Aurelio de la Vega: Let us first take the case of the teaching of lines and notes. In Republican Cuba there were hundreds of conservatories scattered all across the Island. With the noteworthy exception of the Municipal Conservatory of Music of Havana, founded by Roldán, where certainly an intense, organic and exact musical instruction was given (and where all the instruments were taught and where concerts were performed by its instrumental and vocal groups), it is true that many conservatories of the Republican era, which graduated students like very active sausage stuffing factories, left much to be desired. Within this large series of conservatories, which taught piano only poorly, and where theory and singing of scales could barely be detected, there were, nevertheless, some more serious institutions: the Orbón, Falcón, Ada Iglesias, Peyrellade and Hubert de Blanck Conservatories, with different levels of effectiveness, could be named. They included in their courses of study History of Music, Harmony, a little Counterpoint and Orchestration, and, in the case of the Ada Iglesias, even Esthetics of Music. The fact that subsequently the schools of music created by the Marxist Revolution may have taken musical education to more technical and developed planes, does not exclude the better part of the activity of the Republican conservatories, which paved the way for many Cubans to sudy outside Cuba with a more or less solid notion of the interplay and mysteries of musical art. It must not be forgotten that in the Municipal Conservatory of Music of Havana--an institution established while the Republic was in full force--classes were given by almost all the composers of the Renovation Group, who later, remaining in Cuba after the Castro Revolution, directed musical education in Cuba beginning in 1959. It should be mentioned also that in the 50s, the Universities of Havana and Las Villas held Summer Schools in which Musical Appreciation courses were included.
Meriting a separate chapter is the establishment of the Music Section of the University of Oriente, in Santiago de Cuba, which was founded by me in 1953 by a commission from the University itself, and which functioned within the Philosophy Faculty. It was the first school of music at the university level opened in Cuba and the second in all of Latin America--The University of Tucumán, Argentina, having established the first in 1947. This school of music of the University of Oriente created a Bachelor's Degree (4 years) and a Master's Degree (2 additional years). Plans for a Doctorate were outlined. Specialized first-rate professors were hired and, before I definitively left my native land, we graduated the first contingency of students who completed their Bachelor's Degree in Music. After 1959, in the anti-historic ardor of Castroism, my existence was erased from Cuba's musical world and my name dissappeared as founder of this university school of music, to be replaced by that of two of the professors whom I had brought to the University. My biographical ostracism joined that of others who had also contributed to the development of Cuban classical music in the Republican era--from Julián Orbón to Alberto Bolet; from the women of Pro-Arte Musical, the Concert Society and the Lyceum, to the patrons of the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra.
Let us speak now of orchestras. In Havana, during the decade of the 30s, there were two active orchestras: one being the Symphony, founded and directed by Gonzalo Roig, which played much of his music and that of Lecuona, and which on some occasions accompanied the staging of operas from the Italian repertoire, and the other the Philharmonic, founded and directed by Amadeo Roldán and by the Spanish orchestra director Pedro Sanjuán, which soon became a highly professional ensemble and through which Havana heard, for the first time, a good deal of international contemporary music, from Stravinsky to Bartók, from Hindemith to Roldán himself, from Prokofieff to García Caturla. In the decade of the 40s, the Philharmonic Orchestra providentially fell into the hands of the famous German orchestra director Erich Kleiber, driven away from the European musical theater because of the horrific Second World War. Kleiber radically transformed the Orchestra, and in six years converted it into an outstanding symphonic assembly, capable of interpreting very well even the difficult atonal labyrinth of Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Throughout this epoch, the Orchestra was financed almost entirely by the Cuban patron Agustín Batista, a prominent wealthy businessman who allowed Cuba to have its first and highly active great symphonic ensemble. The Philharmonic later was directed by the flower and cream of the most prominent orchestra directors of the world: Bruno Walter, Arthur Rodzinski, Manuel Rosenthal, Herbert von Karajan, Efrem Kurtz, Erich Leinsdorff, William Steinberg, Serge Koussevitzky, Sir Thomas Beechman, Juan José Castro, Charles Münch, Pierre Monteux, and Sergiu Celibidache, among others. Incidentally, the Philharmonic, in the 50s, played music of Ardévol and the Cubans Edgardo Martín, Pablo Ruiz Castellanos and Gilberto Valdéz. It must be noted that the Orchestra offered popular midnight concerts in the National Theater (previously the Theater of the Galician Center) at an entrance price of 50 cents and of one dollar, including orchestra and box seats.
In addition to these two symphonic orchestras, there existed in Republican Cuba the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, founded and directed by José Ardévol, the String Orchestra of the National Institute of Culture, managed by Alberto Bolet and the Symphony Orchestra of Santiago de Cuba, under the direction of Antonio Serret. With the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, Ardévol played for the first time in Cuba music of Malipiero, Villa-Lobos, Chávez, Milhaud and many other highly important composers in the field of contemporary classical music, and he premiered works of his own, as well as of Edgardo Martín and Harold Gramatges. The String Orchestra of the National Institute of Cuba (founded by Guillermo de Zéndegui in the middle of the 50s, which took the place of and broadened the functions of the old Department of Culture of the Ministry of Education) had as its headquarters the Palace of Fine Arts, situated directly to the south of the Presidential Palace of Havana, and it presented its concerts in its own hall decorated with murals by José Mijares. There, Cuba heard for the first time my Elegy for string orchestra (1954), which Bolet had premiered in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Finally, we should note the fact that radio station CMQ had founded a symphony orchestra of its own, under the direction of Enrique González Mantici, a member of the Popular Socialist Party (née Communist Party) and a good director, whose politcal affiliation was never questioned. Mantici, in addition to playing various Cuban symphonic works, premiered in 1951, with this Orchestra, my Overture to a Serious Farce, composed a year earlier.
Interlocutor: And that was all?!
Aurelio de la Vega: No. In addition to the musical groups mentioned previously, almost all sponsored by individuals and private commercial entitites (except in the case of the String Orchestra of the National Institite of Culture, governmental subsidies were minimal), there existed, beginning with the decade of the 30s, the National Opera, which presented many operas in Havana and in the decade 9of the 50s organized various noteworthy presentations in the Sports Palace; the free concerts of the Cathedral Plaza, paid for by the State (which culminate in the mid-50s with a magnificent production of Honegger's oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake, a work premiered in Zürich in this format, in 1942); the summer concerts, also free, in the Stadium of El Cerro, and above all,the radio transmissions of several Cuban stations which, at the end of the 40s and in the 50s, increased their suport for clasical music. CMQ transmitted, in prime-time hours by television (Cuba was the first country in Latin America that, at the height of the Republic, had color television), classical ballets and light operas, such as Lecuona's Lola Cruz, and it made history when it staged, in a scenic world premiére, Amadeo Roldán's ballet La Rebambaramba. Classical music was broadcast starting in the 40s by the CMZ radio chain, founded by Fulgencio Batista during his first constitutional presidential period, and also by the Communist-affiliated Radio Mil Diez. Nevertheless, the most popular radio programs were those of the Sunday daytime concerts of the Philharmonic Orchestra in the Auditorium, sponsored by General Electric on CMBF and by General Motors on RHC.
Interlocutor: Enough already of narrations. One final observation: is it true that all this musical activity you have mentioned was of an elitist character and that you yourself have been accused of this?
Aurelio de la Vega: If being elitist is a synonym for good taste, esthetic and cultural refinement, and aspiration for knowledge and the defense of Western culture, to which I (and I believe the great majority of those who took part in the great adventure of classical Cuban music during the Republic) was and still am committed, I am happy to sustain the epithet. But if this term is used negatively and pejoratively to indicate discrimination, lack of generosity, cultural egoism and the closing of doors to the poorer classes, I reject totally, in my name and in the name of so many others, that this had anything to do with the historical reality of the development of classical music in Cuba. I have already explained that on the Island, above all in Havana, there were innumerable and continuous admission free concerts of high quality, the registration fee at the Municpal Conservatory of Music in the capital was almost inexistent, the tickets for the Pro-Arte concerts and the Philharmonic's Sunday concerts were minuscule in cost, and a pair of radio stations transmitted classical music continuously. Now I ask you: how many times must the same thing be repeated? how many times must the world be alerted so that it may see the historical truth beyond the curtain of "official" smoke fueled daily by the present Cuban Government? how much more patience must be exhibited in trying to convert the doubtful? Faced with an evil person, I shrug my shoulders; faced with a doctrinary and furious Marxist, I keep silent; faced with an imbecile, I leave to drink a good wine. The real facts, dear one, remain, based on books, memories, essays, articles, magazines, dictionaries, publications of international economic agencies and, above all, in the truth proclaimed by those of us who were witnesses and participants of a magnificent era, in which Cuba came to occupy, in spite of the prevailing politcal corruption and damage to the civic society, an enviable economic position and to have a truly astonishing intellectual and artistic life. It is moving to remember such times. For those who sincerely seek the truth, tell them, Interlocutor, what we have talked about.
Northridge, January 2002
Year of the Centennial of the Republic of Cuba