“A Liszt of Cuban Ebony”

December 19, 2010 22:00 0 comments

José Manuel Jiménez Berroa, was compared to one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century, Franz Liszt, by the Dominican musician Américo Lugo Romero.

Romero was a student of Jiménez in Germany where the Cuban pianist would seduce audiences with the quality of his performances. “The Jiménez and Berroa free Afro-Cuban families were two fundamental cornerstones of ‘la Trinitaria’ musical society”, explains Katia Rojas González.

The story of Jiménez, who grew up in a family that practised the arts and who became known internationally as Manuelico, and later Lico, begins with his father José. Considered the first ‘Jiménez’, José was a violin teacher. After him came Francisco Nicasio, an orchestra director, his son José Julián (a prominent violinist) and his grandchildren: the clarinetist Juan Bautista, the violincellist Nicasio Gregorio and José Manuel, a prominent pianist.

Manuel Berroa, the maternal grandfather of José Manuel, was a virtuoso pianist and initially encouraged him to study music. Catalina Berroa (1819-1912), his cousin, was the only woman in the family to share this passion for music. She gained prominence with her mastery of an array of dissimilar instruments such as piano, violin, organ, guitar, harp, flute and cornet. Experts consider this woman as the first great female composer to be born in Cuba. José Manuel Jiménez Berroa (Lico) is one of the most distinguished figures of Cuban musical culture who became prominent on the international stage from a very early age, continuing to gain further national and international acclaim from  the second half of the 19th century onwards.

Franz Liszt, Hungarian composer and pianist

Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905), creator of the famous Danzas Cubanas, described him as “a first class pianist” after hearing Lico perfom at a concert on the 4th June 1879 in the old Tacón Theatre, now the García Lorca Theatre, in the heart of the Cuban capital. Son of María Andrea Berroa and José Julián Jiménez, Lico was born on the 7th December 1851 in the southern Cuban city of Trinidad, founded in 1514 and declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.

According to historical records on the third of first seven towns to be founded by the Spanish Conquistadors in Cuba, Lico was baptised in January 1852 in the Parrochial Church of la Santísima Trinidad. It was with the arrival of German violinist Karl Werner in Trinidad that the young Lico’s genius came to light. Werner was seeking a suitable pianist to accompany him at one of his concerts to be held in central Cuba. It is said that it was in fact Lico’s grandfather who introduced him to the foreign composer who subsequently chose him. They performed at the Palacio Brunet, in front of an audience of the most influential elements of Trinidad’s rich, bourgeois society, who were great admirers of the Arts in all its glorious expressions.

Germany and Paris

At just 15 years old, Lico grasped an opportunity to travel to Bremen on the 11th June 1867 and from there on continued his journey to Hamburg. His brother Nicasio Gregorio Jiménez  and the violinist Néstor Palma e Izaguirre accompanied him.

The German musician, Richard Wagner

Lico remained in Europe for 12 years, from 1867 to 1879, on Franco-German soil, where he continued his musical education at the Hamburg, Leipzig and Paris Conservatories. Several documents state that thanks to a collection amongst the wealthy of the time, Lico was able to cross borders in order to perfect his musical studies.

In Hamburg, Germany, Lico was taught under the maestro Armbrust. On the death of his teacher, Lico moved to another German city, Leipzig, with his brother and father. In Paris, he was taken under the wing of the great pianist and teacher Antoine Marmontel (1816-1898).

Praise from two of the greats

In his youth, the talented Cuban pianist, gained a diploma from the Musikhochule de Leipzig, Leipzig Academy of Music and Theatre in 1875, won first prize in a competition under his tutor Marmontel and a diploma from the Paris Conservatory on the 24th July 1877.

Alongside this he was afforded praise from two of his greatest contemporaries of 19th century European music: Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. He then formed the ensemble  “Trio des Negres” or Black Trio with his violinist father and half brother Nicasio Gregório, the violincellist.

The cuban city of Cienfuegos

On his return home, in the neighbouring city of Cienfuegos he contributed to its flourishing cultural movement alongside the soprano Ana Aguado, the flautist Guillermo M. Tomás and other passionate artists of the 1880’s. Also known as the Pearl of the South, some 145 km from Sancti Spíritus, the town of Cienfuegos embraced Lico, who performed in musical academies and El artesano, El Liceo, el Casino Español and the Terry Theatres.

He is classed as a musician who developed his style within the romantic movement, a reflection in Cuba of European romanticism. He died on the 15th January 1917 in Hamburg, surrounded by his loving wife Emma Filter and his children Manuela, Adolfo and  Andrea. Descending from a family of musicians, Lico grew up in an environment that allowed his creativity to flourish. Both in Cienfuegos and Hamburg he was a maestro pianist, counting amongst his pupils the Dominican musician who went on to define him as the  “Liszt of Cuban Ebony”.

(Translated by Rebecca Beswick – rebecca_beswick@yahoo.co.uk)

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