Best Latin American composers of all time

From Afro-Cuban rhythms to the tango, Peruvian folklore to Mexican popular song, the distinctive classical music of Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean draws on diverse influences. Janet Crane introduces its composers

Gabriela Lena Frank is one of ther best Latin American composers of all time
Published: June 20, 2022 at 5:09 pm
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The cities of Latin America have long been thriving cultural centres. From the late 19th century, audiences in the drawing rooms and theatres of Latin America – from the top of Mexico down to the tip of South America and across to the Caribbean – listened to much the same music that audiences were hearing in Europe.

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Local composers, from Havana to Buenos Aires, wrote Romantic music – sonatas, waltzes, and mazurkas – that followed the cultural and artistic trends of Europe, and famous European singers and instrumentalists included Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires on their tours, bringing the latest musical fashions with them. Yet Latin America’s many superb composers had more in common with each other than with either Europeans or North Americans. Similar cultures, derived from the mix of Ibero-European, African and indigenous peoples, produced music of great expressivity and rhythm. Iberian and African dances developed into distinctive new dances which were then infused into classical compositions.

The music of Latin America is sophisticated and accessible, but has too often been relegated to summer festivals and themed concerts, and remains underperformed in North America and Europe. Fortunately, the renowned Latin American conductors Giancarlo Guerrero, Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Gustavo Dudamel are regularly programming these works for audiences around the world, awaiting their rightful place in the Western canon. So here are a handful of superb composers from Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean…

Best Latin American composers of all time

Best Mexican composers

Manuel Ponce (1882-1948)

The Mexican Manuel Ponce (1882-1948), a piano child prodigy, began composing while still a teenager and studied first in Italy and then in Germany before 1910 – by the turn of the century, composers and performers frequently did advanced studies in Europe. From his teaching post at Mexico’s National Conservatory, Ponce called for a new national music that made use of popular Mexican songs and folksongs. Ponce began to integrate Mexican canciones (songs) and rhythms into his sonatas, concertos and études, bringing into being a distinctive Mexican classical style. He’s especially known for his works for piano and guitar: the Sonata for Guitar and Harpischord and Concierto del Sur for guitar are highly regarded. Ponce was often commissioned by the guitarist Andrés Segovia, who performed his work throughout his long career. With its strong folk influences, Ponce’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1942) is, however, perhaps his most ambitious, virtuosic work.

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Carlos Chávez (1899-1978)

Ponce’s most illustrious student was unquestionably Carlos Chávez (1899-1978), and over his long career Chávez experimented with 20th-century styles, infusing them with Mexican flavours. At one stage he attempted to reconstruct a pre-European Indianist music, as you can hear in his Sinfonía india based on three Indian melodies and incorporating a variety of unusual percussion instruments, and Xochipilli: an imagined Aztec music, which uses a pentatonic scale and primitive rhythms. Chávez, a friend of avant-garde composers Lou Harrison and John Cage, wrote successively more complex works for percussion, including the Toccata for Percussion and his late rhythmic masterpiece, Tambuco. Chávez’s Piano Concerto has a Bártok feel to it – a complex fusion of folk music and dissonances in which the piano interacts with the orchestra and its individual instruments in abrupt rhythmic changes and tempos. The second movement is a loud adagio featuring a dialogue between harp and piano, and a primitivistic section developed in the woodwinds.

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940)

Chávez’s colleague Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) had his start as a talented violinist studying in both Mexico and the United States, and supporting himself playing for silent movies and in orchestras. As a composer he was even more radical than Chávez in his embrace of dissonance and vibrant colouring. Revueltas found musical inspiration on street corners, markets and carnivals, and his music has a populist feel. He wrote short, delightful little pieces for children and was inspired by animals and circus performers. La Noche de los Mayas, a lively concert piece, was originally a silent film score, as was Redes, which accompanied the story of a fishing village visited by tragedy – it is ranked among the greatest, most poignant film scores of the 1930s. But Revueltas’s masterpiece is Sensamayá, an orchestral work based on a poem by Cuban Nicolás Guillén, in which two ritualistic themes build obsessively to a riotous climax.

Best Brazilian composers

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Brazil glanced towards Paris for inspiration as nationalism began to sweep the country at the start of the 20th century. The young Heitor Villa-Lobos, who was taught the cello and clarinet by his father, steered clear of formal training on his road to establishing a Brazilian musical identity. He supported himself playing the cello in theatres and with wandering street musicians called chorões, and later travelled to north-east Brazil to immerse himself in local sounds and rhythms. Villa-Lobos’s struggling career was given a boost by composer Darius Milhaud who was living in Rio – Milhaud introduced him to the music of Debussy and to pianist Arthur Rubenstein, who performed regularly in Rio and Buenos. Rubenstein championed Villa-Lobos’s early virtuosic piano suite A prole do bebê, which was booed in Brazil but seemed to go down well in Paris. In turn, Villa-Lobos wrote for Rubenstein the demanding Rudopoêma, which stands among the great piano works of the 20th century; he also wrote a Guitar Concerto for Andrés Segovia. Villa-Lobos’s music is rhapsodic, often slightly dissonant, with distinct sonorities, exotic rhythms and unusual instrumentation. He produced a steady stream of music for 50 years, from tone poems and quartets to the uniquely Brazilian Chôros (‘cry’) and neo-classical Bachianas brasileiras.

Francisco Mignone (1897-1986)

Villa-Lobos has always been Brazil’s best-known and most important composer, but other talented composers contributed to the developing canon of excellent Brazilian classical music, and deserve to be better known. Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), of Italian roots, played the violin with chorões and used their popular modinhas (love songs), sambas and habaneras in his works. Mignone was influenced by Villa-Lobos, although by the mid-20th centuryhe was experimenting with serialism, eventually returning to a more lyrical style. Mignone, little known outside Brazil, was championed in the 1950s by conductor Arturo Toscanini, who performed his orchestral pieces Festa das igrejas and Congada in the US and South America. He wrote some of his most innovative works for the great bassoonist Noel Devos, including 16 Waltzes for Solo Bassoon, each describing a distinct aspect of Brazil, and a Concertino for Bassoon and Chamber Orchestra.

Best Argentinian composers

Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000)

Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000), an Argentine pianist and composer who studied in his hometown of Santa Fe and Buenos Aires, lived a rather quiet life in a small apartment in downtown BA. He never adopted any of the avant-garde styles favoured by other mid 20th-century composers, and mostly wrote songs for voice and piano, setting poems by Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Jorge Luis Borges and Leon Benarós, as well as traditional Argentine folk songs, to simple melodies. Guastavino’s gift for capturing emotions, places and objects of beauty is apparent in the hundreds of songs he wrote throughout his life. La rosa y el sauce (The rose and the willow), Pueblito, mi pueblo (My little Town), Se equivocó la paloma (The dove was mistaken) and Jeromita linares (from Presencia #6), are lyrical gems.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-83)

While Chávez and Revueltas in Mexico and Villa-Lobos and other Brazilian composers were developing a new music and the institutions to promote it, Alberto Ginastera (1916-83) inherited an established national musical scene in Buenos Aires. But it was Ginastera who achieved international recognition for his early works, which describe the expansive Argentine pampas and its gaucho (cowboy) culture. He wrote two ballets, Panambí and Estancia, and shorter descriptive works like Malambo, based on an energetic, percussive cowboy dance. Ginastera studied at Tanglewood following World War II, after which his music became increasingly abstract; his distinctive string quartets, harp concerto, operas and orchestral works use sophisticated, avant-garde techniques while incorporating Argentine motifs and rhythms.

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)

For five years Ginastera taught composition to Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), who had been recommended to him by Arthur Rubenstein. Piazzolla was another child prodigy, who in his early years studied the piano in New York and taught himself to play bandoneón, the modified concertina used in Argentine tango orchestras. Astor was talented enough to play in Aníbal Troilo’s famed tango orchestra while studying with Ginastera, from whom he learned orchestration. During a year in France with Nadia Boulanger, she encouraged him to focus on the tango, which seemed to come from his soul. From them on, he pioneered a new, jazz-infused, dissonant and rhythmically complex tango. He also composed several classical works which incorporate tango elements, among them a tango opera, María de Buenos Aires, a ballet and pieces for orchestra, of which his masterpieces are Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and the Concerto for Bandoneón and Orchestra.

Osvaldo Golijov (b1960)

Osvaldo Golijov (1960-) has been hugely influenced by Piazzolla, whose music he heard as a child in his native Argentina. Last Round was written on learning of Piazzolla’s death and Azul, for cello, hyper-accordion and orchestra, includes references to Piazzolla’s style. Golijov’s music is complex and unique, reflecting his Jewish, Latin-American and classical heritage, and includes Ainadamar, the soul-rending chamber opera about the murder of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, and the La Pasión Según San Marcos, which incorporates African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern sonorities, rhythms and instruments into a Christian passion.

Best Peruvian composers

Gabriela Lena Frank (b1972)

The wish to express her Peruvian heritage motivates Gabriela Lena Frank (b1972), a pianist-composer born in Berkeley, California, to a Jewish-American father and a Peruvian mother. Encouraged to explore her background by mentor William Bolcom, she has made many visits to the Peruvian Andes to absorb the indigenous culture and music. Inspired by Bartók and Ginastera, Frank has written a distinctive body of music, particularly for piano and chamber groups. Her Leyendas: an Andean walkabout for orchestra incorporates traditional Andean harmonies and instruments in sections describing a dance, a song of condolences, flirtations and Inca couriers. Hilos, eight short pieces for piano quartet, describe the variety and beauty of Peruvian textiles. Illapa is a tone poem for orchestra on the Incan weather god that includes a melancholic harawi.

Best Cuban composers

Leo Brouwer (b1939)

Classical repertoire imbued with Afro-Caribbean elements was simultaneously developing in the Spanish Caribbean. Leo Brouwer (b1939) was born in Havana, Cuba to a family of musicians. He learned the guitar in his early teens, then studied composition at Hartt College of Music in Connecticut and at the Juilliard. His extensive catalogue for solo guitar shows diverse influences from Bach, Bártok and Piazzolla to popular Cuban airs and Afro-Cuban rituals. His style has evolved from folklorist to avant-garde minimalism and has returned to a fusion that is lyrical, virtuosic and Afro-Cuban. His works for string quartet and string trio are edgy and remarkably complex, but they’re delightfully accessible.

Best Puerto Rican composers

Roberto Sierra (b1953)

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In Puerto Rico, Roberto Sierra (b1953) started as a piano prodigy, then realised he wanted to write for his instrument and, after studying at the conservatory in San Juan, left for the Royal College of Music and University of London in England. He later studied electronic music in the Netherlands and composition with György Ligeti. Sierra’s early works are abstract, polyphonic and extremely difficult with Afro-Caribbean elements embedded in a texturally complex style. More recently, such influences have become more assimilated and melodic in his work. His Fandangos is an infectious piece that builds, with fanfare and elaborated orchestrations, to a rousing finale. His Missa Latina is a beautiful, and uniquely Afro-American, interpretation of the Latin text. Sierra has written four symphonies, the last characterised by repeating motifs sparked with little rushes of energy and infused with hints of the Afro-Caribbean. Recently, he has returned to writing for the piano, musing on the bolero, a slow-tempo Latin music, which has been a constant component of
his compositions.

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