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Ernesto Lecuona

Ernesto Lecuona has often been hailed as the greatest composer from Cuba. A sort of Latin Gershwin, he was both versatile and prolific, writing over 400 songs, 170-odd piano pieces, 37 orchestral works, 11 film scores, and numerous zarzuelas, ballets, and an opera. He wrote in an approachable, often popular style, especially in his songs, and exhibited Latin and Afro-Cuban elements in his music. In some of his later compositions, he wrote in a more serious, somewhat neo-Classical style. Lecuona was born in Guanabacoa, Cuba, a suburb of Havana. All five children in the Lecuona family were musically gifted, four as pianists and one son as a violinist. Young Ernesto was given piano lessons by his older sister, Ernestina. He gave a public recital at the age of five and was in every respect a child prodigy: he was composing at the age of 11 and went on to graduate from Havana's National Conservatory -- where he studied piano and composition -- before his 17th birthday. He traveled to New York City for his American debut the following year, giving a well-received concert at Aeolian Hall. He then decided on further musical studies, taking instruction from Joaquin Nin, and in France, from Maurice Ravel. In the 1920s and 1930s, Lecuona wrote a number of popular songs and piano pieces. In the latter genre, his Malagueña, from his Andalucía Suite for piano (1927), became an instant hit and is still probably the composer's most famous piece, whether in its original piano form, its song version, or in its countless other instrumental arrangements. Lecuona also formed a dance band called Orquesta Cubana, which mainly performed arrangements of popular Cuban dance pieces and songs. The group quickly became well known and made many tours of the United States, Europe, and South America. Ironically, Lecuona was not the band's pianist: that role was left to Armando Fichin Oréfiche, a skilled artist and composer in his own right who also did some of the group's musical arrangements. Beginning in 1931, Lecuona began writing film scores, turning out three that year alone: Under Cuban Skies, Free Soul, and Susana Lenox, all for MGM. He also wrote many zarzuelas during this period, including Rosa la china (1932). In 1934, following a lengthy bout of pneumonia, Lecuona withdrew from the band on the advice of doctors. The group was thereafter known as the Lecuona Cuban Boys and still made many numerous and successful tours. Lecuona continued to compose and perform, of course, producing a variety of works that included more film scores, especially during the war years. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song in the 1942 Warner Bros. film Always in My Heart. One of his more popular postwar film efforts was for the 1947 movie Carnival in Costa Rica. After the war, Lecuona seldom performed as a pianist, though he remained active in composition. He returned to Cuba after living for a long period in New York City. He left his homeland again, however, in 1960 following the Communist takeover, determined not to return until the Castro regime was ousted. He established homes in New York City and Florida. Among his many accomplishments was the co-founding (with composer Gonzalo Roig) of the Havana Symphony Orchestra. Lecuona was one of the few composers who was successful in several genres, arguably becoming the quintessential crossover musician long before the term existed.