Aurelio de la Vega (y Palacio) was born in la Habana, Cuba, on November 28, 1925, and became an American citizen in 1966. A towering figure of Latin American art music, since the early 1960s he has been an important force in the United States musical scene.
After studying with Ernst Toch in California (1947-1948), he occupied relevant positions in his native Cuba (Dean, School of Music, University Oriente; Advisor, National Institute of Culture; Vice-President, Havana Philharmonic Orchestra), toured the United States as a lecturer (1952-1954) and settled in the Los Angeles University of Southern California during the summer of 1959. From that year to 1992 he was Professor of Music and Director of the Electronic Music Studio at California State University, Northridge. In 1971 he was awarded the Outstanding Professor Award of the entire California State University system. At present, he is Distinguished Emeritus Professor of said University.
He has lectured extensively in Cuba, the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Brazil, Canada, Spain, Argentina and Chile, mainly on contemporary music and on the art of Latin America. His articles and essays, which are plentiful, have appeared in publications in La Habana, Camagüey, Buenos Aires, London, Loja, New York, Austin, Los Angeles, Lima, Santiago de Chile, Mexico City, Bogotá, Madrid, Ottawa, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, San Juan, Caracas, etc. His numerous compositions (many published and commercially recorded) have been almost all commissioned works from 1962 on, and have been played by major orchestras, ensembles, important soloists and singers in numerous cities throughout the world. The recipient of numerous prizes, commissions, awards and distinctions (having received twice the Friedheim Award of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), as well as honors and decorations from various foreign governments for his contributions to North and Latin American music, he is also well-known essayist on the pictorial art of Latin America. The composer is a Member of the Academy of Arts and Letters of Chile, and of the Brazilian Academy of Music.
De la Vega’s intense, virtuosic, lyric-dramatic and highly expressive musical vocabulary has been the vehicle for a long series of works which include all media except opera. The composer has combined pan-tonality, atonality, serial procedures, open forms and electronic elements with a highly structured musical lexicon often underlined by sharp and strong rhythmic patterns. While occasionally using Cuban melo-rhythms in his early and late works, his musical language is personal and contemporary. In the words of musicologist George Skapski, “De la Vega’s style is characterized by an angular treatment of the voices, passionate arch forms, vigorous motoric cells and intense preoccupation with instrumental color”.
Aurelio de la Vega and the Piano
Some composers mark their great creative conquests with their orchestral works, like Richard Strauss or Mahler; with their songs, as Schubert; with their operas, like Wagner; or with their chamber music, as Beethoven or Brahms. Others find their most subtle and inner vocabulary in their piano works, like Ravel, or delimit their most radical innovations or changes of technical and aesthetic procedures with a given piano work, as was the case with Schoenberg. Like him, for Aurelio de la Vega the piano is a vehicle for the changes that occurred in his harmonic palette and for the direction in which his aesthetic viewpoint has evolved throughout the years.
Up to the present, ten works (from 1944 to 1987) constitute De la Vega’s piano output. The works can be divided into four groups: the first encompasses the Three Preludes of 1944 and the Rondo in E flat of 1948; the second contains the Epigrama (“Epigram”) of 1953, the Danza Lenta (“Slow Dance”) of 1956, the Toccata of 1957, and the Minuet, composed in the same year; in the third, the Antinomies of 1967 stands alone; and the fourth is also constituted by a single work, the Homenagem (In memoriam Heitor Villa_lobos) (“Homage—In memory of Heitor Villa-Lobos”), written in 1987.
The piano is De la Vega’s instrument, and although all of his music invariably shows his masterful and virtuosic handling of any employed medium -be it instrumental, vocal or electronic- it is with the piano that the composer conveys his most artful and cunning musical thoughts. Possibly with the exception of the Rondo in E flat (1948) and the Minuet (1957), all the other piano works of De la Vega have been widely played on the international scene—the Epigrama (1953), the Antinomies (1967) and the Homenagem (1987) heard myriads of times, the last work being in the repertoire of several pianists. From the early Preludes to the Minuet of 1957, the pieces were written in Cuba; the last two works – Antinomies, 1965, and Homenagem, 1987 – were composed in California.
The Three Preludes (written in El Vedado, a suburb of La Habana, in 1944) are, with the short song cycle La Fuente Infinita (“The Infinite Fountain”)(1944), the only truly youthful works that De la Vega keeps in his catalogue—being in reality his Opus 1 (La Fuente Infinita) and his Opus 2 (the Preludes). The Preludes were premiered in La Habana on February 2, 1946 by Pablo Fernández. Prelude No. 1 is unabashedly a Romantic piece, where Neo-Impressionistic and highly chromatic harmonies revolve around shifting materials related to B as a tonal center. Rhythmically, it is one of the simplest works of the composer. Prelude No. 2, a truly virtuosic work for the piano, is more flashy, brilliant and gestural than the previous Prelude. Based on an ABA’ form, the use of often surprising harmonic changes, which show an interesting mixing of French and German harmonic languages, carry the composer to Vienna, far from the isolated rhythmic gesture related to Cuba which closes the piece. Prelude No. 3 is the earliest example of atonalism in De la Vega’s music. Of the three Preludes, this one is the most advanced harmonically, the most abrasive and the most revolutionary. It must have fallen like a aesthetic bomb in the placid piano-bar musical atmosphere of the Havana of the 40s. A proliferation of augmented fourths, diminished fifths, major and minor sevenths, and intervals of ninth, as well as an occasional consonant interval, keep the music in a constant chromatic flux. Although a tranquil opening followed by a more agitated section, with a return to the starting exposition, suggests a vague bipartite form, the whole Prelude is based on the variations which a primary cell, heard at the start, undergoes.
According to Sergio González, who wrote his doctoral thesis on De la Vega’s piano music, “the Preludes represent not only an excellent achievement for a nineteen year-old composer, but a stunning spirit of self-individualism, given the fact that what had surrounded young De la Vega up to this time was none other that a copy of a 19th century European salon music”.
The Rondo in E flat, written in Redlands, California in 1948, while De la Vega was studying in Los Angeles with Ernst Toch, is a landmark in the composer’s career. I is one of only two works in De la Vega’s catalogue that uses a key signature. It marks his final departure from traditional harmonic procedures and, at the same time, it is the first work of the composer which uses characteristic Cuban rhythmic cells in a very sophisticated and modified way, since De la Vega always strongly opposed the overt use of folkloric nationalistic procedures. The Rondo, premiered in La Habana by Benito Choy, on April 7 1948, is one of the earliest works of the composer where intense counterpoint makes its appearance. From that time on, a constant polyphonic texture, at time very complex an multi-layered, will permeate De la Vega’s compositions. The whole piece is based on the various manipulations of a main thematic idea which appears at the start of the piece. Augmentations, inversions, fugal passages, brilliant use of the piano and a constant, exciting forward motion, makes this work a remarkable example of how the still young composer was polishing his musical speech amidst a milieu impervious to the deep cultural-artistic changes he was provoking.
The Epigrama (“Epigram”) of 1953, written in Miramar (a plush suburb of Havana) and premiered on May 28, 1955 in Washington (Organization of American States, Hall of the Americas), by Robert Parris, is the first of several piano works from the 50s which inaugurate the period of De la Vega’s musical maturity. According to Sergio González, “the main interest of the work is not melodic but rather atmospheric, since the result of his harmonic discourse is achieved through the opposition of chords in the left hand with short rhythmic snaps in the right hand. Passages in near-parallel motion alternate with those in contrary motion to good effect”. A constant cell, heard since the opening of the work, saturates the whole composition, and builds a texture that reaches a powerful first climax before the beginning of the second section of the work—a section, in fact, very much derived from the first. It is in this sub-section where echoes of Cuban rhythms appear. The composition, one of the most internationally and widely played of the composer’s works, ends serenely, with a surprising, clear E Major chord closing it.
Danza Lenta (“Slow Dance”), written in Miramar in 1956, and premiered in New York on November 11, 1970 by Carl Shoemaker, is a suggestive work in slow motion: a dance to be felt and not to be danced. Together with the Minuet of 1957, it is one of the shortest works of De la Vega—very moody, nostalgic, introverted and calm. A highly chromatic composition, gravitating around D as tonal center, it has an interesting formal design: sections A, B, A’, B’ and Coda. IN fact, as González points out, this form is an adaptation of the Cuban danzón, in which an opening section (A) invites the dancers, which then respond with their movements (B). Based on the interval of the fourth, the opening main melodic idea is presented in Major and minor modes, supported by additional harmonies which, introduced gradually, create a dense chromatic effect. Section B is more animated, being the part of the danzón pattern where dancers start moving. When the material of section A returns, stated a diminished fifth above, it appears in a shortened form. The composition, simple but charged with mere beauty, ends in an inverted D Major chord.
The 1957 Toccata is one of De la Vega’s verily virtuosic works. The piece is a motoric, brilliant, highly chromatic composition, which relentlessly moves forward and keeps the pianist quite busy. Dedicated to Cuban virtuoso pianist Jorge Bolet, it is one of the last works of the composer written in his homeland, just before the Communist takeover of the Island. It was premiered in Northridge, California, by Peter Hewitt, on May 17 1960. A rondo-like piece, it starts by placing three high notes in isolation in the treble section—the listener immediately forced to pay attention to this primary motif which is like a prelude to the chromatic scales which follow like constant cascades of sound. Accents placed offbeat add richness to the rhythm, constituting a hidden melodic motive which will be explored later as the works unfolds. Section B contrasts highly with Section A, not only because of a change in tempo but also due to the fact that it brings forward a lyric engaging melody chromatically harmonized with full sonorous chords. This section combines the catabile element with snaps of the sixteenth-note groups heard at the opening. After section A returns in varied form, the tumultuous ascending passage, that goes from the lowest to the highest resister of the instrument, is breathtaking. The concluding measures suddenly confront the auditor with the incisive high three-note statement which opened the work, and which now is heard, for a last brief moment, in the lower register of the piano.
The Minuet, also of 1957, was written a few weeks after the Toccata, and is the only composition of De la Vega which expresses his musical ideas in a sarcastic fashion, like evoking a past which is never to return. Its humorous and at times jagged musical context is written in six-eight meter, rather than the traditional three-four one associated with the Baroque and Classical minuet. The piece was written in Miramar and premiered by Peter Hewitt in Northridge, on November 29, 1961. The work opens with a three-measure phrase of satirical character. The melodic material of the right hand remains within its narrow boundaries, while the accompaniment jumps from the low tones to the high treble notes, heard in Major seconds. A trio-like section includes distinctive new material based on ascending and descending arpeggios, combined with elements of the opening theme. The return to section A is now less festive than in the opening, due to a thicker texture and atonal sixteenth-note septuplets. After the return of the three-eight-note pattern accompaniment of the beginning, which assumes here a kind of non-moving, static motion, embellished with grace notes, the work comes to a quick energetic ending.
Once more, Sergio González states that “with the Minuet, an enormously productive and self-rewarding period comes to an end. By this time, the composer had gained an important place among music makers, and had earned the recognition and respect of colleagues from many corners”.
The powerful, expansive and highly avant garde Antinomies, written in Northridge in 1967, and premiered in Los Angeles on March 18, 1967 by composer and pianist Richard Grayson, marks the apogee of De la Vega’s most advance style, where spatial notation, serialization of pitches, extend instrumental effects, quasi-open forms, and extreme use of dissonant, atonal vertical elements, are freely mixed with more traditional forms of notation. As the title implies, the whole work is based on contrasting and opposing musical gestures: soft passages versus violent ones, percussive effects versus lyrical lines, normal piano playing versus plucking inside the piano, legato moments versus staccato ones, keyboard activity versus inside the piano use of mallets, high notes versus low ones, regular metric usage versus extended grace-note groups. The acute dramatic atonality and polyrhythmic briskness which characterized the music of De la Vega during the 1960s and 1970s, is combined here with and uncanny use of the piano resonant possibilities, resulting in a very powerful, fascinating, at times forbidding piece of music. After ten years of not writing for the piano, during which time some of his amazingly complex chamber music and early electronic works were composed, De la Vega returns to the instrument facing the challenge of not repeating himself while still creating the continuity and the sonorous communicative magic so characteristic of his total output. Antinomies brings to the piano many of the sonoric discoveries which the composer unveiled in the middle years of his life, and creates its own gestural tapestry with great effectiveness. The work is multi-sectional, with recurring sonic elements reappearing at various points. After an array of occurrences which explore the totality of the piano resources, the work ends serenely, with a series of ethereal chords an the strumming of the piano harp.
Homenagem (In Memoriam Heitor Villa-Lobos)(“Homage – in Memory of Heitor Villa-Lobos”), begun in Rio de Janeiro in 1985, while the composer was teaching at the University of Rio on a Fullbright Research Fellowship, and finished in Northridge in early 1987, is the last piano work written so far by De la Vega. The composition is the result of a commission by the Brazilian pianist José Eduardo Martins, who asked ten composers from around the world to write for him works in commemoration of Villa-Lobos birth centennial. Homenagem was premiered by Martins on August 23, 1987, in São Paulo. The United States first performance was by pianist Betty Oberacker, and the European premiere was delivered by Miguel Salvador.
Homenagem, in the composer’s workds, “represents clearly my final language with which I feel very comfortable and happy. It sums up many years of search, evolution, discovery and anguished musical and aesthetic moments. At this stage of my life external postures, concern with fashion, desire to impress, and constant confrontation with the historical moments are past experiences, from which one has extracted knowledge. Then comes one’s utmost, most powerful inner voice telling you to do as you please, enjoying the creative powers without pressures from the outside, and you understand then that you must proceed on your own, maybe in solitude, but sure of yourself in the final found creative inward peace. Homenagem is a return to a glorious tradition of pianistic virtuosity. The music signs and gathers together all I have learned through many years of intense work”.
Homenagem employs, in a more explicit way than any other of De la Vega’s piano works, the Cuban elements of the dance genres son and habanera. It also requires from the interpreter a clear understanding of its demanding rhythmic precision, a feeling for the dancing quality of the piece, a sharp conveyance of its percussive effects, and a sensitive approach to the many different colors that run throughout the work. The piece has two distinctive aspects, which serve as unifying elements: the extensive use of syncopated rhythms and the employment of intervals of augmented and diminished fourths, fifths and octaves. To quote once more Sergio González, “Homenagem is, in fact, a unique example of a felicitous and successful combination of the native Cuban and Latin American genres—mainly Argentine tango and Brazilian maxixe —, tossing in United States jazz ingredients, within a universal spectrum. Some of the contrapuntal sections seem to have thought of as orchestral passages. When slow sections occur, the melodic aspect takes command, and in contrast, when fast sections appear, the rhythmic aspect becomes more important. All these explicit features make this piece a genuine example of contemporary music which is fresh, appealing and very enjoyable to perform”.
Homenagem, which has been played throughout the world and is commercially recorded, crowns, up to today, De la Vega’s series of piano works which span his long and fecund musical career. Taken as a whole, these piano compositions constitute a solid group of works for this instrument written by one of the most prominent Twentieth Century art composers from the Americas. May the future bring forth new piano works by De la Vega, so he may further enrich not only his own creative legacy but the vast and rich panorama of Latin American Music.
Assertion from the composer
When Martha Marchena plays the piano a magical curtain of sound emerges from the instrument, surrounding the listener softly but powerfully, making him or her aware that the musical rite taking place transcends technical sorcery, becoming a profound and lasting statement. Consequently, the hearer always thanks her for enlightening a time and a style, and for transforming the act of striking white and black keys into a communion between a composition and an audience.
This recording of all my piano music up to the present, realized by Martha Marchena, not only meets my wholehearted approval but has moved me deeply. Seldom has a living composer encountered an interpreter who, going beyond the virtuosic rendering of one’s music, has fully captured the soul of it. Marchena’s devotion to the works contained in this record brings out all the nuances, facets an contrasts they exhibit, and her stylistic understanding of them transforms mere excellent piano playing into creating anew the best the compositions hold. Marchena penetrates this music with intensity, with love, with pristine clarity, thus transmuting her exemplifications from accurate execution to exalted ideality. I want to register, for future generations, my thanks for her reverent, poignant, vivid and luminous approach to my piano works.
I have heard Martha Marchena playing my music throughout the world many times, and at every occasion I have been taken aback by her fresh musicianship and by her splendid pianism, and I think, while losing track of time, that the promised Paradise must be filled with these musical sounds she so abundantly produces.
Aurelio de la Vega
Cuban Cultural Center of New York
|© 2003 - 2019 Martha Marchena