Chopin in Cuba: Thoughts on Visiting Cuba 2017

At the beginning of 2017 I went on a trip to Cuba to discover a country that I had heard so many different versions of: the country of cigars, rum and music, the communist state that is a thorn in the side of the USA, or one of the few truly independent states in the central americas, free from foreign intervention. A corrupt state that ruthlessly suppresses any form of political descent, or the state that provides free healthcare and education, with one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

In a way Cuba was a little bit of all of these versions. But it was definitely nowhere near the extreme cartoon like depictions extolled by either left or right wing commentators. Like most things in life, the truth lay somewhere in the middle. As I overheard American tourists on one of our coaches saying, ‘we were warned by friends that it would be like North Korea, but its nothing like that. Its just a very beautiful country.’ I wanted to use the space on this blog to record my experiences of this unique country and some thoughts on Cuba’s place in world history and politics. I don’t particularly sit in either a pro or against Cuba camp, because I believe that to be an insult to the people of Cuba, who are in my opinion the country’s greatest asset.

In addition to cigars and rum (which the author confesses to have contributed handsomely towards the Cuban economy for), there was the music. It really was everywhere you went and truly infectious. The Cuban people seemed to have an addiction to music and dance! I learned that the true Salsa Cubanos had the advantage of being danced with predominantly flat feet and that dancing on your toes was a definite no. Not a Cuban heel to be seen! The significance being that many older Cubans could easily move across the dance floor with minimal movement, while still looking enviously natural and fluid in their steps. Cuban Salsa is clearly a music form for all ages.

Dancing in the Music Salon in Trinidad

Dancing in the Music Salon in Trinidad

Instruments were everywhere, predominantly guitars and the all important percussion. I had not realised how important percussion was in Latin music and Cuba was no exception. The sight of a nine piece band crammed into a hole in the wall type bar will never leave me, with nearly half of the band assigned purely to percussion. The instruments like clave and cowbell by themselves are nothing special, but when assembled together they produce a tapestry of rhythm which is essential to any Cuban music.

Musicians in Cuba

Musicians in Cuba

Pianos were not widely seen during our trip. During our stay at the town of Trinidad in the south part of the island, we discovered a dance hall with an old grand piano shoved in the hallway. It was the only one of two pianos we saw the whole trip and I did not dare to try it out, so worn out it looked. As the afternoon dance class whirled about us in the old dancehall, I pondered why a country with so much music could have so few pianos on show.

Grand piano in Trinidad, Cuba

Grand piano in Trinidad, Cuba

Pianos are expensive instruments and for a country that was under trade embargo and where nominal personal incomes are restricted, it is easy to understand how few people would be able to make such a purchase. The weather is another important factor, where continual warm spells and humidity would make the maintenance of such instruments very labour intensive. In addition, there would be no source for new parts for repairs. The effect of trade embargoes was to force Cubans to develop a culture of make do, creating parts and spares from older items and scrap. The guitars of Cuba are an example of a whole mini industry being created where small workshops developed methods for winding old metal wires to create guitar strings. I couldn’t see any evidence that this extended to the complexity of a piano action, but I hope to be corrected! If you ever go to Cuba, take a few packets of guitar strings with you to exchange for goods, you’ll make many friends from such a luxury.

Musicians in Trinidad, Cuba

Musicians in Trinidad, Cuba

In the capital of Havana we came across the other piano we saw on our trip, a Petrof grand in the Museum of the Revolution. Before the Revolution, this grand building used to be the presidential palace and it was this very building that the revolutionaries dramatically stormed in 1957, with the intent of killing the ruling dictator Batista. Bullet holes still lined the hallways and gave a stark reminder to the inherent violence of any revolution.

Bullet holes in the Museum of the Revolution

Bullet holes in the Museum of the Revolution

The piano itself very much looked like a 1920’s grand piano and it was easy to imagine the glamorous functions being held there for dignitaries while piano music drifted through the palatial rooms.

Petrof piano in the Museum of the Revolution, Cuba

Petrof piano in the Museum of the Revolution, Cuba

Today the museum is a dry exhibit of propaganda for the Castro regime. Endless statistics about the success of the agrarian reforms of Castro’s government and the evil of the U.S made it difficult to stay awake as we passed from room to room. Perhaps the most poignant part of the museum was a grand ballroom that had been designed as an imitation of one of the great rooms of Versailles. The enormous wealth that must have been expended on that room alone, while the Cuban people were ripped off and descended into prostitution, drugs and gambling rackets, tells you how little propaganda Castro actually needed to get the Cuban people on his side. Batista evidently was doing the work for him.

And so to the title of this article, to a statue of Chopin located in the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis in Old Havana. As we walked across the plaza I recognised the profile of the man sat on the bench straight away: the sculptor did a very good job!

I wondered how many people taking their photos with the elegant dressed gentleman knew who he was and the music he created, but in many ways it didn’t matter. The serenity and ease of his pose on the bench perfectly fitted in with the Cubans sitting in the square, taking a momentary break from their work to watch the world go by.

A statue of Chopin in Cuba and I

A statue of Chopin in Cuba and I

The statue was the work of sculptor Adam Myjak and was the result of a collaboration between the Cuban and Polish governments to celebrate Polish culture and the bicentenary of Chopin’s birth. Chopin himself of course never went to Cuba. But I believe he would have easily related to the feelings of national pride that Cubans feel today for their country. Just as Cuba had been occupied by the Spanish, in Chopin’s lifetime Poland was a country forcibly annexed to Russia. Poland as a country legally did not exist. Chopin wrote music specifically to stand in defiance of Russian rule. His Mazurkas and Polonaises ensured that whatever the military and political situation, the essential voice of Poland’s spirit would resound for centuries after in people’s hearts and minds.

Chopin's hand

Chopin’s hand

During our trip we spoke to many young Cubans who could not wait for progress and change, eagerly awaiting the the doors of President Obama’s rapprochement to be opened a little bit wider. But the Cubans we spoke to, young and old, were also intensely proud of their revolutionary history. This did not equate to love for Fidel Castro, in fact some people were surprisingly forthright about the anger held, especially during the ‘Special Period’. But for them it was possible to be proud of the independence Cuba had as a result of the revolution, while also acknowledging the many faults of Castro’s leadership.

It is simply impossible for anyone born in another country to understand the effect of Cuba’s history has on its people. In the U.K. for example, there is a classroom history of great victories in battle and imperial domination of the world: the Spanish Armada, the British Empire and her colonies, defeating Napoleon, defeating Germany, the list goes on. The effect this has on the national psyche is I believe one of the most under researched parts of history. It continues to have a profound effect on political arguments in Westminster and in the national public conversation.

But Cuba’s history is the diametric opposite. It is a long history of invasion and interference, first by the Spanish and then the U.S. The U.S in fact did propose to buy Cuba in 1854 with the intention of creating another slave state to the union. How is that even conceivable? How would today’s Brexiteers react if the EU came out with a plan to purchase the U.K? The history of Cuba goes a long way to explain the pride people still have for Castro’s revolution and the clear cut independence it brought to the people of Cuba. The cost of that independence for the people of Cuba, when trade embargoes drove people to famine in the 1990’s, is highly questionable and the extent to which Castro made little attempt to alleviate his people’s suffering will tarnish his legacy. But there was no doubt that the revolution created a pointed end to external state interference and a new beginning of a true Cuban independence.

My trip to Cuba left me with many questions and a desire to find out more about this incredible country. Cuba is a unique country for the geographic position it holds between central and south America, being the largest island in the Caribbean. It has a long history of being invaded and occupied, either by direct military or economic occupation. It became a truly independent state after the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the talking point of the world as an openly Communist state sitting in the Florida straights. This island in the Caribbean effectively threatened the humanity of the world with the Cuba missile crisis, but later became known for peacekeeping missions in countries like Angola. During the trip I happened to be reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and was surprised on the number of references to Cuba. On 26 July 1991, Nelson Mandela delivered a speech in Havana praising the intervention in Angola,

‘The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character – We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us – The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people in South Africa!’

These other sides of Cuba’s post revolutionary history are never widely publicised, could it be because they work against the mainstream narrative of a corrupt communist state? We are told that Cuba’s poverty and the lack of democracy means that the Cuban people are forever living on the edge, unable to cope against a wall of government suppression. But what we found were a people who were not only coping but vibrant and curious about the rest of the world. This does not make one an apologist for the government suppression and ongoing lack of democracy. Things must change and I felt the desire of this from the people we met. Everyone there had an anticipation of progress to come.

The Cuban Flag

The Cuban Flag

My final thought relates solely to the Cuban people and their inherent vibrancy. Their music, dance and zest for life was infectious and gave the country a sense of optimism that far outstrips its economic wealth. These people have no democracy and small incomes, but that did not hinder their wonderful warmth that they shared with us freely. Commentators in the U.K often like to compare Cuba economically to countries in the G7 as a fair comparison. But this comparison is not fair in anyway. A country like the U.K can in no way be compared fairly to a country like Cuba. The U.K has a long history of being one of the most powerful countries on the planet and massively benefitting from the wealth and freedom that this confers. On the flip side I have met people in U.K who have the vote but are completely uninterested in using it. They live in a country that is economically one of the fastest growing in the G7, and yet they have no sense of feeling like they are sharing in this success. Economic success is not the only means for giving people a sense of national pride and contentment.

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Lunchtime Recital Thursday 11 May St Mary’s Bathwick

 

I will be performing a lunchtime piano recital on Thursday 11 May 2017 at St Mary’s Church, Bathwick, Bath. This recital is part of a series of lunchtime recitals arranged to raise funds for the restoration of the 1878 Father Willis organ at St Mary’s Church.

The music will start at 12:30pm and will include the following works:

Chopin: Nocturnes

Schumann: selections from Kinderscenen

Schoenberg: first movement from Klavierstucke

Other works to be played will be announced on the day. Entry is free but the audience are encouraged to give generously to support the organ restoration fund.

The 19th century organ was last restored in 1980 but is now in need of further restoration work. As well as being an example of a well respected British organ manufacturer, Henry Willis & Sons, the organ also boasts another famous connection. In 2001 the rock group Muse recorded the organ for the song Megalomania for their second studio album, Origin of Symmetry.

St Mary’s Church

Darlington Street

Bath BA2 4EB

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Piano Restoration Video

I was very proud to have recently put together a short film about piano restoration work at The Piano Shop Bath. Ever since relocating to Bath some four years ago I have maintained a strong relationship with this great shop that caters for all needs and budgets. ‘Shop’ is a small word for a much bigger business that The Piano Shop Bath represents. In addition to selling pianos they provide piano removals services, piano tuning, event hire, valuations and of course, piano repairs and restoration services. Over four years I have watched the shop develop and expand into a much larger premises, creating a substantial workshop space. This workshop is now the hub through which all pianos are serviced and restored.

Piano Restoration is a job that requires patience and years of experience. I was asked to create a short film that captures the essence of what this work was about, and to convey the craft that is behind every piano repair. I had the pleasure of observing technicians Marc and Steve while filming them about their work. I was amazed by how traditional the repair work still was, even with modern tools to aid them. Applying woollen felts to the dampers is essentially still glueing bits of high quality felt to wooden hammers, but it needs to be precise and the glue needs to be the right type that works naturally with the wood. If you choose to invest in having your piano restored, you are not just investing in your instrument but also investing in the expertise of highly skilled technicians who carry out the work. It is a specialist craft, and pianos simply could not exist without good piano technicians.

You can check out the video below. I composed some original backing music to aid the flow of imagery, using piano based sounds arranged in a contemporary, fresh setting. If you would like to know more about the video or my composition work, then please do get in touch.

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Piano Concerts in Bath

In preparation for my upcoming diploma exam, I will be performing in a few piano recitals in Bath to road test my program to audiences. This is a vital component of any exam preparation, as you really find out what works under pressure, and what doesn’t! Sections of music that you may think you know inside out in the comfort of your rehearsal studio, may suddenly become more tricky. Technically demanding passages (for which there are a few on this program) require a degree of stamina, and a practise recital gives you the chance to see how well you are pacing yourself over the program.

Most importantly, you get the chance to see how well you can sustain the levels of concentration required to execute piece after piece. That in itself is not just a technical exercise, but an emotional one too, where you need to be in that mental space to shape something musically interesting and personal. It is no good simply playing the right notes at the right time, that is the job of a computer!

My program is a musically diverse program spanning some 300 years of writing for the piano, and earlier keyboard instruments. This is also a chance to convey some of the musical developments that have been made over the centuries, from Bach’s highly ordered fugal exercises, to Schoenberg’s atonal soundscapes. And don’t worry if you are clueless who those composers are; I will be there as your guide to introduce each piece and give some background to its composition. There will be something new for everyone, so come along!

The Program

Chopin: 2 études from Op. 10, No.1 in C major and No.3 in E major

JS Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major, BWV 872

Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 no.5

Schoenberg: Drei Klavierstucke, Op.11

Chopin: Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 no.2

Ginastera: Danzas Argentinas, Op. 2

The Venues

Thursday 5 May @ Manvers Street Baptist Church, 12:30pm

Wednesday 15 June @ St Swithin’s Church, 7:30pm

More dates to be added.

If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to get in touch via my contact page.

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Piano Lessons in Bath for 2016

It was a busy end to 2015 and I was heavily involved in a number of tasks which saw me go off the blog radar a bit….. but all for worthy reasons!

Several of my students took piano exams and passed with great marks and comments from the examiner. There is still a wide differing of opinion amongst students, parents and teachers over the benefits of taking piano exams. The truth is, it depends on the individual. All I can say is that those who do commit themselves to taking an exam are giving themselves an opportunity to work towards something and gain valuable experiences from performing under pressure. Passing and getting a good mark has given all my students a renewed sense of confidence and purpose in their playing, which is sometimes easy to lose track of when you turn up to weekly lessons to practise the same three pieces.

In addition, the grade system does introduce new technical challenges with every step up, so there is a practical element there to progress your studies. All in all a very worthwhile endeavour for any piano student; I must also emphasise that I had an adult student pass with a great mark, so don’t talk yourself into thinking that piano grades are something you did when you were younger! You may find that your life is now allowing you the time to practise and you yourself are more focussed to practise the technical elements to perfection. It’s never too late 🙂

I was also involved in providing piano accompaniment for a colleague’s students taking flute and clarinet exams. This is extremely rewarding work, as you can take a step back as a teacher and focus on performing with someone. It’s amazing how much progress you see even between the rehearsal a few weeks before the exam, to the actual day itself. As a teacher, it’s easy to spot determination and hard work when it has been applied. It’s also easy to spot the combination of relief and delight, with having played better than your fears were telling you that you would. Personal development like this is, I believe, absolutely fundamental to any child’s education, and by learning a musical instrument you are forced into developing your skills, otherwise the music simply will not happen.

There was also a small matter of purchasing my first house. They say that the most stressful experience you can have in life is purchasing a house, and all I would say in response is that I wholeheartedly agree! But I can least look back on that process as something firmly in the past.

The new place only a few minutes from where I was previously living and easy to get to from London Road in Bath. There is also now a dedicated teaching studio which provides the right environment for practise and study. I still one or two slots available in the evening, plus more availability during the day, so if you are looking for piano lessons in 2016, get in touch with me here.

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Sunset Fan/Sunset Flood Premiere in Bath

I have finally had a chance to write something about the premiere of my new work, Sunset Fan/Sunset Flood, which premiered at the end of August in Bath. It was a magical evening that I will remember for a long time. I have included here an extract of the blog from my composition site, and the live recording from the concert. Enjoy and please take a moment to visit my composition website and read the full blog.

‘Sunset Fan/Sunset Flood is a suite in 4 movements for piano and cello, inspired by the words of writer James Roy Blair Anderson. I have previously collaborated with James on ‘Dust‘, a short choral piece set to the words of his poem of the same title. This time, I took two of James’ poems, ‘Sunset Fan‘ and ‘Sunset Flood‘, and composed a musical depiction of the words.

The final suite can be performed both with or without the words being read in between the movements. In rehearsals for the concert we decided to read the poetry in between each movement, and I think the overall experience was truly heightened.

My musical partner in crime for this was cellist Jonathan Stabler, an experienced musician who revels in the challenges of performing new music. In addition to my new piece, we put together a program of music that included a diverse range of repertoire for cello and piano, with duets and solo pieces respectively.

This program would take the audience on a musical journey from the Baroque period to present day. We had put in a lot of work in rehearsals and of course the admin and promotion that’s required for putting on a concert! We were very lucky to have in Bath St Swithin’s church in Walcott. A 5 minute walk from the centre of town, this beautiful example of Georgian church architecture also happens to have excellent acoustics and a very fine Yamaha G5 grand piano. Simply not having to worry about the hire of a grand piano was a massive relief, and to find that the piano was also very nice to play, takes even more stress off you as a performer.’

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New Work Premiere

I am very pleased to announce that my new piece Sunset Fan/Sunset Flood will be premiered on Thursday 27 August 2015, at St Swithin’s church, Bath.

Sunset Fan/Sunset Flood started as two poems of the same name written by writer James Roy Blair Anderson, whom I have previously collaborated with on Dust.

The piece is a suite for cello and piano in 4 movements, inspired by the words of the poems. The suite can be performed by itself, but it can also be performed alongside the spoken word.

My good friend Jon Stabler will be playing cello, with me on the piano. As you can see from the poster, there will also be performances of pieces from the repertoire, including Martinu’s evocative Variations on a Slovakian Theme. It is shaping up to be a great night!

If you would like tickets, please contact me via my website. The cost is £5, but you can also turn up on the night and pay on the door. Doors open 7:30pm.

For further details, please visit edwardbettella.com

St Swithin's concert poster

St Swithin’s concert poster

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