IGNACIO CERVANTES (1847 - 1905)
The Cuban musician Ignacio Cervantes is a key figure in the panorama of Latin American piano music. His dances for the instrument were dubbed genuine musical gems by such internationally renowned Cuban intellectuals as writers Alejo Carpentier and Mirta Aguirre. Cervantes himself came from a bourgeois family of Spanish extraction, and was first taught the piano by his father. His prodigious talent soon became clear, and he began lessons with Juan Miguel Joval, one of Havana’s most respected teachers. In 1854, when he was still only six, he received praise for his performances from the American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and three years later he composed his first work: La solitaria, renamed Soledad by his daughter María Cervantes.
In 1859 he began studying with fellow Cuban Nicolás Ruiz Espadero, then in 1865 he travelled to France and entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Marmontel and Alkan. A year later he was awarded first prize in the Conservatoire’s piano competition for his performance of Herz’s Piano Concerto No. 5 by a jury whose members included Auber and Gounod. Cervantes also won a second prize in harmony in 1867, and first prize in harmony, fugue and counterpoint the following year. He gave a number of solo concerts in Paris and Madrid, as well as appearing as accompanist to various well-known singers. His impeccable technical and interpretative abilities were recognised by such leading figures in the piano world as Liszt, Von Bülow and Paderewski, and his virtuosity was underlined by the epithet applied to him—one typical of nineteenth-century criticism—that of “colossus of the piano”.
Cervantes returned to Havana in 1870, continuing to work as a concert soloist, his programmes featuring works by Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Bach. Linked over the years to various independence movements, he twice had to go into exile: he gave concert tours, above all in the United States and Mexico, and donated the takings to the cause. He also embarked on successful careers as both a conductor of opera and zarzuela and a teacher. On two occasions, in 1881 and 1884, he tried to establish a music school in Havana, and although both attempts ultimately failed, he took on numerous pupils, some of whom later achieved national and international renown. As a composer he wrote orchestral and stage works as well as a wide variety of salon pieces, but his Danzas cubanas for piano remain the best-known works in his catalogue.
© Victoria Eli Rodríguez