Music received early impetus from both Spanish settlers and African slaves. Despite the basic division into EuroCuban, Afro-Cuban, and popular (or mulatto), and concert music, the traditions are not clearly disparate. Classification depends upon the degree of mixture rather than on purity of form and expression. The Euro-Cuban and Afro-Cuban traditions did develop somewhat separately until the 20th century. The former was confined largely to white groups in the countryside and the upper class in the cities. Their music, played at formal balls and elaborate social gatherings, was based on Spanish forms and melodies. Instruments used were the small guitar and occasionally the violin; voice accompaniment was also used, but the forms were primarily for the dance. Afro-Cuban music, originally religious, developed during the 19th century into what became the popular form, overriding the Euro-Cuban forms that had previously flourished.
At the beginning of the 20th century several diverse elements appeared on the music scene. Some Cuban composers such as Ignacio Cervantes Kawanagh went through a cosmopolitan period in which they reflected the influence of foreign styles ranging from the impressionism of Debussy to the atonality of Stravinsky and Arnold Schönberg. In the 1920s and 1930s many composers (Ernesto Lecuona, Gonzalo Roig, e.g.) found inspiration in romantic and sensual Afro-Cuban elements.
However, Cuban classical music has not received, either in Cuba or abroad, the recognition accorded other kinds of genres. Formal compositions that antedate independence either drew upon the European tradition or have been wholly forgotten and did not serve as a source for later composers. Esteban Salas (1725-1803), a consummate choirmaster and devout priest, is considered the island’s first great Creole composer. Entirely in the Roman Catholic liturgical and late Spanish baroque traditions, Salas composed Masses, motets, chamber works, villancicos (carols), and other sacred and classical pieces. Under his musical stewardship from 1764 until his death, the Cathedral and city of Santiago de Cuba acquired a reputation for high musical culture. His successor, Father Juan París (1759-1845), carried on in Salas’ legacy.
In the 19th century, Cuba produced a great Romantic composer in Nicolás Ruiz Espadero (1832-1890). Among his most distinguished pupils were Cecilia Aritzi (1860-1937), Cuba’s first professional female pianist-composer, and Ignacio Cervantes Kawanagh (1847-1905), renowned for his Danzas. Instrumentalists José Manuel Jiménez (1855-1917), Claudio Brindis de Salas (1852-1911), and José White (1836-1912) gained international recognition as virtuosi pianists and violinists. White also authored the popular La bella cubana for violin and piano. Manuel Saumell (1817-1870) wrote contradanzas that contributed to a romantic sense of nationhood in music. Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes (1874-1944), who studied under Ignacio Cervantes, composed popular habaneras in addition to being Cuba’s foremost musicologist until his death. Gaspar Villate (1851-1891), Laureano Fuentes Matons (1825-1898), and José Mauri (1855-1937) created operas, zarzuelas, and symphonies acclaimed in Madrid and Paris as well as in Havana. Guillermo Tomás (1868-1937) introduced the music of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Max Reger to Cuban audiences for the first time. Joaquín Nin Castellanos (1879-1944) sought inspiration for his oeuvre in the Euro-Cuban music of the colonial past.
The two great 20th century composers who were given considerable recognition after the Revolution of 1959 were Amadeo Roldán (1900-1939) and Alejandro García Caturla (1906-1940), both participants in the rediscovery of Afro-Cuban traditions. In the 1930s there was a movement away from both cosmopolitanism and Afro-Cubanism, led by José Ardévol (1911-1981), but there was a return to Afro-Cuban sources for inspiration after World War II. Gonzalo Roig (1890-1970) and Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), both of whom were classically trained, interpreted popular and traditional genres. Among Roig’s compositions were the zarzuela (operetta) “Cecilia Valdés” [based on the 19th – century novel by Cirilo Villaverde] and the bolero (romantic song) Quiéreme mucho. Lecuona, Cuba’s most universally acclaimed pianist-composer of the 20th century, wrote zarzuelas such as María la 0, song favorites like Malagueña and Siboney, and numerous Hollywood themes (e.g., “With a Song in My Heart”). Julian Orbón (1925-1991), Cuba’s most accomplished classical composer since the 1940s, is now highly regarded as one of Latin America’s 20th century masters, along with Heitor Villa-Lobos (Brazil) and Carlos Chávez (Mexico). In contemporary art music, Aurelio de la Vega (b. 1925), a two-time recipient of the prestigious Friedheim Award, has earned distinction especially for his complex atonal- serial arrangements.
During the early 1960s popular music conserved the vitality derived from the popularity of the mambo and the chacha-chá of the 1950s with such figures as Dámaso Pérez Prado, Enrique Jorrín, and Benny Moré. Cuban popular music was enriched by the works of filin (“feeling”) music, a style of the early 1950s, characterized by a smooth harmonious personal style as seen in the music of José Antonio Méndez, César Portillo de la Luz, and Frank Domínguez. This was offset, however, by the end of independent radio stations and the implementation of a rigid cultural policy during the Fidel Castro era. Beginning in 1966, music suffered a censorship aimed at avoiding foreign cultural influence and any ideological deviation. The works of Cuban authors were to reflect their revolutionary social commitment, and the need to recover lost musical values was emphasized. Several short- lived rhythms emerged at this time, such as the pilón, the paca, and the mozambique, which never caught on outside Cuba.
At the end of 1968, popular music reawakened with the arrival of the Nueva Trova. From that moment on, official steps were taken to improve the state of popular music and new music schools were established. Foreign music began to be heard more, as did important figures of Cuban traditional music. During the 1970s there was more emphasis on culture, and jazz and experimental music groups appeared with a notable increase in composing. National and international festivals have been held since that time, such as the Varadero Festival of Popular Music, the Benny Moré Festival, and the Adolfo Guzmán Contest.