Salle Prof Hears Music in His Head, Sparking 14-year Adventure to
Write Biography of Cuban Composer Alejandro Garcia Caturla
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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later, in Cuba, White found unpublished letters written by Caturla.
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.
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!")
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.
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.
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.
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.
the 1990s, White arranged for three concerts of Caturla's music
to be played at La Salle University.
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.
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."
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."