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Celebrating Hispanic & Latinx Composers

In honor of Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month, celebrated from September 15 to October 15, we’re highlighting the lives and work of a few prominent Hispanic and Latinx composers. We know that the Western classical music canon is made up of works written mostly by European men (with only a handful of works by European women). Expanding our musical knowledge to give these six talented Hispanic and Latinx composers their due offers a chance to experience unique perspectives and artistic voices.

photo collage of Hispanic-Latinx composers
From left to right: Chiquinha Gonzaga, Silvestre Revueltas, José Pablo Moncayo, Cacilda Borges Barbosa, Astor Piazzolla, Leo Brouwer

A note on language: The term “Hispanic” refers to Spanish-speaking people in the Americas, but can exclude indigenous, Brazilian, and other non-Spanish-speaking groups. Latinx is a newer term based on geography rather than language, and includes anyone from Latin America, including Mexico, Central and South America. The “x” at the end of Latinx creates a term that is also inclusive of gender-expansive and gender non-conforming individuals. We have used both terms in this post and have included composers from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba.

Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935)

Chiquinha Gonzaga was a Brazilian composer, pianist, and conductor (Brazil’s first female conductor!). Born in 1847 in Rio de Janeiro, Gonzaga began her musical training at a very young age. She composed her first work, Canção dos Pastores, at the age of 11. By the end of her life, Gonzaga had composed more than 200 works, including 77 plays and operettas. Her music combined the sounds of Western classical music alongside African rhythms. She was a noted pianist of the “choro” style, a Brazilian genre often marked by its jaunty, fast style. In addition, Gonzaga was a champion of human rights and joined the abolitionist movement that ended slavery in Brazil in 1888. Listen for Gonazaga’s “choro” style, with it’s fast dance-like rhythms, in her work Atraente for solo piano.


Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940)

Silvestre Revueltas was a Mexican composer, violinist, and conductor. He was born in Santiago Papasquiaro, Durango in 1899 and began violin lessons at the age of 8. In 1916, Revueltas emigrated to the US to study at St. Edward College in Texas and later moved to Chicago to study with Sametini at the Chicago Musical College (now known as Roosevelt University). Other influential teachers include the violinists Kochanski and Ševčik. Revueltas’ music is characterized by mixed meters and tuneful melodies, which can be heard in his work Ocho por Radio.


José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958)

José Pablo Moncayo was Mexican composer, pianist, percussionist, and conductor who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1912. Moncayo began taking piano lessons as a young child and eventually entered the Mexico City Conservatory where he studied both piano and composition. After graduating, he became a percussionist with the Mexican State Symphony Orchestra and also conducted the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico City from 1949-1952. Moncayo is known for being a member of the “Grupo de los Cuatro” (Group of Four), a cohort of composers whose music reflected the nationalistic spirit of Mexico. Other members included Blas Galindo, Salvador Contreras, and Daniel Ayala. Listen to this performance of Tres piezas para orquestra by CYSO’s very own Concert Orchestra. Be sure to take note of the melodies, rhythms, and textures that give Moncayo’s work its distinctive sound.


Cacilda Borges Barbosa (1914-2010)

Cacilda Borges Barbosa was a Brazilian composer born in 1914 in Rio De Janeiro. At a young age she entered the National Institute of Music and composed her first work at the age of 14. By 16, she was working with the famed composer Heitor Villa-Lobos to bring music into elementary education. Barbosa is most well known for her method of notating music and choreography called Ritmoplastia, which translates into the “study of rhythm.” With the help of choreographer Clara Semeles, they devised a new system of notation that combined musical and rhythmic symbols to graphically represent bodily gestures. The project evolved out of Barbosa and Semeles’ desire to preserve folk dances. Listen for the folk dance-inspired sounds in Barbosa’s Estudo Brasileiro No.1.


Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)

Astor Piazzolla was an Argentine composer and bandoneón virtuoso who was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1921. Piazzolla began studying music in 1936, studying both piano and bandoneón. Soon after, he began playing with a variety of tango orchestras and composing for film. Around 1951, after winning a composition contest, he moved to Paris to study with famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who urged him to continue to compose in his distinct style. Piazzolla was fascinated by tango music and is known for creating a new tango that combined elements of Jazz and Western classical music. Listen for the fusion of Jazz and Western classical music in this performance of Adios Nonino featuring Piazzolla himself playing the bandoneón.


Leo Brouwer (b. 1939)

Leo Brouwer is a Cuban composer and guitarist. He began studying guitar at the age of thirteen and went on to study with Isaac Nicola at the University of Hartford. Brouwer later studied composition at the Juilliard School with Vincent Persichetti and Stefan Wolpe. Brouwer’s compositional style is characterized by his incorporation of Cuban folk music, rhythms, and aleatoric techniques. His works remain an important part of classical guitar repertoire. Listen for his fusion of Cuban folk rhythms with contemporary harmony in this performance of his Sonata for Solo Guitar No. 1. Be sure to listen very closely for a direct quote from a famous Beethoven symphony.


Interested in exploring other works by composers from underrepresented groups? Check out the Institute for Composer Diversity, run by the State University of New York at Fredonia’s School of Music. The ICD hosts an ever growing database of composers from underrepresented groups. You can browse the database and search for composers or works by gender identity/sexual orientation, demographic, genre, instrumentation, and even location!

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