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Ignacio Cervantes is generally regarded as the leading Cuban composer of the nineteenth century. His output was varied and included orchestral and stage works, but he is best known for his piano music, particularly for his Spanish-flavored Danzas Cubanas and other salon-like keyboard pieces.
Cervantes was born in Havana on July 31, 1847. He was taught piano by his father and later studied with Juan Miguel Joval and Nicholas Ruíz Espadero. From 1859 to 1861 he was a pupil of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose lighter, folk-inspired keyboard music became a major influence on his own compositions. Cervantes enrolled at the Paris Conservatory in 1865 and there studied piano with composer and virtuoso pianist Charles Alkan, as well as with piano pedagogue Antoine François Marmontel.
In 1866 Cervantes captured first prize in a competition, juried by the likes of Charles Gounod and Daniel Auber, for his performance of Herz's Piano Concerto No. 5. Cervantes had great success in Paris both as a soloist and accompanist to singers, and by the time he departed the French capital he had won the admiration of some of the world's most prominent composers and performers, including Liszt and Rossini.
Cervantes returned to Havana in 1870 and, besides giving piano recitals and concerts, took up conducting operas. He soon got into political difficulties, however, and was expelled. During his exile, Cervantes toured the United States extensively (1875-1879), and also began composing his long series of Danzas Cubanas (1875-1895). At their completion, the Danzas Cubanas would number 45. Cervantes wrote his only symphony, the Symphony in C, in 1879, the same year he returned to his homeland. Once again he took up the baton, and now also began to take on students, one of whom was Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes, who would become one of the more important Cuban composers of the twentieth century.
While Cervantes' music remained mostly light throughout his career, he did attempt more ambitious works, including a zarzuela, El Submarino (1889), and two operas, Maledetto (1895) and Los saltimbanquis (1899). The latter work dates to the period when Cervantes lived in Mexico (1898-1900). Cervantes returned to Cuba in 1900 and died there in 1905.
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