|Leo Brouwer (1939 - )|
Brouwer is a complex figure. On the one hand he is anything but an aesthetic ideologue. His music draws from the structures and ideas of modernism and the avant-garde, but also from Cuban and African folk music. He has created purely electronic music and at the same time done very lush settings of traditional lullabies. He has written film music, such as the soundtrack to the movie Like Water for Chocolate, and also beautiful and instructive technical studies for guitar. He has made a career as a solo performer (one outstanding example is his brilliant recording of Scarlatti sonatas in his own transcriptions) sadly cut short by an injury to his right hand index finger, and as a composer. He has written several concertos for guitar and orchestra that have had numerous and continuing performances. For a while he was the music director of the symphony orchestra of Córdoba, Spain. A recent edition of his music describes him as
Composer, guitarist, conductor, researcher, teacher and cultural promoter, Leo Brouwer is a central personality in Cuban musical life ... His guitar output is an example of cultural mixing, fusing elements borrowed from Cuban traditional and nationalist music, from Afro-Cubanism and from the music of the European avant-garde in an individual style in which the sensual and the structural, the archaic and the scholarly, achieve a fascinating balance.On the other hand, he is a member of the Communist Party of Cuba, one of their subsidized artists, and for many years was head of their institute for film music in which role he composed music for what were essentially propaganda films.
I have met Leo Brouwer on several occasions. The first was a master class and concert in Montreal at McGill University in the late 1970s that I helped to arrange. I think I played his Elogio de la Danza for him on that occasion. A few years later I met him again in Toronto where he gave another master class and I think I might have played Memorias por El Cimmarón for him then. Then I met him again in Quebec City in the 90s at a guitar festival when he was kind enough to compliment me on my recording of his El Decameron Negro. I gave a talk on his Concerto No. 3, Elegiaco on that occasion.
I think we can discern three stages in his compositional output and they can be represented, somewhat accurately, by his three main publishers. His early music, from the late 1950s to 1980, was published partly by Schott and partly by Max Eschig. The earliest of these pieces include arrangements of popular Cuban airs and pieces related to dance rhythms such as the Danza Caracteristica of 1957. Let's have a listen. The guitarist is John Williams.
Another lovely piece from this period is his setting of Canción de cuna by Emilio Genet. The guitarist is Leo Brouwer and the clip is given the title Drume negrita, the name of the original tune (the music is published under the title Canción de cuna however). There are lots of ornaments in this performance that you won't find in the published music!
The influence of European modernism, Bartók in particular, starts to be heard in his Tres Apuntes (Three Sketches) from 1959. All of his music is now published by Schott. The guitarist is Cristina Azuma:
But the real breakthrough came with Elogio de la Danza in two brief movements of 1964. Here is the cover of the score I purchased in Spain in 1974 (it was published in 1972):
Getting a bit beat up by this point. But I treasure it because it contains a couple of pencil marks Leo made on the score when I played it for him, emphasizing that a rasgueado needs to be more accented. I recorded this piece for the CBC in 1975, but I don't have a copy any more so let's listen to this performance by Pepe Romero. He doesn't get the dynamics quite right, but everything else is great.
I'm just re-learning Elogio after not playing it for decades and I am so impressed by how brilliantly it transfers the harmonic and rhythmic idiom of Stravinsky to the guitar and adds all the rich timbral resources the guitar is capable of. Brouwer has remarked the the piece is a tribute to the "ballets russes" of Stravinsky.
In 1968 he wrote another modernist masterpiece, Canticum, also in two movements. This sounds less like Bartók or Stravinsky and more like Stockhausen or Ligeti. Some innovations are the more extensive use of timbre as a structural device and the scordatura of the 6th string to E flat for the second movement. The guitarist is Artyom Dervoed:
And finally, for this post at least, the piece that to me is the best of Brouwer's avant-garde pieces, La Espiral Eterna of 1971. Here he uses a number of guitaristic devices, such as arpeggios with pull-offs, hammer-ons, sliding on the string winding and Bartók pizzicati along with some aleatory elements to create a masterpiece of 20th century music. The effect in places is that of tape loops. Luckily we have Leo's own recording:
I am going to continue with a couple more posts on Leo Brouwer.