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Composed: 1954
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 oboes (3rd = English horn) 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, temple blocks, bass drum, maracas, 2 suspended cymbals, tam-tam, military drum, whip, 2 triangles, 2 orchestra bells), 2 harps, piano, strings, chorus, and tenor and baritone soloists
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

The Venezuelan composer Antonio Estévez, an exact contemporary of Ginastera, began his musical journey playing saxophone in a village band before pursuing studies in Caracas, then in the United States, and eventually in Paris. His best-known work, the 1954 Cantata Criolla, sets a text by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba, a Venezuelan mythic poem about a singing contest between Florentino and the Devil. The Faustian legend takes on local color by Florentino’s identification as a llanero (plainsman) and the contest between copleros (singers that improvise on short poetic lines). The vast, empty landscape is similar to that which inspired the Copland and Ginastera pieces, with music serving as both the substance and the vehicle for the competition. Rather than a love story, however, this cantata expresses the ultimate spiritual contest. “I tend to be excessively demanding of myself, at times searching for things I cannot reach,” reflected the composer some two decades later, but perhaps illuminating his attraction to the text.

The piece is scored for orchestra, chorus, and two soloists in three large-scale movements. The first, Lento e Cadencioso, establishes an epic mood with gestures that alternate between dramatic and atmospheric before the chorus enters to set the scene and backdrop from which the voice of the Devil emerges to issue his challenge. The chorus generally stays in a note-against-note texture, highlighting the words and underscoring the communal, oral tradition of the story and coplero tradition. Next comes “El Reto” (The Challenge), thrown out confidently by the Devil, who is answered in more serious tones by Florentino, who invokes the land: “Savanna, savanna, land that makes you sweat and love as I have sung with all I have to sing with him.” The melodic material for the two characters makes use of two Gregorian chants: Ave maris stella for Florentino; Dies Irae for the Devil.

In the second movement, Lento, Tenebroso, shadowy passages for the low strings and woodwinds gradually accumulate tension and portray the gathering storm outside. Estévez occasionally makes use of tone-painting to portray the action in the scene: maracas (capachos) accompany references to that instrument sounding inside Florentino’s hut; sudden outbursts emphasize the metaphorical connection in the line: “wandering choirs, wind of black fury.” Both scene and characters are elaborated by the chorus until in the last movement the contest (“La Porfia,” or The Duel) gets going in the traditional manner, in which each coplero adopts the last line of his opponent’s verse as the beginning line of his.

The most striking aspect of the Cantata is the way Estévez manipulates all the musical elements, but particularly timbre and rhythm in a kind of criss-cross relationship to suggest the evolving momentum of the contest. Against a mostly percussive orchestra, the voices are suspended, but within each the rhythm of the words either matches, overtakes, or floats above, that of the orchestra to reflect the emotional tenor of approach, parry, dropping back, then re-engaging – a kind of textural acceleration that is only later reflected in the tempo. At the end, each claims victory but Florentino outlasts his enemy by reciting holy verses, which the choir then takes over. The musical texture is the reverse of the opening, as the individual voices are submerged in the collective celebration of the holy verses. It’s an end perfectly suited to the land that proved, both literally and figuratively, such fertile creative ground for so many Americans.

Annotator Susan Key is an editor and musicologist who contributes frequently to Los Angeles Philharmonic program books.