Ernesto Lecuona: Celebrated Cuban Composer and Pianist December 09 2022

Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) was beloved by his native Cuba and gained worldwide recognition during his lifetime. He traveled the globe extensively, performing for packed theaters and concert halls. His musical talents were appreciated by fellow musicians and the general populace alike, with well-known hits such as "Always in My Heart" and "Malagueña." He was known for his mastery of the keyboard and his expressive style.

Lecuona used a mixture of Spanish and Afro-Cuban rhythms in his compositions that inspired other musicians and influenced Latin music into modern times. His contribution to Latin American music is often likened to that of George Gershwin's in the United States.

Ernesto Lecuona with an orchestra, in Cuba

Ernesto Lecuona with an orchestra, in Cuba

During his lifetime he wrote over 3,500 compositions, ranging from piano pieces, a musical theater called zarzuelas, operas, and ballets. His talents were sought after by many, and he even contributed musical scores to several films during his prolific lifetime.



Ernesto Lecuona y Casado was born on August 6, 1895, in Buanabocao Cuba during a time of great political turmoil. His parents were Spaniard Ernesto Lecuona Ramos and Cuban native Elisa Casado Bernal. His mother was a staunch Cuban patriot and firmly supported the efforts of the revolution during this tumultuous political time. Lecuona was one of 14 children, although only seven siblings survived into adulthood.



The musical talents of Lecuona were discovered early on in his life. One of his sisters, Ernestina, was a piano teacher and kept her instrument in the home, although it was off-limits to her siblings. At the age of three and a half, Lecuona was discovered to have climbed up on a box to reach the keys and played the familiar songs he heard from his sister.

Ernesto Lecuona

He showed a remarkable aptitude for an instrument that he had no formal training on. Lecuona's sister began to give him instruction and he participated in his first recital at Havana's Hispanic Club at age five. His playing was impressive and audiences were captivated. He was named a child prodigy.

Several crucial events marked Lecuona's early years. First, his father died of a heart attack. Within days, on May 20, 1902, the Republic of Cuba was established. Even while dealing with these transformative occurrences, Lecuona immersed himself in his musical studies. He began his education at Hoyos Y Junco and later enrolled in the Conservatorio Peyrellade at age nine, where he continued his musical instruction for three years. The next step in his musical training took place under the talents and tutelage of Antonio Saavedra and Joaquin Nin.

By age 11, Lecuona was making money from his skills. He began to perform in theaters and wrote "Cuba y America" which he sold by going door to door. This piece was also used by military bands in Cuba.

When Lecuona was 14 years old, he was taken on as a student of Hubert de Blanck in the Conservatorio Nacional. He continued his training until he graduated at age 17 on April 4, 1913. During his time at the institution, he was awarded its highest honor of a Gold Medal for his accomplishments in interpretation.



After his schooling was completed, Lecuona worked in various theaters around the capital. In 1916, he traveled to New York and his talents were discovered during a performance at Aeolian Hall. He was offered a contract to record his music with RCA Victor, as well as being approached by Ampico Piano Company and Duo-Art.

Ernesto Lecuona signed photo

Between the years 1919 – 1923, he did a lot of work as a composer. He set various works to music including operettas, reviews, and zarzuelas. One of the most popular was "Domingo de Piñata. Appreciation for Lecuona's musical gifts was growing.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Maestro Lecuona Signed Photograph 1949

He spent eight weeks performing at the Capitol Theater in New York. This is the venue where he debuted the favorites "Malagueña" and "Andalucia."

While back in Cuba in 1922, Lecuona established the Sociedad de Conciertos de la Habana, which later formed the Havana Symphony Orchestra. His love of symphonic music drove him to make an effort to spread the art to the people of the island.

The energy and enthusiasm of Lecuona's musical performances drew people in and captured their attention and their hearts. Audiences would often be spellbound while he played. Curiously, Lecuona's prodigious talent in music didn't come from practicing. He often composed entire pieces without once sitting down to play the music, as he claimed he could hear it in his head and had no need to perform the piece to know how it sounded. His innate talent allowed him to create magical works that were both unique and impressive.



Further travel across the globe began in the year 1924 with Lecuona's first trip to Spain. He completed a four-month tour in the country alongside the violinist Martha de la Torre. The Spanish people adored Lecuona and he was offered several musical contracts within the country.

Ernesto Lecuona Autograph

The next stop on Lecuona's travels was Paris in 1928. Here he performed in the Pleyel and Gaveau theaters and befriended the French composer Ravel. After hearing Lecuona's music, Ravel stated that it was enchanting, beautiful, and melodic, going as far as to praise his compositions above Ravel's own "Bolero."

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Maestro Lecuona posing with his piano - Photo signed by him in 1960

1929 saw Lecuona travel throughout Central America, from Panama to Costa Rica before returning to Havana. He stayed in his home country of Cuba through 1930 while he worked on and premiered various zarzuelas and reviews, such as "El Cafetal," El Batey," and "Maria la O."

Lecuona went on to Mexico in 1931 where he put on concerts at the Teatro Fabregas. His performances were so well received and celebrated that he was asked to return. For his second trip to Mexico in 1933, he formed a company of talented individuals from Cuba and brought them along to present his zarzuelas. By 1934 the company had established itself at the Iris Theater and was ready to perform.



Lecuona's talents at the piano and beyond had long been recognized by others around the world. In 1930, it was Hollywood's turn to reach out to Lecuona with a project. Metro Goldwyn Mayer contacted him with the offer of the position of musical director for an upcoming film titled "Under Cuban Skies." While Lecuona signed on to participate in the motion picture, he ended up disappointed in the final result as he felt that it failed to truly represent the spirit and beauty of Cuba.

After his first foray into Hollywood, Lecuona moved to Los Angeles where he spent several weeks at the Paramount Theater. This project was more successful. Lecuona would later contribute musical scores and numbers to additional movie projects.



Ernesto Lecuona - Music score for one of his songs

During a 1933 tour in Madrid, Lecuona came down with a serious case of pneumonia. His illness was so severe that his survival was in question. While he was incapacitated, his accompanying orchestra continued to perform around Spain. They became popular in their own right and were offered a contract to continue their performances. Lecuona approved of the project and even allowed the orchestra to use the moniker "Lecuona's Cuban Boys."

[IMAGE] Music Score for Lecuona's song "Damisela Encantadora"

His illness only highlighted how much the musician was loved by the people of Cuba. They prayed for his recovery while mourning the possibility of his passing. Friends and admirers would call and seek out his sister in the hopes of getting some news on his condition. The nation rejoiced when his recovery was reported.

Unfortunately, the year 1933 brought additional worry for Lecuona's health. He injured his left hand and had to have surgery to fix a broken tendon. There was some concern that the damage would prevent him from playing the piano and effectively end his career. Thankfully, the operation was a success and Lecuona was able to heal and get back to his work as a pianist and composer.



Throughout his lifetime, Lecuona made it known that he loved his country of Cuba and all of its people. While he was a self-proclaimed apolitical individual himself, he took every opportunity he had to discuss the plight of the poor of his country. He spoke with Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and pushed the need for reforms to help the population. On March 24, 1943, President Batista bestowed upon him his first political honor and assigned him to the post of cultural attaché to the embassy in Washington.



Ernesto Lecuona Autograph 1957

Lecuona's popularity among the people of the world only grew throughout his years. He returned to the United States and on October 10, 1943, performed a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. The packed hall was filled with enthusiastic audience members who were introduced to the premiere of his work "Rapsodia Negra." Other selections for the concert included more original compositions by Lecuona, along with his sister Ernestina's work, who was also a gifted composer.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Maestro Lecuona performing at the piano - Signed Photograph 1957

1945 saw Lecuona return to Hollywood, at least in the figurative sense. He was contacted by Twentieth Century Fox to be the musical director of the film "Carnival in Costa Rica." Lecuona agreed to participate in the project, but reflecting on his first Hollywood experience, chose to work from New York instead of relocating to California.

When the project wrapped up, Lecuona returned to his world travels and spent most of 1948 – 1950 in the United States and Madrid.

Although fairly well-known through his musical appearances and works, fellow Cuban Desi Arnaz brought a lot of Lecuona's music to new heights of popularity amongst the American public. Many of his songs had been written as part of his zarzuelas, but the appeal led them to become internationally known and popular as stand-alone pieces. One of the most admired is "Siboney".


Cuban singer Xiomara Alfaro performing Lecuona's "Siboney" from the film "Ole Cuba!" (1957) 



Lecuona returned to Madrid in 1953 to work on a theatrical collaboration of Cuban and Spanish talents. He couldn't stay away from his home, however, and always returned to Cuba for periods of time. He became homesick easily and scheduled frequent trips back home. Sometimes, he would leave in the middle of a project to ease the anxiety of being away from the land he loved. He was first and foremost a proud Cuban citizen and made his music about and for the Cuban people.

Ernesto Lecuona in concert

Several years later, in 1960, Lecuona was forced to leave his cherished home. The changing political climate with the beginning of Castro's regime in Cuba caused him to flee the country and seek out exile. He was heartbroken over the separation from his homeland and even vowed that he would not return to his playing until Cuba was once more freed from tyranny.

[IMAGE] Ernesto Lecuona in concert

Lecuona sought refuge in Tenerife, Spain. He stayed here for a while and spent his time directing ensembles. He shared these works across many theaters on future travels, including Broadway. He was highly admired in Spain and sang the praises of the country. Many streets have been named after him to honor his musical talents and friendship.

Ernesto Lecuona's final move was to Tampa, Florida where he lived out the rest of his years. in 1963, he died of a heart attack at age 68 during a visit to the Canary Islands. Lecuona was buried in The Gate of Heaven Cemetery in New York. His Will included instructions that he should not be returned to his homeland until Cuba was once again free.



Lecuona was an amiable and well-liked individual. He was always meticulously groomed and had dark eyes and jet black hair. Although he was never married, he had many friends who commented on his kindness and charm. He was thought to be a very sincere man. He accumulated a lot of wealth during his lifetime of successes, but he remained unpretentious and often gave his money away to help others and further causes close to his heart.

He lived a fairly unconventional lifestyle. Instead of spending his days and nights in the glamour and bustle of the city, Lecuona chose to live on a farm on the outskirts of Havana. Here, he raised animals of all kinds. When he was in residence, he even took care of them himself, often rising earlier than anyone else to see to the needs of his animals.

Ernesto Lecuona - CD recording

Other hobbies and interests of Lecuona's included collecting antiques and books. He had a vast library filled with works in every genre. Poetry was one of his favorites, and he set many works to music.

[IMAGE] Ernesto Lecuona - CD recording

Lecuona loved baseball and could be found listening to every game when the championships came around. He also enjoyed cooking, playing poker, and entertaining.

His affectionate nature and innate kindness made him a popular companion and many sought out his company for these reasons, as well as his musical genius. He never lacked friends and followers. He even built a shelter on his ranch to house the hundreds of people that followed him around, eager to ask for his advice or with high hopes of working together. He often cooked meals for his guests himself.



Ernesto Lecuona is named one of the most important figures in Latin music from the early part of the 20th century. His unique and popular style that drew influence from Spanish and Cuban folk music touched the hearts of many and brought Latin music to the entire world on a broad scale.

Lecuona loved his life. He appreciated that he was able to spend his life doing what he was most passionate about. His death left behind a vast catalog of works filled with original scores and collaborations with a host of other talented individuals. Lecuona left the world with a legacy of music that extends far beyond his adored Cuba and reaches every race, class, and country.



- Ernesto Lecuona Signed Photograph 1957

- Ernesto Lecuona Signed Photograph 1949

- Ernesto Lecuona Signed Photograph 1960

- Composer Autographs at Tamino

- Composer Manuscripts at Tamino



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