Divertimento (1956) and the “in memoriam Alban Berg” String Quartet (1957). Around those years he was also the vice president of the Higher Council that governed the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra between 1950 and 1954, a music critic for the newspaper Alerta and secretary of the writing staff of the magazine Conservatorio, the official organ of the Havana Municipal Conservatory.


By the way, his work as a music critic, as demanding as his own composition work, would frequently create problems for him, not just the usual poisoned rumours in the artistic circles, but also a physical attack on the street for having acidly reviled the premiere of the work Danza de los braceros by Gilberto Valdés.


The stifling political atmosphere and the scarce possibilities of making his work known made him leave the country in 1957.


“I left Cuba in 1957, when the political climate as already stifling and intolerable. I resigned myself to leave with my universalism to another more universal place. Before leaving, my last work resounded: my Five Movements Quartet in Memoriam Alban Berg, the first dodecaphonic work written in Cuba, won a Publication Award sponsored by the Havana Lyceum awarded by a jury presided over by Igor Markevitch. A total and icy silence welcomed the news. The work would not be premiered in Havana – where by the way it has never been heard – and was played for the first time in Washington during the First Inter-American Music Festival, splendidly executed by the Claremont Quartet, who for years played it throughout the world.”


He settled in Los Angeles, where he worked as a professor in the San Fernando Valley State College. Years later he founded the department of electronic music of the California State University, which he headed until his retirement in 1994.


As one more student he started experimenting with aleatoric procedures and even those of graphic scores, not forgetting what he learned of the basic techniques of the electroacoustic music. Even the titles he uses around those years are proof of that more or less “scientific” will to deal with the phenomenon of sound: Structures (1962), Vectors (1963), Segments (1964), Interpolation (1965). However, these speculations, with a strong mathematical component, did not prevent that, on the one hand, he not abandon his interest in the chromatic effects in his works, as well as the use of the techniques of traditional instruments like the violin, which he fully dominated


What was the limit of these searches? Perhaps the very sense of humour of the creator who titled a graphic score from 1974 as Olep ed Arudamot, which when read in the mirror says “Tomadura de pelo” (Pulling your leg). The student of the serialists gets to the extremes of the avant-garde of the 1970s and, together with it, starts achieving the parody of his own experiments.


What is evident is that Aurelio de la Vega has not been one of those creators with an inclination for the well-paid commercialism. His aesthetic budgets were – and are – too arduous for the common music lovers.


He wanted to create a music that was as important in itself, so new and so universal that it would be sustained by its own technical-aesthetic values on the international scene – a music, in short, without immediate recognisable cha-chas and montunos – but that it be intrinsic and in essence simply Cuban because its author was born a Cuban; a music that would distil its national characteristics transforming and inserting them, through a complex process of osmosis, in the universal, ecumenical and avant-garde vocabulary of western classical music of our time.


This is why his popularity was limited to the field of a certain advanced concert music public. He has won numerous academic recognitions, but not lucrative recordings or star promotions in the world of the media. Twice he has received the Friedman Award of the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts; his photo appeared on a calendar of the Congress Library together with classics who range from Bach to Chopin and has his site in two major music encyclopaedias: Contemporary Composers and The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. His graphic scores form part of the collection of the Friedheim Music Library of the John Hopkins University in the city of Baltimore, Maryland; and pianist Marta Marchena has made a complete recording of his works for that instrument, while several chamber music groups have registered compositions of different stages of his life. But his work continues being kept in a sort of secret orbit.


When will his ballet Débora y Baudilio, his Leyenda del Ariel criollo, the Cantata for two sopranos, contralto and 21 instruments which he composed based on the 1958 text by Roberto Fernández Retamar, or the lieder he has composed based on verses by José Martí and Gastón Baquero be played in Cuba? I am sure that the strengthening of cultural ties between Cuba and the United States will favour the visit of some of his disciples and perhaps several of his pages can be at last heard in our concert halls. Thus this singular creator could be compensated. Years ago he said:


“I feel sorrow over not having ever returned to the island, except for six months in early 1959, and I also feel the pain of seeing that my music is applauded and admired throughout the ‘wide and alien’ world, where Cuba is just a name, while my compatriots are still debating if my work is Cuban or not, if it must be played or not played, if it is finally valuable and historically important or if it continues being disconcerting and inherently enigmatic. What matters in the future is that it is made, and that I confidently expect the personal justification of the promise I made to myself many years ago: that of writing music that is good, so aesthetically refreshing, so validly revolutionary, and so universal that it always reflects, wonderfully and positively, the magic of Cuban culture.” (2016)


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