Nicolás Ruiz Espadero
Espadero was born and died in Havana. In his time, he was the most famous Cuban composer, the only one published abroad, the only one who, at least in the eyes of his Cuban contemporaries, could compete with composers from Europe.
Yet of all the Cuban composers of the 19th and early 20th century he was the most parochial and idiosyncratic one. Without schooling and formal musical training, he grew into a chronically shy person, emotionally dependent on his mother. He composed and practised a lot, but gave few concerts and had little contact with other (normal) people. Espadero never left Cuba, indeed he seldom ever left Havana or for that sense his own house, where he lived with seventeen cats, surrounded by stacks of European music scores, mostly mediocre ones. Universally described as a recluse, he died from accidental burns after his usual bath in alcohol - one of several musicians to die of rather unnatural causes (Jean-Baptiste Lully and Charles-Valentin Alkan would be among some of the other ones).
Although brought up in a cosmopolitan atmosphere and surrounded by black Cuban music, he was the one Cuban composer who adopted but little of the local music tradition that so abundantly inspired Manuel Saumell before and Ignacio Cervantes after him. He had quite a few pupils, and he must have taught them well, because some of them became fine musicians themselves. Nothing of Espadero’s music has remained in the repertoire, some of it perhaps deservedly so, yet some of his later pieces – allegedly his best output, albeit never printed - would certainly warrant a closer look. A CD with a selection of his piano music came out in 2006.
Culture and society
Espadero was born in Havana, Cuba. Cuba was then still a Spanish colony and in all matters of administration, economy and interior and exterior policy dependent on Madrid. The island was a colonial backwater, infested by Malaria and Yellow fever. Cuba’s society was sharply divided into a privileged class of landowners and Spanish colonial administrators – and black and mulatto slaves. Virtually no middle class existed. Of more than two millions backs less than 35.000 were free.
Descent and Parents
Espadero was born in Havana, Cuba. Espadero’s mother was a pianist from Cadiz who distinguished herself in the Havana salons around 1810 performing Haydn and Mozart. His father, Don Nicolás Ruiz, was a civil servant in the colonial administration. As is often the case in well to do families, the father wanted his only son to become a lawyer, an officer or an administrator – but not a musician. Although proud of his wife’s musical talents and flattered by his sons’ nascent artistic abilities, Espadero’s father would only permit half an hour’s piano lesson every day. But young Espadero’s talent proved too strong. From an early age on he showed exceptional ability at the piano. With his mother’s complicity young Espadero would play the piano several hours every day.
Musical training: 1840–1853
Espadero never went to school and thus never enjoyed a structured formal education. What education he had came from pieces and fragments from European, especially Spanish, culture, from selected and very mixed readings and from the surroundings of Cuban upper-class society. Havana had an opera house, the Teatro Colón, but the only operas, sung and acted by imported itinerant opera troupes, were Italian potboilers by Bellini, Donizetti and later Verdi.
On July 8, 1844, Polish pianist and composer Julian Fontana, a close friend of Frédéris Chopin, gave a series of concerts and recitals in Havana playing works by Liszt, Chopin, Thalberg and himself. This was the first time that music by Chopin was played in Cuba. Fontana stayed a year and a half (until November 1845) in Havana giving concerts, composing and teaching. Espadero was among Fontana’s piano students.
By the time he was twenty, he had already traces of the withdrawn, unsociable, even bizarre character that would grow into in middle and later life. Carpentier characterizes him thus:
- He did not have friends his own age, living exclusively with his family, under the constant vigilance of his mother. (...) He was sixteen when his father, without previous warning, dropped dead in his presence. This blow, the widowhood, the long mourning period, further reduced, if that were possible, Espadero’s horizon. He would not go out, did not accept invitations, and would not frequent the promenades. He spent his days reading, drawing, and composing. At twilight, he would go to a music store close to his house to play the piano until eight o’clock at night. He could not tolerate a presence at his side at those moments. His adolescent neurosis became more pronounced with the passing of time, making him appear unsociable, sullen or weird.
Later life and death: 1880-1890
Carpentier emphasizes that Espadero, in his final years, realized that he had been influenced by bad examples, i.e. bravura fantasies by composers such as Sigismond Thalberg, Émile Prudent, Ascher, etc. In an effort to rid himself of these hitherto overbearing influences, he turned to composing according to the classical forms established by European composers. He wrote a piano trio, a scherzo, a sonata, and various longer etudes. None of it he saw in print. As soon as Espadero started to eschew the bravura pieces of the day, publishers were no longer interested in his music.
This rejection of his more serious efforts may have contributed to an already disquieting state of mind. The death of his mother in 1885 came as an almost devastating blow to him. Although he was now free to travel and leave Cuba, he did exactly the opposite – he became a total recluse. During his last years Espadero isolated himself almost totally from society, living only for his cats and his piano. Carpentier writes: He distanced himself from his colleagues, gruffly reproaching them for not having created a serious institution for the teaching of music. This anti-social behaviour may have been aggravated by obsessive-compulsive disorder. The most recent of Espadero’s biographers writes that Espadero could not enter a house without having to rearrange the furniture to suit his orderliness.
Even his sudden and tragic death had its cause in Espadero's neurotic behaviour. For a long time he had had the habit of taking baths in alcohol. On August 22, 1890, he again took an alcohol bath. After the bath, however, he did not rub himself completely dry. When he tried to extinguish a gas light, he was suddenly engulfed by flames and suffered horrifying burns. He died eight days later. Considering the mental state of Espadero prior to his death and his long years of neurotic and increasingly bizarre behaviour, some of his biographers speculated that his death was actually a suicide.
Since Espadero died childless, his estate was scattered. Much of it, among them many unprinted manuscripts, must be considered lost.
Notes and references
- (Carpentier 2001), pp. 194-203. The work by Alejo Carpentier is indispensable for the study of Cuban music. Although written in the early 1940s and never revised, it is by far the best monograph on Cuban music available today.
- See, for instance, the article in Fetis’ famous dictionary on musicians: Espadero, pianiste et compositeur, instrumentiste de premier ordre et musicien plein de talent, est né en 1835 à la Havane ; élève d'Arizti, ses œuvres pour piano ont toute la saveur de la musique de Gottschalk , avec quelque chose de plus puissant et de plus profond. Translation: Espadero, pianist and composer, instrumentalist of the first rank and a musician full of talent. Pupil of Arizti. His piano works have all the taste of the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, but they are more powerful and more profound (Fetis 1878), p. 307. Italics added.
- Havana had 119.000 inhabitants in 1856, not counting the slaves, as Morelet writes. (Morelet 1857), p. 63
- (Carpentier 2001), p. 195
- (Carpentier 2001), p. 202
- (Ferrer 1994)
- Carpentier, Alejo. Music in Cuba. Edited by Timothy Brennan. Translated by Alan West-Durán. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
- Fetis, F.J. Biographie Universelle des Musiciens. Édité par M. Arthur Pougin. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Paris: Librairie de Firmin-Didot Et Cie., 1878.
- Tieles, Cecilio. Espadero, lo hispánico musical en Cuba. Barcelona: Imprenta Agil Offset, S. A., 1994.
- Gottschalk, Louis Moreau. Notes of a Pianist. Reprint of 1964 edition. Ed. Jeanne Behrend. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
- Morelet, Arthur. Voyage dans L'Amerique Centrale L'Ile de Cuba et le Yucatan. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Paris: Gide et J. Baudry, 1857.
- Cecilio Tieles, Piano: Espadero - Obras para piano (Works for Piano). EGREM CD 0787. 2006
- 1. La Reina de Chipre (The Queen of Cyprus), Contradanza (1859) 1.34
- 2. La Erminia. Contradanza (1858) 1.27
- 3. Un Chubasco a Tiempo (A Downpour in Time). Contradanza (1859). 1.34
- 4. La Rosalía Bustamante. Contradanza. (1859). 1.34
- 5. Balada (Ballad). (1869) Op. 20. 8.08
- 6. Scherzo, Op. 58 (1875) 8.04
- 7. 2da Balada. Op. 57 (1874) 13.19
- 8. Barcarola. Op. 18 (1867) 7.57
- 9. La Sacerdotisa (The Woman Priest). Contradanza (1859). 1.41
- 10.Armando Linares,Cameraman,Producer and Director:Domador de Notas(documentary-2002,Tarragona)
- Site of Cuban Pianist and Musicologist Cecilio Tieles
- French dedicated page on a website about Gottschalk