ClassicsOnline Home » CERVANTES, I.: Danzas cubanas (Cendoya)
Ignacio Cervantes is a key figure of Latin American piano music. As the cultural and national identity of his native Cuba gained strength through the 19th century, the genres of danza and contradanza became a fixture of the island’s dance and concert halls, providing a bridge between different sections of society. Cervantes’s pieces, which display a similar swing and verve to Scott Joplin’s ubiquitous Rags, synthesize Cuban local humour and colour with the Romantic aesthetic of Chopin. Their titles range from the poignant Adiós a Cuba, to the laughter of La carcajada.
Ignacio Cervantes (1847–1905)
Cuban musician Ignacio Cervantes is a key figure in the panorama of Latin American piano music. His dances for the instrument were dubbed genuine musical gems by such internationally renowned Cuban intellectuals as writers Alejo Carpentier and Mirta Aguirre. Cervantes himself came from a bourgeois family of Spanish extraction, and was first taught piano by his father. His prodigious talent soon became clear, and he began lessons with Juan Miguel Joval, one of Havana’s most respected teachers. In 1854, when he was still only six, he received praise for his performances from the American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and three years later he composed his first work: La solitaria, renamed Soledad by his daughter María Cervantes.
In 1859 he began studying with fellow Cuban Nicolás Ruiz Espadero, then in 1865 he travelled to France and entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Marmontel and Alkan. A year later he was awarded first prize in the Conservatoire’s piano competition for his performance of Herz’s Piano Concerto No. 5 by a jury whose members included Auber and Gounod. Cervantes also won a second prize in harmony in 1867, and first prize in harmony, fugue and counterpoint the following year. He gave a number of solo concerts in Paris and Madrid, as well as appearing as accompanist to various well-known singers. His impeccable technical and interpretative abilities were recognised by such leading figures in the piano world as Liszt, Von Bülow and Paderewski, and his virtuosity was underlined by the epithet applied to him—one typical of nineteenth-century criticism—that of “colossus of the piano”.
Cervantes returned to Havana in 1870, continuing to work as a concert soloist, his programmes featuring works by Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Bach. Linked over the years to various independence movements, he twice had to go into exile: he gave concert tours, above all in the US and Mexico, and donated the takings to the cause. He also embarked on successful careers as both a conductor of opera and zarzuela and a teacher. On two occasions, in 1881 and 1884, he tried to establish a music school in Havana, and although both attempts ultimately failed, he took on numerous pupils, some of whom later achieved national and international renown. As a composer he wrote orchestral and stage works as well as a wide variety of salon pieces, but his Danzas cubanas for piano remain the best-known works in his catalogue.
Cuban identity gradually gathered strength throughout the nineteenth century, leading to the creation of a national culture that was initially creole in nature, but became more specifically Cuban as time went by. As far as music was concerned, this nationalist feeling was clearly and powerfully expressed in the popular sphere, which soon began to interact with the professional, in both traditional and art music, as a series of reciprocal influences developed.
The genres of danza and contradanza bridged the divide between the different sectors of colonial society in Cuba, and soon became a fixture of the island’s dance halls. Cuban composers borrowed the essential stylistic elements of both genres to create a plethora of short works for piano and, to a lesser extent, violin. While these retained a dance-like feel, they were soon being performed at both informal gatherings and on the concert stage. The dances written for piano incorporated a synthesis of authentic Cuban styles into their melodies, harmonies and rhythms. Those composed by Cervantes and recorded for this album form part of this compositional corpus.
Though working primarily within a Romantic aesthetic—influenced by Chopin—the composer abided by the Classical perfection of binary form, into which he smoothly wove other elements of his art. Of these, one of the most important is his use of contrast. While contrast is a feature of the genre, long-established in the dance repertoire, its use here as an expressive compositional device brings absolute formal balance to every piece. Most of the danzas are thirty-two bars long, made up of two sixteen-bar sections, of which the first occasionally comprises a repeated eight-bar section. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as Adiós a Cuba, Vuelta al hogar, Homenaje, Decisión and La carcajada, where the structure expands or contracts in line with the expressive requirements of the music. The first part is generally more moderate in pace, the second more lively, as was usual in dance music. Cervantes was not dogmatic about this aspect either, however, as can be heard in Improvisada and Invitación, where the reverse is true, in a compositional logic that distances them from their original dance model. Almost all the works are written in a time signature of 2/4, typical of Cuban danzas and contradanzas; the exception here is Cortesana, in triple time, an allusion to the courtly minuet. In terms of rhythm, Cervantes often employs a semiquaver-quaver-semiquaver-two quavers pattern, both in the melodic line and the accompaniment; the tango or habanera rhythm of dotted quaver-semiquaver-two quavers; or the so-called cinquillo cubano, a five-note quaver-semiquaver-quaver-semiquaver-quaver phrase, all of which are to be found in different varieties of Cuban song and dance.
Many of the dances feature a change of key in the second section: as well as creating harmonic variety, this may give the tonality a more diaphanous quality or endow it with an attractive opacity. The composer also makes use of rising or falling thirds and of cycles and sequences of different kinds of sevenths—thereby enriching the harmony without threatening its basic diatonic essence—and of chromatic passages, which bring a sense of light and colour to the melodic-rhythmic and harmonic flow. The texture varies from two-part writing, in which the accompaniment plays a subordinate role, to a two-, three- or four-part contrapuntal idiom.
Some of the titles reflect the local colour and humour of nineteenth-century Cuba—No bailes más, Cri-crí and ¿Por qué, eh?—while others evoke feelings of homesickness (Adiós a Cuba) or joy at returning home (Vuelta al hogar), suggesting certain extra-musical connotations to the listener, although the dances have no programmatic content whatsoever.
The first danza was written in 1857, and Cervantes himself classed some of the pieces in the collection as minor works. Nonetheless, performing this repertoire requires a high level of pianistic technique, as some of the works present genuine challenges in terms of achieving the composer’s desired result, especially those featuring polyphonic writing, which adds to their attractions but also increases their complexity.
Victoria Eli Rodríguez
English translation by Susannah Howe