By C. Bianchi .
Alejandro Garcia Caturla was one of the composers who gave Latin American music its own features. An artist who stepped ahead of his time with creative intuition. He was murdered in his youth. Cuba is now celebrating the centennial of his birth.
“Your head smells of gunpowder,” threatened the anonymous letter the trial judge received in Remedios, and knew his enemies would stop at nothing. Some time before, while occupying the same position in Palma Soriano, Garcia Caturla miraculously saved his life when a shower of bullets was fired at his house. Now death was haunting him again in such an obvious way that relatives and friends were aware of it. “Doctor, be careful, you are very young and it would be a pity if anything happened to you,” said one of his assistants, but neither advice nor threats discouraged him.
“If I get kill, bad luck; my duty is above everything else,” Garcia Caturla told his wife before he was murdered. And, feeling sorry, he added: “It is obvious that I do not know how to administer justice in Cuba.”
Garcia Caturla had become, since the very beginning of his career, an annoying figure for those accustomed to dictate guidelines to the Judicial Power… In Ranchuelo, he forced a cigarette company to pay the wages it owed its employees; in Palma Soriano, he fined the manager of a sugar mill for violating nationality labor laws and he tried to wipe out gambling even if to do so he had to bring legal proceedings against local political and military chiefs; in Camajuani, he denounced the abuses of a corrupt magistrate… In Remedios, he had just started legal proceedings against a policeman for beating a prisoner. From that last event on –he was murdered 27 days later- the repressive forces in the city spread the rumor that Judge Garcia Caturla was an opponent of the Armed Forces. Garcia Caturla’s efforts to calm his worried relatives and friends were useless. “I was born in Remedios; my parents live here. It is impossible that anything could happen to me,” he would say. He had been declared honorable and distinguished son of that city, located in the Island’s central area, and there he felt the love and respect of his fellow citizens, who called him Alejandrito. But, in fact, he knew -better than anybody else- that a plot was being prepared against him.
Meanwhile, life went on at a slow pace in the old provincial town, the eighth to be founded by the Spaniards in Cuba, and the judge continued to work at his customary issues when the wife of a prison guard, named Jose Argache, denounced her husband for beating her. The reason Garcia Caturla took on the case, which did not fall under his jurisdiction, is unknown and nobody could anticipate that Argache would be his murderer.
Were these actions premeditated? Did the woman address the trial judge and not the sentencing one because of the guarantees his integrity offered? Did those interested in getting rid of Garcia Caturla take advantage of the opportunity and drive Argache to his court and prejudice him against Garcia Caturla?
The question marks are still open 66 years after the murder but, whatever the final reply, the murderer was confident he was acting with absolute impunity when he intercepted Garcia Caturla barely 100 yards from the central square, after reprehending him, paying no attention to the judge’s demands that he respect his authority. He pulled out his regulation gun. A shot was fired and then another one and Garcia Caturla fell down, his clothes soaked with blood and two bullets in his heart. It was the evening of September 12, 1940.
“They killed Alejandrito!” someone shouted and Argache was chased by those who witnessed the crime and by others who joined the group. The murderer ran to the barracks for protection from the indignation of the people. “I killed Garcia Caturla, I killed him!” the murderer exclaimed when he crossed the door of the small fort and a guard nicknamed “Small one” said: “You should have done it before.”
THIS IS GARCIA CATURLA
That was how a composer died. A composer who, according to Alejo Carpentier, is among those who, in the 20th Century, gave Latin American music its own features. He was an artist, who stepped ahead of his contemporaries with creative intuition and a musician who was convinced his name was meant to be among the greats of his time. Pianist Maria Muñoz de Quevedo wrote that his music had much of a tropical hurricane. Garcia Caturla admired Cuban composers Manuel Saumell (1817-1870) and Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905) and played works by Milhaud, Satie and Stravinsky but, before he was 20 years old, he sought inside himself for an accent rooted to his native land. He was always attracted by the Afro-Cuban themes and he assimilated them in such a way that experts say it is impossible to distinguish between an authentic lucumí chant and a piece invented by Garcia Caturla.
Many years ago, composer Hilario Gonzalez told me the first thing one notices in Garcia Caturla’s work is how one can be both academic and Cuban; then, impressionist and Cuban; later, bitonal and Cuban; poly-rhythmic and Cuban, even almost atonal and Cuban.
He was born in 1906 to a well-to-do family. His artistic debut was as a singer –he was an extraordinary baritone- and as a greatly gifted pianist, capable of impressing his audience with a polytonal composition and likewise putting music to silent movies by Tom Mix and Mary Walcamp at a neighborhood cinema to earn money to support his first son, born while he was still a very young man. He was self-taught in languages and studied law on the side, while also studying musical composition with professor Pedro San Juan, a Spaniard living in Havana, and –besides- he conducted the Caribe Jazz Band at Havana University.
In 1929, he went to Paris to show his scores to French composer Nadia Boulanger, who had taught Aaron Copland, Cole and Walter Piton, and others, and she accepted him as a pupil. However, to put him to the test, she assigned him very difficult tasks and set a very unusual class schedule: six in the morning. Garcia Caturla had arrived in France with the manuscripts of Tres danzas cubanas, sketches of a symphonic poem and several notes for works marked with a strong Cuban accent. Boulanger would confess to Carpentier: “This young man´s talent is extraordinary. Rarely have I had the opportunity to deal with a pupil with such aptitudes.”
In France, Garcia Caturla was asked for a score and he wrote Bembé in 18 days. In his room at the Maine Hotel, he would work during the entire day without a piano. Later, he would show up at La Coupole Bar to talk to surrealist writers Denos, Aragon and Sadoul and frequently he would go to a restaurant in Montparnasse to taste wild boar fillets, smoked eels, sea urchins and other rare dishes because: “I want to taste the flavor of these things which I may never again eat… You know what is waiting for me? A career as a municipal judge.”
In 1929, he attended the premiere of his Tres danzas cubanas in the Barcelona Ibero-American Symphonic Festival and, on his way back to Cuba, he stopped in Paris for the first audition of his Afro-Cuban poems Marisabael and Juego santo, based on texts by Carpentier. He wrote Yamba-O and Primera suite cubana for piano and wind instruments at the same time he was preparing to take his bar exam.
In Garcia Caturla’s lifetime, he made known a considerable number of his pieces in spite of the fact that, due to his freshness and audacity and the texture of his sound, which did not consider the interpreter at all, his music was not widely broadcast.
However, whatever remained unpublished or had not yet been presented when he died increases greatly his work catalogue. Hilario Gonzalez said that at Garcia Caturla’s home in Remedios the equivalent of “seven Garcia Caturlas” were carefully kept in classified packages prepared by the artist himself.
Everything Garcia Caturla did from the personal point of view –he had eleven children- and the artistic point of view during his 34 year life span, seems in retrospect, since his murder, to bear the seal of someone who knows he will have an early death. Maybe that premonition explains the popular theme he added to one of his works almost on the verge of his death, El canto de los cafetales: “Death is haunting me/ Oh, mother/ to take me to the cemetery…”