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February 19 , 2003

La Salle Prof Hears Music in His Head, Sparking 14-year Adventure to Write Biography of Cuban Composer Alejandro Garcia Caturla

About 14 years ago, Charles White was reading music scores at The Free Library of Philadelphia, when a symphony went off in his head: literally and figuratively. The musical notes on the paper were unlike anything he'd seen or heard before.

It was music by Alejandro Garcia Caturla, a Cuban composer whose work was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. White, a retired professor of fine arts at La Salle University, spent years piecing together Caturla's life, resulting in Alejandro Garcia Caturla: A Cuban Composer in the 20th Century, published by Scarecrow Press, Inc.
The book contains a CD that has six tracks; some were recently recorded; others were recorded in the 1970s. White grew up in New Orleans, and as a boy heard many Cuban musicians and bands performing in the French Quarter, and he's always loved that sound.

The music of Caturla, who died in 1940, was performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in New York and Philadelphia during the 1930s. By that time, Caturla's membership in the Pan-American Association of Composers was leading to further international recognition of his music.

"His music is difficult and challenging," says White. "It's a mixture of African and Cuban rhythms that is very 'Cuban' in its approach." Caturla is still highly regarded in Cuba because "his music is viewed as being the most progressive Cuban music of that era," says White. "It formed a new kind of nationalism in Cuban music based on Afro-Cuban sources. He was always striving to upgrade the cultural standards of the country."

After discovering Caturla's manuscripts, White searched a Miami phone book to see if there was a listing for a Caturla, hoping to locate a relative. There was one, and he was Caturla's great nephew. He told White that the composer's sister, Bertha, was alive and living in Miami, and arranged for White to visit her.

With the great-nephew translating, Bertha poured out memories. "It was very emotional for her to talk about her brother," says White. Bertha gave White a rare copy of Caturla's published letters; later, in Cuba, White found unpublished letters written by Caturla.

White learned Caturla was born to a well-to-do family of Spanish descent in the city of Remedios, on the western side of Cuba. After Caturla graduated from the University of Havana with a degree in law, his parents sent him to Paris to study composition.

Upon his return, Caturla continued to compose and publish his own music. At the same time, he became a judge in his hometown, and quickly established a reputation for honesty by putting corrupt police and judges in jail. One criminal, fearing Caturla would give him a lengthy sentence, shot him in the chest at point blank range, killing the composer who was only 34. (White says an historian of the town claimed that upon hearing of Caturla's death, the chief of police said "Thank God they got rid of him!")

White also discovered Caturla had caused a scandal by getting involved with the family's servant, a black woman named Manuela, when he was 17. They lived together and had eight children. After she died in 1938 from typhoid fever, Caturla married her sister, Catalina, who bore him three more children.

White interviewed Catalina a year before her death. From her, White learned Caturla was a workaholic, and she was responsible for keeping his manuscripts in order before they were sent to the publisher. But when he wasn't working, he was frequently playing music with his children, singing songs with them or playing the piano for them.

In addition to being an honest judge, Caturla was a progressive one, authoring several laws on juvenile delinquency, and setting up work programs for teenagers instead of sending them to lengthy jail terms.

White made nine trips to Cuba to research his subject, interviewing Caturla's family, friends and fellow composers and musicians. The first trip was in 1991 at the invitation of the Cuban government, who asked White to give a paper on Caturla at a conference. "It was very well-received, particularly by young university-aged students who were anxious to learn about Caturla from a foreign source," says White. On another trip he stayed for two weeks, living with a family in Remedios, only blocks from Caturla's family home, which has been made a national museum.

In the 1990s, White arranged for three concerts of Caturla's music to be played at La Salle University.

When White first held a copy of Caturla's biography in his hands, it was an almost a surreal moment - all those years of work had finally come to fruition.

"It was an enormously satisfying experience, the greatest adventure of my life," he says. "Going to Cuba, becoming involved with a foreign culture, trying to cope with understanding of the cultures, it was a very great learning experience," he says. "It was fulfilling and inspiring. Like in most travels, you find people everyone are wonderful."

"There were Cuban scholars who were amazed that this American was doing such intense work on their composers; some of the research materials I found exists only in America, and they were grateful for my sharing it," he said. "They were amazed that this American would be working with such intensity on this man's life and work."