Instrumental Music in 19th Century Venezuela, Part One.

Not only in Venezuela, but also throughout Latin America, 19th century secular music was largely dominated by opera and to a lesser extent, zarzuela and ballet. Indeed, at the beginning of that century the citizens of Caracas were treated to season after season of foreign troupes that staged a mostly well-worn repertory of dramatic works that in today’s parlance would be described as “second run.” For example, the inauguration of the Caracas Theater on October 22, 1854 was celebrated with a performance of Verdi’s Ernani, which of course had been premiered in Venice ten years earlier.

However, by that time the city could boast a number of fine composers, several of whom established academies and philharmonic societies. José Lino Gallardo (1773-1837), called “the Haydn of Caracas,” may have founded one of the first of these, which from about 1819 offered subscription concerts. Juan Francisco Meserón (1779-1850?), who was not only an accomplished flutist but also a composer, conducted a short-lived philharmonic society that was active in Caracas during the early 1830s.

Of these two, Venezuelan musicologist Juan Francisco Sans says that without doubt the latter is the composer “who most exploited the symphonic genre.” Indeed, in addition to at least eight symphonies, of which the last is considered to be the most important instrumental work of the colonial period, Meserón also composed at least two overtures and several patriotic songs for tenor soloist, mixed choir and full orchestra. He is also the author of Explicación y conocimiento de los principios generales de la Música (1824), which was the first book on music theory published in Venezuela.

By about the mid 19th century romanticism had largely replaced earlier stylistic tendencies in Venezuela’s art music. The composers whose music best represents the newer musical style are Felipe Larrazábal (1816-73), José Ángel Montero (1832-91) and Federico Villena (1835-99).

Larrazábal, whose catalog may exceed 3,000 compositions, is one of the most important Venezuelan composers of his time. He also founded a short-lived but successful conservatory in 1868. Although the majority of his works perished when the steamer on which he was travelling, the Ville du Havre, ran into another ship and quickly sank during the early hours of November 23, 1873, one his surviving works, a piano trio in A major—currently being edited by Cayambis Music Press—is considered the most representative example of Venezuelan musical romanticism. Writing in 1939, the Venezuelan musicologist José Antonio Calcaño notes that Larrazábal possessed a “talent of the highest order,” and that his trio is a work of “great strength and high ideals.”

The Monteros were a family of Venezuelan musicians that spanned several generations from the end of the 18th century until the beginning of the 20th. Its most important member, José Ángel, became one of the most prolific creators of music of his time. Furthermore, his opera, Virginia (1873) may have been the only one of its type by a Venezuelan composer produced in that country during the 19th century. His instrumental catalog includes numerous overtures, marches, incidental pieces for piano, and at least one quartet, for flute, violin, cello and piano, that is currently being prepared by Cayambis Music Press. Based on themes from Ernani, this piece was commissioned in 1878 by four of Montero’s colleagues, who performed it as part of a project to deliver concerts to several Masonic lodges.

Federico Villena, who was born in a small town, represents the typical case of the country boy who moves to the big city in search of opportunities to further his career. After struggling in Caracas between 1853 and 1859, he moved to La Guaira, the country’s main port, where he obtained a job as a band director. In 1865 he moved again, this time to Ciudad Bolivar, where he worked as a cathedral chapel master and founded the city’s concert band. Under his direction the band presented the first outdoors band concert registered in Venezuela during the 19th century. These concerts, known as “retretas,” are still very popular all over Latin America. In 1881 Villena returned to Caracas where he was appointed as director of the Caracas Concert Band and was awarded a chair in the National Academy of Music. He was also a founding member of the Unión Filarmónica, one of the most prestigious and active philharmonic societies in the country’s history. His extensive catalog includes more than 100 pieces for band, dozens of piano pieces for two and four hands, and a quintet for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano.

Some authors consider his output to be uneven, perhaps because his catalog is dominated by a large number of short dance-type pieces for piano that were intended to be played by amateurs, as well as dozens of incidental works for band, the composition of which partially accounted for some of his duties as a band director. However, to a great degree his large-scale compositions reveal mastery not only of romantic harmony but also orchestration in that they offer original and surprising modulations, intense chromaticism and delicate instrumental colors.

Three composers, Francisco de Paula Magdaleno (1852-1920), Teresa Carreño (1853-1917) and Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), represent a bridge between the end of romanticism in Venezuela and the emergence of a truly 20th century style around 1920. In a later post I will discuss their contributions to the development of instrumental musical in that country.

Comments 2

  • And… what about contemporary women composers? Beatriz Bilbao, Adina Izarra, Diana Arismendi, myself?

  • The post to which you are responding is about a historical period during which, with but a few possible exceptions, there was very little female involvement in composition. In fact, not only were there very few composers in 19th century Latin America (if we compare their numbers vs. those in Europe), but also, regardless of sex, Latin American composers were at that time mostly not taken very seriously by their fellow citizens. (There are a variety of reasons for this which could well be the subject of a future post).
    Since about the mid 20th century, however, the compositional landscape has changed quite a bit, and because of this, there are many Latin American women who are, today, accomplished composers. With this in mind, I would invite you to review yesterday’s post, “Female Latin American Composers of Chamber Music in the U.S.” This should of course be followed by a review of female composers in the Southern Cone, the Andes, etc., in which case if you would like to contribute we’d be quite happy to receive your input.

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