Alejo Carpentier—Cuba’s Unlikely Musical Hero

Cuba is not a particularly large country, but its influence on the world’s music is immense; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a world without the habanera, mambo or salsa. Over the past hundred years, Cuba’s greatest musical heroes have tended to be performers—charismatic musicians like Celia Cruz, Arturo Sandoval or even Ricky Ricardo, who shot to fame and became pop culture icons.

But perhaps the greatest figure in all of Cuban music isn’t a performer at all—he is musicologist-turned-novelist Alejo Carpentier.

In case he is unfamiliar, allow me to introduce him.

* * *

Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) is perhaps the most influential writers Cuba has ever produced, whose novels inspired the famous “boom generation” of writers across Latin America. While he is most celebrated for his novels, he was equally at home writing poetry, news stories, librettos, and more. One of his greatest claims to fame, however, is that he pioneered the now-ubiquitous feature of Latin American literature—the notion of “magical realism” where the mundane and the supernatural seamlessly merge. Gabriel García Márquez quickly fell under Carpentier’s spell; it is said that he was so moved by Carpentier’s novel, Explosion in a Cathedral, that he destroyed his first draft of One Hundred Years of Solitude and started anew.

But Carpentier wasn’t just a skilled writer—he was at heart a musician… a man who dreamed in music. The son of a musical family (his father studied cello under Pablo Casals), Carpentier grew up playing piano. Chopin was an early love, but by the time he was 18 he had turned to the modernists, becoming an early champion of Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as a journalist in the 1920s he focused not only on covering politics and local news, but arts and culture as well. In short order he established a reputation as a lively music critic, but he went beyond simply writing reviews. Throughout this early period he was a staunch advocate for strengthening Cuba’s musical infrastructure and culture, too. As part of this advocacy he began a push to have local ensembles performing works by living composers, and worked with composer Amadeo Roldán to schedule Cuban premieres of works by Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ravel, Satie and others.

Ultimately his political writings sparked the ire of the dictator Gerardo Machado, and Carpentier chose to leave Cuba for France. There, he diligently threw himself into the local music scene and began studying music theory at Lycée Jeanson de Sailly. He was extraordinarily active during this time, writing extensively about music in the local press, editing music for the documentary Le Vaudou and serving as a sound engineer for a Parisian radio station. He also met Edgard Varèse and worked with him on the abortive dramatic project, The One-all-alone.

* * *

When the Machado dictatorship was overthrown, Carpentier returned to Cuba, and again threw himself into the local music scene… increasingly focusing his attention on the African rhythms and melodies that predominated in popular music. Inspired, he began advocating that Afro-Cuban music was the true music of the country, and constituted the foundation of Cuban cultural identity.

Unlike others of the time, Carpentier approached these popular music forms from a classical music perspective—he was one of the first to treat popular, Afro-Cuban music as a serious subject that was worthy of musical analysis. But he was also fascinated by the interactions between the popular, Afro-Cuban traditions and the more “formal” musical traditions that came to the island via Europe. This fusion of cultures, he came to believe, is what gave Cuban music its great range and versatility.

He gathered up his various threads of research and study to create one of the most important musicological books of the century, the magisterial Music in Cuba (1946). The importance of this work can hardly be overstated—while it was not the first study of Cuban music, or even Afro-Cuban music, it was the first major study to show how the various threads of Cuba’s musical heritage blended and enriched each other. Also, this work was pioneering that it approached Cuba’s musical past from the perspective of music, rather than anthropology; the result was that it was much more widely read in cultural circles of the time, and not just in academia.

More importantly, Music in Cuba was the first work to foretell the global impact of Cuban music. Carpentier was well aware of how American and European composers and songwriters drew inspiration from Afro-Caribbean music, and firmly believed that Cuban music was about to explode onto the world music scene. He was convinced that once “discovered,” Cuban music’s blended heritage would give it nearly universal appeal, so that it would quickly gain popularity wherever it was heard.

He was right… and the rest is history.

* * *

For Carpentier, music wasn’t just an abstract field to be researched; he later reflected that his deep immersion in music was crucial in shaping his writing in general. In interviews he repeatedly claimed that he thought about his prose in musical terms, and that he heard musical rhythms in his characters’ dialogue. He also claimed that his novels’ structures were designed to reflect musical structures, and he often thought of his novels as “sonatas.”

But there was more… music is also woven into the plots of his novels. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is The Baroque Concerto (1974), set in the 1700s. In this work, a Havana entrepreneur travels to Italy, where he joins a convocation with Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Handel. As part of the discussions, the Cuban traveler becomes a major force in inspiring Vivaldi’s 1733 opera, Motezuma.

But music is integral to many of his other works, too. The antihero of The Lost Steps is a disillusioned composer who travels to the jungles of South America in search of untouched, primitive music. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Eroica, frames the novel, El acoso, and essentially serves as its primary character. His unfinished memoir, La consagración de la primavera, draws its title from Stravinsky’s most famous work.

As Carpentier himself stated, “Music is present in all my works.”

* * *

So, as I start to prepare for my own musical voyage to Cuba, I want to acknowledge the musical debt we all owe Alejo Carpentier.  While he wasn’t a performer himself, music infused every aspect of his life, and is clearly present in every aspect of his life.

Carpentier was a creative genius, and no one has done more to establish Cuban music as a major cultural force around the world.




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