Thanks to Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, music lovers around the world are now aware of Venezuela's classical music making. We are hearing much about El Sistemo, the country's publicly-funded musical education programme (especially on the BBC). What though of the country's composers? What sort of classical music have they been writing over the centuries? Time for me to don my yellow, blue and red jacket and venture abroad again...
The earliest names I've met with date from the Classical Era, which in Venezuela coincides with the final decades of the Colonial Era. Prior to that there doesn't appear to have been any significant classical musical tradition, due to the colony's backwater status within the Spanish Empire. There's a fine fragment of a Stabat Mater by Juan Manuel Olivares (1760-1797), the man who first followed the example of Haydn, Mozart and Pleyel in Venezuela and then taught the next generation of composers to do the same. From that next generation comes José Ángel Lamas (1775-1814), whose attractive Popule Meus is most assuredly in the same line - a simplified Classicism with homophony (rather than imitation) leading the way. Popule Meus seems to be something of a favourite with Venezuelan choirs, and understandably so.
This vein of affecting simplicity seems to have continued after Venezuela won its independence in the first decades of the 19th Century, if what I've heard of the music of José Ángel Montero (1832-1881) is anything to go by. His endearingly guileless sacred piece Quiero tu cruz suggests a man who knew his Italian opera. Montero, indeed, went on to write what is thought to be the country's first opera, Virginia (1873). He also apparently wrote lots of pieces in 'salon music' style, such as the little piano duet piece, Emilia.
There's more music to go off with my next composer - and here we come to quite a discovery for me - Teresa Carreño (1853-1917, above). Teresa was a well-known international pianist and an opera singer as well as being a composer and it's intriguing to find that some of her performances were captured for posterity in the early days of recording. You might like to try her playing Chopin's First Ballade, Schumann's great Fantasie or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.6. These composers' names, the fact that she was taught by Gottschalk and Anton Rubinstein and the additional fact that she married (among others) that epitome of late-Romantic pianistic eclecticism Eugen d'Albert, should give you a general impression of what her music sounds like before you even hear it. It won't quite prepare you for how good some of it is though.
Please try Un sueño en el mar, Op.28 ('A dream at sea'). This has a sweep that embraces both the turbulence of the sea, with a melody that swells up out of the depths of the piano like a powerful current, and the dreaminess of an ardent melody riding atop hypnotic waves of repeating chords. It is a tone-poem in miniature. Drama also courses through the Ballade, Op.15, a noble and tempestuous piece full of rich contrasts of texture, with a particularly exciting closing passage. I would say that Teresa Carreño is perhaps closest in spirit to Chopin. We've heard the heroic, stormy side of Chopin translated into something fresh in the first two pieces, while the lighter, more glamorous 'waltz' side of Chopin can be heard reflected deliciously in her La cesta de flores, Op.9 ('The basket of flowers'), the gorgeous Reverie-Barcarolle, "Venise", Op.33 and sundry other pieces that would fit into the 'salon music' category more easily, such as the waltz La Primavera, Op.28, the and the 'fantasy waltz' La fausse note, Op.39 ('The dissonance'). There's a touch of the childlike Schumann to be found in the lullaby-like El sueño del niño, Op.35, an endearing little piece if ever there was one.
Teresa Carreño wasn't just a piano composer though. She also wrote a patriotic chorus, Himno al libertador Simón Bolívar, in the style of Italian grand opera. It's not subtle, but then again such pieces rarely are. This was her only piece for either chorus or orchestra. She also wrote a String Quartet in B minor, which is more in the manner of Mendelssohn. It isn't a masterpiece but it is well-constructed and pleasingly lyrical.
What did 20th Century Venezuela bring classical music lovers? Well, that's for another day.