Brouwer, Leo

Leo Brouwer was born Juan Leovigildo Brouwer in Havana, Cuba on 1st March 1939. He started to play the guitar at the age of 13, drawn to it by the sounds of Flamenco and encouraged by this father, a doctor and himself an amateur guitarist. His first real teacher was Isaac Nicola who was a pupil of Emilo Pujol (1886-1980) who in turn had been a pupil of Francesco Tárrega (1852-1909). (Both of the latter are giants in the world of guitar, not only as players but as composers and arrangers of other people’s music). So Brouwer was part of the lineage of artists involved in different aspects of music through the instrument and it was natural that he played the traditional repertoire of classical and romantic pieces, giving his first public performance at the age of 17; but already his composing was coming to the fore. Prelude (1956) and Fugue (1959), influenced by Bartok and Stravinsky, show an early awareness of music outside the guitar. To further his musical education he went to America and studied composition at the Julliard School and then at Hartt College in Hartford. 

Brouwer’s early output (late 50’s to early 60’s) naturally embodies his own Cuban background and has the Afro-Cuban folk influence and rhythmic style. A good example of this period is Elogio de la Danza. Although for solo guitar, the 2nd movement is a tribute to the Ballets Russes (a Stravinsky connection) and it has been choreographed. There then followed works like Le Espiral Eterna. Guitar Concerto No. 1 and Cantincum the first part of which represents the process by which an adult insect emerges from the pupa case and incidentally, incorporates the unusually rare detuning of the guitars sixth string to E flat. (I know of only one other piece where this is used: Impromptus. No 3 . by Richard Rodney Bennett, 1936 -). This period incorporated the use of serial, 12 tone and open serial modes which are somewhat avante garde in nature.

The latest period is almost minimalistic, not going so far as a Steve Reich, for instances, but an exploration of this is evident. Brouwer describes it as a development of a modular system, Tres Ballades El Decameron Negro are probably the first in this style and Hika, In Memoriam Toru Takemitsu (1996) in memory of the Japanese composer is the most recent.

The history of the Classical Guitar has been well served by its players and composers in writing technical exercises and studies for the instrument. Notably, Fernando Sor (1778-1839), Matteo Carcassi (1792-1853) and Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959). To further the physical requirements of modern guitar playing Brouwer wrote early in his career Etudes Simples"Nos 1 – 20 (simple studies). New students of the guitar should beware of the title,"simple" they are not!.With these studies Brouwer has undoubtedly produced a major work in the development of guitar technique, making them not only demanding but also very musical.

As well as original compositions, Brouwer is an avid arranger of other composers such as Scott Joplin Elite Syncopations and The Entertainer and Lennon and McCartney’s Fool on the Hill. These have been arranged for solo guitar.

As a prominent figure of the guitar, Brouwer is often in demand as a Jury member at Guitar competitions all over the world. These often require him to conduct masterclasses and performance workshops. For the 1979 Esztergom Guitar competition in Hungary, Brouwer wrote and conducted Blue Skies and Smile, a piece performed under the dome of the Basilica by the Bálint Bakfark guitar orchestra comprising 200 guitarists; a recording of which was broadcast by the BBC. Brouwer is organiser of the Havana International Guitar Festival and Competition, which is held every two years, and is still its Director.

So far we have only considered Leo Brouwer’s association with the guitar, but his achievements in music go much further. He is an accomplished composer for varied media including chamber and choral works, a modern ballet, even pieces for wind band as well as many orchestral works. He has over 60 film scores to his credit, these through involvement in the Cinema Industry in Cuba where he was Director of the Music Department of the Cinema Institute (1961) and Musical Adviser to the National Radio and TV company of Havana, as well as the Professor of Composition in the Music Conservatory.

As if all this were not enough, Brouwer is a respected conductor working with some of the best orchestras across the world including Philharmonic Orchestra of Berlin, The National Orchestra of Scotland, the Langham Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra. A recommended example is Brouwer conducting his own Concerto Elegiaco with Julian Bream and the RCA Victor Chamber Orchestra: RCA 09026 616052 (Julian Bream Edition Volume 22).

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