VENEZUELA AND ITS MUSICIANS / An eternal quest for expression

An eternal quest for expression

Some recent articles, public comments and even a book about the musical life in Venezuela that I have been reading have prompted me to write down a few facts in order to illustrate something about a subject that is seldom talked about.
In a way I’m grateful that English and North American critics are taking an interest on Venezuela and its musicians, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The LA Times, Classical Music Magazine have dedicated articles where people have commented, sometimes with address and sometimes showing total ignorance and disrespect for the subject, its history and its protagonists.
I will try to be brief and will only give some historical dates, common knowledge for Venezuelans, but not for the rest of the world as it seems.

Venezuela –its origins /history

Christopher Columbus sailed along the eastern coast of Venezuela on his third voyage in 1498, the only one of his four voyages to reach the South American mainland. The second Spanish expedition, led by Alonso de Ojeda, in 1499, gave the name Venezuela (“little Venice” in Spanish) to the Gulf of Venezuela—because of its imagined similarity to the Italian city.
During the colonial period, the most horrible holocaust of indigenous people took place from the hands of Europeans (many millions of aborigines were killed), as the former were considered to be inhuman or lazy, to compensate, Africans were brought as slaves.

Historian Acosta Saignes says that “During the colony, everything depended on the slaves. On their shoulders fell the weight of the maintenance of that society, they were pearl divers , discoverers of mines , fishermen , farmers, ranchers , workers specialized in mining , blacksmiths, domestics, musicians , barbers , butchers , soldiers, etc.”
This situation contributed to the enrichment of the main European countries and formed a small well-off class in Venezuela.

Spain imposes its thought in Latin America ensuring the monopoly of language and religion by two decisions of state. The first establishes a single legitimate language, Castilian through the grammar of Nebrija, which is offered to the Catholic kings as a tool for better management of the conquered lands as “Language has always been the companion of the empire”. In Spain more than half a dozen languages are spoken: in the Iberian America, only Castilian. The second decision is to impose the Catholic religion. The Treaty of Tordesillas assigned to Spain a generous portion of the New World, provided they ensured the conversion of its inhabitants. The Spain of the time has just expelled Arabs and Jews and considers religious uniformity as a precondition of political domination; tolerance would be unthinkable.
The cultural apparatus that will take the decisive task in the process of acculturation of America is the Church. The conqueror destroys and reduces insubordination from the indigenous and the Africans slaves, and makes these productive by installing obedience through the understanding of the instructions, beliefs and values of the dominator. At the same time the Crown subordinates the Church with a regime of Trustees. Then, there is the monopoly of Education; Crown and Church strictly regulate who can learn to read. There can only exist no-banned books. Reading and writing fiction is prohibited. The first printing press was installed in Mexico City in 1539. Only white people are allowed to read. Most universities are religious schools (Caracas’s one was founded in 1721).   Lectures were in Latin and reserved for the “well white” male. Other monopolies that ensured three hundred years of oppression were those of politics, blood and ideology, settlement, trade, forced labor and of the flora and fauna . The colonial economy was not directed towards autonomy and internal development, but towards exports to the metropolis. Trade between American regions was limited or nonexistent. Everything was exported to a few Spanish ports. A minority of just 1.3% of peninsular whites born in Spain, could hardly assert exclusive privileges against the rest of the population. This task will also make it difficult for the 20.3% of white Creoles, born in Venezuela, who tried to limit the independence to a simple cut of political subordination to Spain, appropriating the privileges of the peninsular. The movement would inevitably open the way for political and military involvement, 79.7% of the population, comprising the “vile castes”of browns, blacks and Indians who were seeking to conquer long neglected social, economic and political rights militated first in the ranks of the Crown and then with the patriots.
In my humble opinion, Latin America is still suffering from the inequalities and trauma that this piece of human history talks about.


To situate ourselves in the music world, composers such as Carlo Gesualdo, Giovanni Palestrina and Claudio Monteverdi, were still alive when the city of Caracas was founded in 1567. Melchor Quintela was the first organist of the city from 1571 and his playing at the church was attractive for the population of the time.

The first piece of information about academic music in Caracas dates from 1591 when organ concerts were played in the main church. We also know that in 1640 the town hall opened a music school (free to any citizen) where people could learn plainchant. The music society grew in stature and in 1671 the position of Church Master was created. Padre Gonzalo Cordero was the first Maestro de Capilla.

Far from Caracas, in the Eastern corner of Venezuela, in the mission of Píritu in the province of Concepción de Castilla la Vieja, Fray Diego de los Ríos was given permission to use Caribbean natives or Indians to build a church which he filled with his own paintings as he was a good artist, he was a musician and a composer.
Shortly after the town was founded, the Indians of San Miguel were the best singers of the area, singing mass in Latin with great finesse and expression arousing the admiration of all the locals.
Fray Diego also composed motets and carols with ethnic lyrics –in Caribe language-, that delighted the residents and visitors.
Thus San Miguel de los Araguaneyes became the birthplace and centre of the new music.
These works of Fray Diego de los Ríos, none of which is preserved, were perhaps the first musical pieces composed in Venezuela.
Fray Diego died in the main monastery of the Order, in Caracas, in 1670.
It is quite picturesque to see that at the time when The Enlightenment (1650s to the 1780) was the main philosophical current in Europe and composers such as Rameau were being inspired by the idea of the exotic beauty coming from faraway lands, the powerful European countries were fighting each other through pirates on the coasts of Venezuela, on the Caribbean Sea.

At this time too, European musical instruments existed in the homes of the rich in Caracas, mainly in the form of harpsichords and guitars.

An important influence on the music making of the country is found in the person of Francisco Pérez Carnacho, born in 1659, who taught music during 43 years at the Cathedral and at the Real y Pontificia Universidad of Caracas. Ambrosio and Alexander Carreño were also important music teachers of the time.

The first Venezuelan orchestra was created, in the 18th Century, “La Filarmónica” of which there are testimonials of their special performances during the year of 1766 for the celebrations of the ‘Príncipe de Asturias” wedding.

In 1771, Pedro Ramón Palacios y Sojo** (known as Padre Sojo) organizes and funds a music school in the outskirts of Caracas; in 1781 he names Juan Manuel Olivares as Director of the Escuela de Chacao from where stemmed some 30 composers and about 200 performers, it is important to note that the population was of 40.000 inhabitants in 1799.

In this school of music the style taught and performed was that of Europe’s 18th century, two genres were cultivated: a religious one, with Latin texts, and a profane one in Spanish. Juan Manuel Olivares, José Francisco Velásquez, José Antonio Caro de Boesi, Bartolomé Bello, Francisco Javier Istúriz, José María Izaza, Manuel Peña Alba, Lino Gallardo, José María Montero, José María Cordero are some of the composers that were taught in this school.
Two of the most notorious:
José Angel Lamas (1775- 1814) wrote two now popular pieces, the Popule Meus and Mass in D.
Juan José Landaeta, from Caracas (1780-1814) was a composer and an orchestral conductor who founded the first opera company of the country in 1808.
After this date opera and zarzuela were always an important part of the entertainment on offer in the city.


In April of 1811, to commemorate the first year of the Independence movement, there were, in Caracas, concerts in five churches with orchestras and ensembles of at least twenty members each.
In general the colonial music presents solid construction in terms of counterpoint, harmony and expression. Works were mainly of religious inspiration; Mozart, Haydn, and Pergolesi were the main influence. Although we do not find direct folk elements in it, the language and style are distinctly Venezuelan. At the time these same composers wrote a considerable number of patriotic songs too, the future National Anthem of Venezuela was also composed. There was also chamber music being composed and performed, some examples are the works by Juan Manuel Olivares and Juan Meserón from whom there are several symphonies and overtures.
The war of Independence scattered the group, many of them died in battle and the few survivors got divided ideologically by the revolution.
Some of them, such as José de Asturia and Nicolás Quevedo Rachadell, crossed the Andes next to Simón Bolívar in this independent quest and took to Bogotá (Colombia) chamber music, opera and founded the first “Sinfonía Bogotana” as well as the first Music Conservatoire of Colombia.

The main influence Simón Bolívar had in his education came from his tutor Don Simón Carreño, better known as Simón Rodríguez. Interestingly, his brother Cayetano Carreño (1766- 1836) was a prolific composer and Maestro de Capilla of the Caracas Cathedral nearly all his adult life. The latter had three sons, composers like him, one of them was Manuel Antonio Carreño who became a most sought after piano teacher in Paris after having taught his child-prodigy daughter Teresa Carreño (1853-1916). Teresa Carreño next to Clara Schumann was the most important female pianist of the 19th century. She was showered with praised around the world for her immense talent by Gounod, Liszt, Grieg, premièred MacDowell’s music in North America and Europe and her compositions were published when she was still a teenager, in Paris.
Another Venezuelan, Reynaldo Hahn 1874-1947, was a most celebrated musician in the French scene, composing operas, songs and being the Director of the Paris Opera.

By 1854 slaves were freed by decree, there were about 40,000 of them, mostly in the provinces of Caracas and Carabobo; their masters were handsomely remunerated by the nation.

The Ministry of Education has its origins in 1870, when then President Guzmán Blanco, established by public decree, free and compulsory Education for all. Since then Venezuelans can do all their studies free of charge, that includes all music training plus many grants, scholarships and credit at very low rates have been awarded to those that wish to study abroad.

Up to now all the main orchestras, choirs, ensembles are financed by the state, as are the main theatres and concert halls. I must say that for soloists the financial support is less satisfactory.

After the Independence war (1810-1823) The Santa Capilla Music School, also known as Escuela de Música y Declamación, in the centre of Caracas was founded in 1849, known since 1916 by the name of Escuela de Música José Angel Lamas where a most distinguished musician, Vicente Emilio Sojo (1887-1974)  taught composers such as:
Antonio Estévez (Calabozo, Edo. Guárico, 1916 – Caracas, 1988)
Ángel Sauce (Caracas, 1911 – 1995).
Evencio Castellanos (Cúa, Edo. Miranda, 1915 – Caracas, 1984)
Antonio José Ramos (Carúpano, Edo. Sucre, 1901)
Víctor Guillermo Ramos (Cúa, Edo. Miranda, 1911)
Inocente Carreño (Porlamar, Edo. Nueva Esparta, 1919)
Gonzalo Castellanos (Canoabo, Edo. Carabobo, 1926)
Antonio Lauro (Ciudad Bolívar, Edo. Bolívar, 1917 – Caracas, 1986)
Carlos Enrique Figueredo (Tocuyito, Edo. Carabobo, 1910 – 1986)
Moisés Moleiro (Zaraza, Edo. Guárico, 1904 – Caracas, 1979)
Luis Felipe Ramón y Rivera (San Cristóbal, 1913 – Caracas, 1993)
José Clemente Laya (Caracas, 1913 – Maracay, Edo. Aragua, 1981)
Blanca Estrella Veroes de Méscoli (San Felipe, Edo. Yaracuy, 1913 – Caracas, 1987)

Modesta Bor (Juan Griego, Isla de Margarita, 1926 – Merida, 1998)

José Antonio Abreu (1939), Alba Quintanilla (1944), Francisco Rodrigo (1938), Luis Morales Bance (1945) and Federico Ruiz (1948).

Other composers from the turn of the 19th century are:
Heraclio Fernández (1851-1886), Ramón Delgado Palacios (1863-1902), Pedro Elías Gutiérrez (1870-1954), Federico Vollmer (1834-1901) , Augusto Brandt (1892-1941), Simón Wohnsiedler, Laudelino Mejías, Prudencio Esaa.

More independent composers:
Juan Vicente Lecuna (1899-1954), Eduardo Plaza (1911-1980), Rházes Hernández López (1918-1991), Luis Felipe Ramón y Rivera (1913-1993), Isabel Aretz (1909). Alfredo Del Mónaco (1938) , Juan Carlos Núñez (1947), Maria Luisa Escobar ( 1898 – 1985),  Aldemaro Romero (1928-2007).

Vicente Emilio Sojo also founded the Orquesta Sinfónica Venezuela that played its first Concert on 24th of June 1930 dedicated, as reads the programme: ” to senior officials, artists, writers and the very cultured Caracas society”.

In their weekly concerts at the Teatro Municipal, the Aula Magna and Sala Ríos Reyna of the Teresa Carreño Cultural Centre, at very low ticket prices and in the last 12 years free entrance, the orchestra has played under national and international conductors such as Igor Stravinsky, Heitor Villa- Lobos, Sergiu Celibidache , Wilhelm Furtwängler, Charles Dutoit, Rodolfo Saglimbeni, Eduardo Marturet, Theodore Kuchar. Similarly, countless works , both domestic and international, have been world- premiered by this orchestra. Soloists have included Claudio Arrau, Marta Argerich, Henryk Scheryng, Yo Yo Ma, Judith Jaimes and the new generation of artists. Since its inception the Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela has dabbled in all possible areas of orchestral events: opera, ballet,  chamber music and concert series , recordings, soundtracks , many symphonic performances, which include concerts for children , Christmas, folk, jazz and popular music , symphonic rock and tangos , among others.It has toured internationally and in In 2007 they travelled to the Russian Federation, the first Venezuelan orchestra to do so.

In 1965, an initiative of Inocente Palacios, the Estudio de Fonología Musical del INCIBA was created. There, Alfredo Del Mónaco (1938) produced his first electroacoustic works.

From 1968 Yannis Ioannidis (1938), taught composers such as Federico Ruiz (1948), Emilio Mendoza (1953), Servio Tulio Marín (1947), Alfredo Marcano Adrianza (1953), Ricardo Teruel (1956), Carlos Duarte (1957-2003) , Alfredo Rugeles (1949).

Antonio Mastrogiovanni (1936) taught Juan Francisco Sans (1961), Miguel Astor (1958), Juan de Dios López (1962)

Since the 80’s there has been a few generations of graduates from the Composition faculty of the Juan José Landaeta Conservatory ; the Iudem (Instituto Universitario de Estudios Musicales), where we find composition teachers such as Blas Emilio Atehortúa, Beatriz Bilbao, Federico Ruiz, Ricardo Teruel.

Also from the faculty of composition Antonio Estévez where Juan Carlos Núñez has taught composers such as Adrián Suárez who has made an impact with his compositions mixing Amazonian Indian native performers with the symphony orchestra. Other concertos written with Venezuelan ethnicity in mind are the Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra by Antonio Lauro, the Cuatro and Orchestra concerto by Vinicio Ludovic and the Second Piano Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by Federico Ruiz.

There is too a Composition MBA course taught at the Universidad Simón Bolívar by Diana Arismendi, Adina Izarra and Emilio Mendoza.
The contribuition of the Musicology Faculty of the Universidad Central de Venezuela directed by Maria Antonia Palacios and Juan Francisco Sans has also provided the country with interesting academic and research work from its students.

Some other of today’s working composers are:
Jesús Alvarez , Mirtru Escalona Mijares, Giovanni Mendoza, Gustavo Matamoros , Álvaro Cordero, Julio D’Escriván , Beatriz Bilbao , Ricardo Lorenz-Abreu , Mercedes Otero , Jacky Schreiber, Manuel Sosa, Efraín Amaya, Arcángel Castillo, Sylvia Constantinidis, Luisa Elena Paesano , Marianela Arocha, Pedro Mauricio González.

There is a long list of younger composers that are now writing furiously for the piano, the guitar, ensembles and infinite combinations of orchestral instruments.Among the emerging talents of today’s are names such as Luis Alejandro Álvarez, Leonidas De Santiago, Wilmer Flores, Tito Nava, Albert Hernández, Ryan Revoredo, Harold Vargas, Icli Zitella.

Beginnings of “El Sistema”

On 12th February 1975** the public was present at the Teatro Municipal for the first concert given by the Orquesta Nacional Juvenil founded and conducted by Dr. José Antonio Abreu -who has dedicated his life to developing his idea which has grown both in numbers of children and youth orchestras and choirs, as well as in outstanding artistic and musical quality, reaching hundreds of thousands of children and young people all over Venezuela (to the last corners of it) and exporting the programme to many countries in the world.
In 1995, Dr. Abreu was designated by UNESCO as Special Ambassador for the development of a Global Network of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs, as well as special representative for the network of the development of orchestras under the ” World orchestras and Choirs Movement for Youth and Children “, “Príncipe de Asturias” amongst many other prizes internationally.
Some of the most prestigious conductors in the world, such as Claudio Abbado , Eduardo Mata, Zubin Mehta, Sir Simon Rattle , Gustavo Dudamel, who was trained at the “Sistema” and is the current conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (USA ) and many soloists of the stature of Placido Domingo, Mstislav Rostropovich , Alicia de Larrocha , Montserrat Caballé or Vladimir Spivakov have performed with orchestras belonging to this orchestral movement.

The organization also includes workshops for children and young people in learning to build and repair instruments and special programmes for children with disabilities or learning difficulties, as the White Hands Choir, composed of deaf children. The FESNOJIV provides technical and organizational assistance to all public schools seeking integration into the musical system and is supported by neighbourhood associations, parents, municipalities and institutional representations to facilitate the rehearsal or musical instruments needed.

This educational / musical and social programme goes hand in hand with the demographic explosion that has transformed the country as in the last four decades Venezuela’s population has quadruplicated and there has been an important new immigration from other Latin American (especially from Colombia) as well as Caribbean countries such as Haiti.

The highly regarded Simón Bolívar Orchestra is a product of El Sistema but it is now a professional orchestra rather than a youth one, and there are two of them: the OSSB “A” and the OSSB “B”, a division that I think has to do with age groups. The Teresa Carreño Orchestra is also world famous but still within the range of teenage musicians.

Other orchestras and ensembles

Then there are other professional orchestras that perform weekly in Caracas such as the Filarmónica Nacional and the Orquesta Municipal de Caracas, there is also the Orquesta Sinfónica de Maracaibo in Maracaibo city.

We must mention too the vast choral movement where the most famous are the Schola Cantorum and the Orfeón Universitario, the Baroque and Renaissance orchestras and ensembles of which the Camerata de Caracas is widely known, the estudiantinas, Orquestas Típicas, ODILA (Orchestra of Latin American Instruments), Bandas Marciales, fusion ensembles and of course salsa musicians, folk and jazz groups, pop bands.

Venezuela produced in the 20th century a great number of distinguished performers. Alirio Díaz was one of the most famous guitarists in the world but towards the end of the century and nowadays the number of soloists and conductors is much larger and admired worldwide. The same can be said about the number of orchestral players that today belong to important orchestras around the globe such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw, Basel Symphony Orchestra and many others.
I apologize for not going further in this most modest piece of writing but right now I must go to practice Chopin Concerto No 1 that I’m playing in a few days in London.
Thank you for reading this.
Best wishes
Clara Rodríguez

*Brother of Bolívar’s maternal grandfather
** Youth Day in Venezuela. José Félix Ribas fought in numerous battles of the “Campaña Admirable”; however the most crucial episode was the battle of La Victoria (12 February 1814) in which he and his fellow comrades succeeded in foiling the advance of José Tomás Boves’s formidable royalist forces (commanded in this battle by proxy Francisco Tomás Morales, while Boves recovered from wounds). Ribas won this victory with inexperienced troops, composed mainly of youths, students, and seminary candidates that Ribas had succeeded in recruiting. Ribas told his young soldiers,  before a crucial battle that “We have no choice between victory or death, we must achieve victory” (“No podemos optar entre vencer o morir, es necesario vencer”). After many hours of fierce resistance, Republican reinforcements arrived under the command of Vicente Campo Elías. It is in honor of this episode of Venezuelan history that modern Venezuelan citizens now celebrate the “Día de la Juventud” (“Day of Youth”). Each 12 February, therefore the concert hall that bears the name of José Félix Ribas is where the Youth Orchestral Movement of Venezuela plays its annual anniversary concert.

Some sources: Musician José Antonio Calcaño Calcaño (Caracas 1900 – Caracas,1978), Articles by historians Acosta Saignes, José Luis Salcedo Bastardo, Luis Britto García.

I have also recorded  CDs of Venezuelan Piano Music that are available on the Nimbus label in which I have added booklets with the relevant information on many of the composers here mentioned, their influence and impact.