Musical Puerto Rico: Microcosm in the Mainstream

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The Fifth Annual Robert Trotter Lecture
The College Music Society
Fajardo, Puerto Rico
October 23, 1998
Keynote Address to the 1998 Conference

Thank you and good morning, President Seaton; colleagues, guests; friends all. . . . I am as saddened as everyone else by the destruction wrought in Puerto Rico by the recent hurricane, but very pleased to be here among so many old and new friends; I am highly honored to have been invited to deliver this Fifth Annual Robert Trotter Lecture of The College Music Society.

This is not the moment for a lecture on Puerto Rico and how it became what it is today. There is an ample literature on that subject. There is also a wide range of published opinion concerning what, if anything, is to be done next regarding Puerto Rico's political status in the world, a status which at the moment seems to satisfy nobody on the island. Some of these opinions have become crystallized in the form of political parties, of which the island presently has three, and the subject is particularly significant this year of 1998. 1998, you see, marks a century of the island's extremely close link with the United States, a link first forged through war: the Spanish-American War of 1898. If you glanced at this morning's San Juan papers you will have an idea of some of the existing opinions regarding what's to be done next, and an idea of the urgency with which the subject is viewed by many people in Puerto Rico and by a few people in the U.S. Congress. For our purposes this morning, suffice it to say that Puerto Rico is intimately linked to the United States: linked through its almost four million U.S. citizens; through the close trans-oceanic family ties of many of these citizens; through common currency, common diplomatic representation, common postal service, common military service, common commerce and trade; and through many other bonds ranging from the ecclesiastically hierarchical and educationally accreditable to the realms of the commercially entertaining and the sartorially fashionable. In some ways, Puerto Rico is as much a part of the United States as are those other non-contiguous parts of the country, the states of Alaska and Hawaii. The differences between Puerto Rico and the states of Alaska and Hawaii are also numerous and profound, of course, but neither they nor the political status of Puerto Rico is the subject of our attention this morning.

Our subject is musical Puerto Rico. And believe me, Puerto Rico is musical. Throughout history, observers have noted the islanders' fondness for music and dancing. In fact, a form of dancing, accompanied by chanting and sound-producing implements, may have had important ritual functions among the Taínos, the inhabitants of the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico) at the time of Christopher Columbus' westward wanderings. Recent writing has questioned the lineage of some widely held views on this matter as well as the geographical sites of some of the early descriptions—Antillean or continental—and the accuracy of the early observations themselves. But there was most assuredly some kind of rhythmic motion by Taínos in groups. Modern survivals of the Taíno culture in Puerto Rico appear to be mainly limited to place names and certain other words, some items of diet and some physical objects; the restful hammock is one of these. Of course there are physical artifacts remaining from Taíno times, but with the exception of the maraca as possibly a Taíno sound-producer, no identifiable musical usages have survived.

After a few decades had passed and the Spanish Conquista had settled down in Mexico and on the South American continent, Puerto Rico found itself mainly abandoned and ignored, relegated to the status of a military depot on the gold route to Spain. Still, official colonial policy imposed a rigid uniformity of procedures; if the island was no longer a tempting place for conquest and settlement, it was still a microcosm in the mainstream of voluminous official correspondence. Today we are thankful for this bureaucratic thoroughness, for the exploration of official records reveals significant details regarding the island's musical life during its four centuries as a Spanish outpost. For example, royal customs records dating from as early as 1512 note the arrival at San Juan of personal objects and commercial merchandise including vihuelas along with shoes, flour, lumber, sardines and other necessities of life in the far colonies. Note the date, please: 1512. This means that over a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth on that cold North Atlantic coast, soldiers and civilians were playing the vihuela in the streets of San Juan. Precisely what music they were playing on it is not known, but it was probably not essentially different from what was being played in other parts of the far-flung Spanish Empire.

Puerto Rico, as a part of that most Catholic empire, shared in the religious rituals and ceremonies which were observed throughout the Spanish world—naturally, always within a local church hierarchy's means. In addition, less formal customs were observed in island churches, customs which also reflected usages in Spain and elsewhere in the Spanish world but with local variations. These included the dancing of seises, or altarboys, and the singing of villancicos by young ladies described as mulattas, within the church during Corpus Christi in 1690.

Officially, it was required that all churches in Puerto Rico possess and utilize more formal musical resources, although the practice varied widely from place to place. There were complaints from San Juan from time to time dealing with the conditions of the moment. In 1608, for example, the bishop reported that priests throughout the island had forgotten how to intone the mass. On the other hand, a few decades later, following the establishment of a Franciscan monastery in San Juan, it was happily reported that immigrant friars and others who came to be ordained in San Juan were teaching the local folks to play the organ and to sing intelligently. The point is that throughout most of Puerto Rico's history, the island was a part of the Spanish world, subject to the same rules and practices as the rest of that world and always depending on local resources plus whatever could be wheedled out of Madrid by a persuasive governor-general.

Of special interest is the possibility of a specific Puerto Rican dance having traveled abroad along commercial or military channels, as music has traveled since time immemorial. A dance called the Portorrico was referred to in seventeenth-century Mexico, and an Antillean origin has sometimes been surmised for it. However, there are several other Portorricos or Puerto Ricos in Spanish America, and there is absolutely no documentation for any specific geographical referent for the dance.

Other musical manifestations of life in Puerto Rico during its early centuries as a Spanish colony included military music, probably limited to fifes and drums for most of the period, and officially decreed ceremonies marking important events occurring in Madrid and observed throughout the Spanish world. Such events were mainly the births, deaths, weddings and coronations of royalty and the celebration of Spanish military victories. Again, the level of pomp attending such events depended on the resources available locally; in Puerto Rico they often incorporated religious and military processions, a dance or two, special masses and perhaps a regatta in San Juan harbor. The saints' days of island towns and cities were also celebrated, with processions, dances and other activities involving music. As occurred throughout Europe and the Americas during the nineteenth century, public fairs and expositions of arts, agriculture and industry became important sites of musical activity in processions, parades, dances, and competitions and displays of music and instruments. Fortunately, many of these events are nicely documented through official reports.

Meanwhile, of course, Puerto Rican folk music and urban social music were taking form, with folk music based on elements from Spanish and African sources almost exclusively, while urban social music called upon Spanish forms and the broader European genres related to them, particularly in social dance music.

Puerto Rico was thus very much a microcosm, though not a wealthy one, in the affairs of the Spanish Empire from the time of that empire's origins in the early sixteenth century through the time of its decay two centuries later and even beyond, as Spain lost its vast colonies through the revolutions which created new countries in South and Central America and as far north as what is now California and Texas. The fact that Puerto Rico remained loyal to Spain during the revolutions of the early nineteenth century brought new blood and new energy to the Caribbean outpost, as loyalists from the South American colonies introduced money, property and more cosmopolitan ideas of social life. In addition, a royal edict of 1815 had greatly liberalized immigration to the island by persons with resources. The newcomers, as immigrants tend to do, became energetic and enthusiastic participants. Concert societies were formed, theaters were built, newspapers multiplied, musical instruction became organized, a market developed for pianos and other musical merchandise, orchestras were formed for dances and theater performance, the publication and importation of music for home use flourished, and concert reviewing became a serious matter. Once the dust settled following the revolutions in South and Central America, channels of communication were opened which placed Puerto Rico in the routes traveled by opera companies, theatrical troupes and traveling performers of all kinds, from ventriloquists to opera singers. An English baritone-soprano couple, William and Anna Pearman, opened the new San Juan Municipal Theater for musical events with a concert of opera airs in 1832, and the future diva Adelina Patti, then a mere slip of a fourteen-year-old, performed in the same theater with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the main attraction, in 1857 and again at the end of their year-long Puerto Rico tour in 1858. Other notable performers visiting the island in the nineteenth century included the young Isaac Albéniz in 1875 during an escape from parental authority, pianist Albert Friedenthal in 1885 and violinist Luisa Terzi in 1892. There was so much musical activity in San Juan in June 1848, during the celebration of the city's patron saint, St. John the Baptist, that a rhapsodic newspaper writer was led to ask "Are we here or in Paris?"

By the end of the century Puerto Rico was indeed a musical microcosm: no Paris, perhaps, but a worthy participant in the world's musical work. It was not uncommon to find two or more European lyric theater companies going the rounds of island theaters with zarzuelas, operettas and operas; on at least one occasion a new Italian opera was heard in Puerto Rico before reaching New York City. The music business flourished, and few island towns were without a music store and a teaching studio or two. A variety store in Ponce which also served as a hotbed of liberal political thought, in1883 carried the published music of 112 composers, most of it piano music and with many of these composers represented by 30 to 40 works apiece. What does this tell us about the musical activity of Ponce in the early 1880s? Somebody was buying this music by European and Puerto Rican composers, and it wasn't to start fires with. Works on the Bazar Otero shelves included four-hand piano music by 25 composers, in addition to albums of four-hand piano music by various composers, opera potpourris for piano four hands, and of course symphonies arranged for piano four hands. Who was playing this four-hand music? It certainly wasn't professional duo-pianists, for there weren't any here at that time. What the Bazar Otero catalog tells us is that Ponce in 1883 possessed a substantial middle class, that their parlors boasted that universal symbol of comfortable stability, the piano, and that people actually played it. You might say, just like Madrid, Buenos Aires and indeed, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Music by Puerto Rican composers has long been known abroad. The only extant opera by a nineteenth-century island composer and indeed the earliest extant opera by a Puerto Rican composer is Macías, by Felipe Gutiérrez y Espinosa (1825-1899). Gutiérrez was chapelmaster in the San Juan Cathedral from 1858 to 1898. Macías, probably dating from the 1860s, won a prize in San Juan in 1871 and was subsequently dedicated to the King of Spain, shipped off to Madrid and promptly forgotten in Puerto Rico. It was discovered in the Palace Library, Madrid, in the 1960s by a Puerto Rican scholar and finally given its first known performance, in San Juan in 1977, more than a century after its composition. Other works of Gutiérrez are also preserved abroad, including three of his masses in the Venezuelan National Library, Caracas.

Increasing traffic among Puerto Rico, Europe and South America in the nineteenth century carried composers and performers as well as music from one place to another. Domingo Delgado (1806-1858), born in the Canary Islands, came to San Juan in 1837 and established himself as teacher, composer and Cathedral organist. Some of Delgado's music composed in Puerto Rico has been known, but the recent description of some of his works found in two archives in the Canary Islands and of his early life there has deepened our knowledge of the man and his music. The island's cultural life profited by the arrival of other peninsular Spanish musicians throughout the nineteenth century, who established academies and music stores while performing and organizing ensembles. Many other international connections of the island's music are still being revealed and elucidated, while the foreign travels of Puerto Rican composers and performers have been frequent since young Manuel Gregorio Tavárez (1842-1883) went to Paris in 1857 as a piano student. Some of Tavárez' successors have included Gutiérrez himself in 1873; Gonzalo Núñez (1850-1915), graduating from the Paris Conservatory in 1875 with a gold medal in piano; and Francisco Pedro Cortés (1873-1950), studying at the same institution from 1893 to 1897. Pianists Arístides Chavier (1867-1942) and Julio Carlos de Arteaga (1865-1923) also graduated from the Paris Conservatory, the latter earning a first prize in accompanying in 1888. Juan Morel Campos (1857-1896), a composer and conductor based in Ponce, traveled abroad with a lyric theater company from 1889 to 1892.

Of interest is the case of soprano Amalia Paoli (1861-1942) and her brother Antonio (1871-1946), both born in Ponce. Amalia studied in Spain, became established in Madrid as a promising young singer, and enjoyed an international career while frequently returning to take an active part in Puerto Rico's musical life. Antonio first studied at the monastery of El Escorial, then at a military academy. Encouraged by his sister and with a royal stipend, he studied voice in Madrid before entering the academy of La Scala, Milan, in 1897. He appeared in London and Paris, Vienna, Moscow and St. Petersburg; helped inaugurate the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in 1908; and among many other accomplishments toured the United States with a company directed by Pietro Mascagni. Paoli's principal roles were Verdi's Otello and Manrico, Saint Saens' Samson and Meyerbeer's Vasco da Gama, while among his recordings was a performance of I Pagliacci under the composer's direction. Paoli, who used the stage name "Ermogene Imleghi Bascarán," was considered by his admirers a principal rival of Enrico Caruso, whose machinations, according to these same admirers, prevented Paoli's ever being contracted by the Metropolitan Opera Company. A number of other nineteenth-century Puerto Rican musicians performed internationally, including Gonzalo Núñez, previously mentioned, pianist Ana Otero, Julio de Arteaga and others. Some of these then settled in the United States as teachers and performers, including Gonzalo Núñez, Julio de Arteaga and his daughter Genoveva, causing complaints at home because the island was unable to retain its most valuable talents—a complaint still heard today.

The Spanish-American War brought four centuries of Spanish rule in Puerto Rico to an abrupt end, although some kind of disengagement was probably inevitable sooner or later. The transition was not easy, nor is it easy yet. Fernando Callejo, a musician and the author of the first attempt at a historical and biographical survey of music in Puerto Rico (published in 1915), lived through the traumatic change and described it as follows: "The change of nationality, as demonstrated by history in the great turmoils of nations, caused the paralysis, if not the reversal, of the artistic development whose progress had been so striking on the island." The change of sovereignty caused the immediate end of governmental support of the church, and with it the end of salaried posts in the churches' musical forces. Felipe Gutiérrez, in charge of the Cathedral's music for forty years and probably the island's most skilled and most versatile nineteenth-century composer, spent the last year of his life in a menial post in a school. Promising young musicians studying abroad were called back when their government scholarships ended and as the island entered a long period of grave economic distress as a U.S. possession. The seriousness of the economic situation was not immediately evident although the decline certainly was; in fact only during the great depression of the 1930s did the United States begin to take Puerto Rico's plight seriously, going so far as to include the island in the relief and reconstruction efforts of the New Deal.

1898 had cut Puerto Rico off from its roots in four centuries of Spanish rule and European culture, and the transition to U.S. concepts and patterns required decades of improvisation and adaptation. As the United States was not particularly interested in the matter, this was for many years a very one-sided process, and a process which continues today. In other words, forget microcosm for a few years while the island, virtually isolated culturally, sought new concepts, new connections and new channels of discourse.

This is not to say that Puerto Rico was a complete musical wasteland for the first half of this century. New cultural institutions were created and old ones were gradually restructured or adapted, with inevitable musical implications. The University of Puerto Rico was created in 1903; the Polytechnic Institute of Puerto Rico (now Inter American University) in 1912; the venerable Ateneo Puertorriqueño, founded in San Juan in 1876, continued as an important center of cultural and political discourse. The island continued to receive an occasional opera or zarzuela company; and the Pro Arte Musical Society was formed in 1932 to sponsor concerts and recitals by visiting and local artists. Musical composition continued and ad hoc orchestras were assembled for the necessities of the moment, with an occasional attempt to establish more permanent ensembles. Meanwhile, performers continued to leave the island to study or work, often remaining abroad. And "abroad" now usually meant the United States, although young singers were still attracted to Milan for a while longer.

A fascinating case is that of eighteen Puerto Rican members of James Reese Europe's famous military band during the first World War. Recruited in Puerto Rico by Lieutenant Europe himself, these men formed from a third to a half of the Hellfighters Band. Discharged from the service with the rest of their unit in 1919, almost all of the Puerto Rican members remained on the continent, disappearing into the great anonymous population of sidemen.

Early in the century the insular legislature restored the practice of awarding scholarships for musical study abroad, and one of the first to enjoy this privilege was soprano Margarita Callejo, daughter of Fernando Callejo, the previously mentioned author. Another early case was young Jesús María Sanromá, one of the first Puerto Rican musicians to study in the United States. Sanromá studied at the New England Conservatory with Antoinette Szumowska and later in Europe with Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel. He became the pianist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitsky while forging a very successful career as a teacher and recitalist. Sanromá retained very strong ties with the island, frequently returning to perform with colleagues here or with chamber ensembles formed of Boston musicians. In the early 1950s he returned permanently, to play a leading role in Puerto Rico's rapidly developing musical world. Soprano María Esther Robles, singing as María D'Attili, made a successful career abroad, among other accomplishments offering the premiere performance of Menotti's The Telephone. She later returned to the island as an experienced performer and valuable teacher. Soprano Graciela Rivera became the first Puerto Rican singer to be contracted by the Metropolitan Opera Company, in 1952. On the side of popular music and films, a number of island talents were successful on the continent in the period around the time of the second World War, including pianist Noro Morales, singer Ruth Fernández, actors Juan Hernández and José Ferrer, the versatile Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, and the incomparable song composer Rafael Hernández, who in fact had been Band Sergeant in the Hellfighters Band of James Reese Europe during the first World War. Other cases occurring before mid-century included bassoonist Angel del Busto and the noted Figueroa family of pianists and stringed instrument players. Meanwhile, Mapy and Fernando Cortés became romantic film stars in Mexico. This entire group of performers and others opened new channels of individual artistic communication abroad. Alongside the Pro Arte Musical organization and the Cultural Activities Series of the University of Puerto Rico, both of which regularly booked foreign and native performers and ensembles, they helped set the stage for Puerto Rico's rebirth as a musical microcosm, claiming its place in a new mainstream.

More recent years have seen a veritable flowering of Puerto Rican talent which regularly overflows the island's possibilities of challenging performance opportunities, essentially making careers in the United States. In commercial-popular music some of the following names might be familiar: singer-entertainers Lucecita Benítez, Danny Rivera, Menudo, Ricky Martin, Chayanne, Ednita Nazario, Mark Anthony; instrumentalists Dave Valentín, Juancito Torres, Willy Colón and of course going back to the twenties again, that sterling composer-arranger-trombonist Juan Tizol. Concert music abroad has been seeded with Puerto Rican performers and composers as well, following the footsteps of Jesús María Sanromá. At the moment there are probably more than a dozen singers who were born on the island and received their early training here, now working in and around opera in the United States and Europe; leaders in this second wave have been bass-baritone Justino Díaz and baritone Pablo Elvira, with tenor César Hernández a rapidly rising figure just now. And speaking of opera, when the contingent from the Puerto Rico District of the annual Metropolitan Opera Auditions appears in New Orleans for the regional competitions, contestants from the rest of the area tremble. Among instrumentalists the island claims concertmasters, principal cellists, first clarinets, section violinists and violists, oboists and instrumental teachers all the way from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Orpheus ensemble to Baltimore, Orlando, Miami, Bloomington, Spain and the Republic of South Africa. Puerto Rican conductors are waving the stick in New York City, the Napa Valley in California and St. Petersburg, Russia. Of course many of these performers are also teachers, as are Roberto González in California and composer Roberto Sierra at Cornell University.

All of these musicians are known and proudly claimed as Puerto Rican—in Puerto Rico. Abroad, however, they are not always so identified. Why not? Mainly, I believe, because they are conceptually absorbed into one of those great misconceived and Procustean categories of ethnic and racial classification which have been cast in concrete in the United States: the category of "Hispanics." Alternatively, and I believe in the long run in a healthier way for everyone concerned, they are simply recognized as able professionals in the working world of music.

The federal New Deal programs of the 1930s and their associated concepts of economic and social planning had profound effects in Puerto Rico, in fact forming the programmatic base of the Popular Democratic Party, which came into power as a result of the 1948 elections. As part of the new government's program of industrialization, economic growth and cultural renewal a number of new agencies came into being. A Division of Community Education had been created in 1946, but now developed important musical connections as the agency began to commission film scores from island composers, then recording them for educational films. The government's educational radio station WIPR was launched in 1949, expanding into television in 1958. The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, a government agency created in 1955, became an important force in cultural affairs including the performance, publication and recording of Puerto Rican music. The present Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, with a season now approaching fifty weeks of activities, was organized as a government subsidiary in 1958, along with a new Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. The insular government, with the support of such federal agencies as the National Endowment for the Arts, sponsors a number of annual festivals through the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the governmental Musical Arts Corporation. It is here that the annual Puerto Rico Casals Festival has its administrative home.

Most of these agencies commission scores by island composers, either directly or through grants to theater and ballet companies among other beneficiaries. Most of them also regularly engage performers from abroad, adding to the ever-increasing flow of music and musicians between the island and the great world beyond the sea. And finally, beginning in the 1960s a number of San Juan opera-sponsoring agencies have organized the production of operas calling upon local forces as well as stellar figures from the international world of opera. In recent years a number of these international figures have found time among their professional commitments to offer master classes at one or another island center of higher education in music. At the same time, a growing number of young performers have found it possible to study and forge careers abroad. And finally, during recent decades most of the island's institutions of musical training and performance have taken on the conceptual and structural characteristics of their U.S. counterparts. In short, the increasing ease of communication and travel between the island and the mainland has combined with other factors to tightly integrate Puerto Rico into the U.S. musical world: a parallel development to its complete economic integration and naturally tied to it. Puerto Rican performers, managements and audiences have become part of a U.S. network and thus of a world network. This integrating tendency has also affected the worlds of dance, theater, visual arts, design, and most other aspects of life in Puerto Rico.

The extreme isolation experienced by Puerto Rico during the first decades of the century is a thing of the past, although what the future may bring is unknown. At the moment, in music as in many other aspects of island life, Puerto Rico is again a microcosm in the mainstream.

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