Leo Brouwer Redefines Classical Guitar Repertoire with His Blend of Yoruban and Modernist Elements

For six decades, Cuban-born Leo Brouwer has been at the vanguard of guitarist-composers. Here's a look into how his work has helped redefine classical guitar repertoire.
Classical guitarist and composer Leo Brower playing guitar

For six decades, Cuban-born Leo Brouwer has been at the vanguard of guitarist-composers. His huge and influential oeuvre for guitar receives more performances than that of any other living composer. Here’s a look into how his work has helped redefine classical guitar repertoire in the 21st century.

Brouwer has penned works for scores of classical guitarists, with John Williams, Julian Bream, Shin-ichi Fukuda, and Sharon Isbin among them. Brouwer’s diverse catalog includes numerous pieces for solo guitar, as well as chamber works with guitar, guitar duos and quartets, and an unequalled 12 concertos for guitar. His large non-guitar output includes string quartets, symphonic, chamber, and choral pieces, solo works for a variety of instruments, and film scores. He has conducted orchestras across the globe (including the Berlin Philharmonic and the Scottish National Symphony orchestras among others) and served as music director and conductor for the Cuban National Symphony and Orquesta de Córdoba in Spain.

Born in 1939 in Havana, Cuba, Brouwer was introduced to the guitar in his early years by his father, Juan, a doctor and amateur guitarist. He progressed rapidly, learning by ear repertoire by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Francisco Tárrega, and Enrique Granados—all composers whose work has been popular with classical guitarists. As a young teenager, he began formal studies with Isaac Nicola, a revered Cuban teacher who had been a pupil of Emilo Pujol, who in turn had studied with Tárrega. Nicola guided him through guitar literature from five centuries, building a solid foundation for a performing career. Brouwer made his debut as a concert guitarist at 17 and ultimately became an international recitalist.

Leo Brouwer’s Musical Pedigree

Music is part of Brouwer’s heritage. While his surname reflects his paternal grandfather’s Dutch lineage, on his mother’s side were the Lecuonas. Brouwer’s grandmother, Ernestina Lecuona, was a pianist, singer, and composer who toured Mexico and South America with the women’s orchestra she founded. Her more famous brother, Ernesto Lecuona, was a pianist and composer of symphonic music as well as piano works, songs, and film scores.

Like his renowned great uncle, Brouwer had an interest in classical music and Cuban culture, but his musical path veered toward African influences after a youthful experience with Yoruban ritual music. The musical rhythms and religious rituals brought to Cuba by enslaved Africans ultimately became a motivator for Brouwer to begin composing.

Guitarist Zaira Meneses mentions a conversation she had with Brouwer during his 2018 visit to the Boston home she shares with her husband and fellow guitarist, Eliot Fisk. “Leo said that as a child he had wandered into the forest near his home and saw from a distance fire, animals, and people dancing to music,” Meneses relates. “He went closer and found it was a voodoo ritual. A woman handed him a glass of what he thought was water and he drank it. It was pure alcohol and he started hallucinating.” The heat, drumming, singing, and overall atmosphere were transformative, he related. Brouwer has mentioned that from that point forward, he became passionate about African ritual music and later sought to blend Afro-Cuban elements with the European classical and avant-garde techniques that caught his ear.


Early Stylistic Hallmarks

By 1956, Brouwer had begun composing for guitar. What grew to be a set of three pieces without title (Tres Piezas sin Titulo), were among his first efforts. In these brief works, he incorporates two Afro-Cuban rhythms: tresillo (syncopated permutations of three pulses) and cinquillo (syncopations with five pulses). Also surfacing in these nascent works is Brouwer’s predilection for stark, dissonant intervals of seconds and sevenths and dense, chromatically rich chords. These are hallmarks of Brouwer’s style that show up in music penned throughout his career and reveal his early attraction to the sounds of modernists Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók.

Brouwer is primarily a self-taught composer, but in 1959 he received a scholarship from the Cuban government to study composition and conducting at the Juilliard School in New York. There, he encountered the music of Darius Milhaud, Lukas Foss, Paul Hindemith, and others. In one recent interview, Brouwer offered high praise for the professors and the library at Juilliard. As a new student, he was surprised to find a humble Cuban edition of the first five of his Estudios Sencillos (Simple Etudes) among the library’s holdings. 

Leo Brouwer playing guitar
Leo Brouwer playing guitar. Photo by Juan Miguel Morales

Money got tight after his first year, and Brouwer transferred to the Hartt School at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Guitar pedagogue and longtime Hartt faculty member Richard Provost was Brouwer’s classmate there in 1960. “He was a much more advanced player than I was at that time,” Provost recalled in a phone conversation. “I remember him giving a performance of the Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco quintet with the resident string quartet at Hartt. That’s the only performance that I know he did at Hartt. The rest of the time he focused on composing.”

Brouwer was at Hartt for part of the academic year, but when relations between the United States government and Cuba were severed in 1961, he returned to Havana. He took a post there as co-founder and director of the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (Cuban Institute of Film Arts and Industry). Over the decades he has composed some 60 film scores. 

A Crossroads 

Brouwer was at the peak of his powers as a guitarist in the late 1970s, as evidenced by the Leo Brouwer 4 Collection, a double-CD set released in 1999. It consists of live concert recordings made in Havana and Houston in 1978. Throughout, Brouwer displays dazzling technique in genre-jumping repertoire ranging from Renaissance works to J.S. Bach (“Chaconne”) to Scott Joplin (“The Entertainer”) to a jazzed-up version of Villa Lobos’ “Prelude No. 3” (backed by the Cuban fusion group Irakere). He had made recordings for such labels as Deutsche Grammophon and Erato before he stopped performing after experiencing a hand injury in the early 1980s. Thereafter, his focus turned to composing and conducting.

But before ending his performing career, Brouwer was a featured recitalist at the Toronto International Guitar Competition in 1975. That was the year that Sharon Isbin won, and when she encountered Brouwer and his music. “North America first became aware of Leo when he played there,” Isbin shared in a phone call. “He had such a new, unheard-of kind of music and his presentation was very exciting. We forged a connection at Toronto, and I wanted to explore as much of his music as I could. I recorded some of his pieces and sent him the album, but that was the extent of it. Then, one day in 1981, six years after I’d met him, I received and envelope he sent from Mexico. Inside it was El Decameron Negro with a dedication to me. I was astonished because we’d never discussed him writing anything for me.”

The work’s three movements have descriptive titles: “The Harp of the Warrior,” “The Flight of the Lovers through the Valley of the Echoes,” and “Ballad of the Maiden in Love.” “The next time I saw him was at a festival in Finland and I played it for him,” Isbin continues. “He explained that the movements were based on love stories collected in Africa by 19th Century German ethnologist Leo Frobenius. I found two of the stories in a library, but asked Leo about the third because I couldn’t find it. He said that he’d made that one up for me.” 

The work showcases romantic and modern influences and now ranks among Brouwer’s most frequently performed and recorded works. Isbin first recorded it on her 1990 album Road to the Sun and revisited it on 2020’s Affinity. “When I premiered it, I got the sense that this piece would be momentous,” she says. “It was the first of a new direction in Leo’s style. He had for the moment abandoned some of the more avant-garde techniques heard in ‘La Espiral Eterna’ [1971] and other works and returned to more tonal ideas. This piece is programmatic—something that fires your imagination. Having the stories as background gives it a sense of color and depth and the Afro-Cuban elements are strong. There is call and response, which is characteristic of African drumming and dance as a conversation between the musicians. That appealed to people and has made it an iconic work.”


El Maestro

Musicologists identify three style periods in Brouwer’s composing career. The first, 1956–1964, is characterized by thematic material and rhythms inspired by Afro-Cuban ritual music blended with 20th Century harmonies yielding music that is distinctive and fairly tonal. During his second period, 1968–1979, Brouwer was heavily influenced by the European avant-garde movement and produced such titles as “Tarantos,” “Parabola,” and “Canticum.” The output in his third period, 1980 to the present, marks a blending of tonal practices, Afro-Cuban materials, and some avant-garde elements.

Eliot Fisk has been a friend and colleague of Brouwer’s for decades. “He is remarkable in his approach to music and life,” Fisk states with enthusiasm. “He’s just as curious about life now as when I met him in 1975. He has written an enormous amount of music and used a variety of forms, musical languages, and approaches. I recently played 12 of his early Estudios Sencillos. A lot the DNA of his music is in those brief pieces. You could take any one of them and make a big sonata from it because there are so many ideas.”

Leo Brouwer conducting
Leo Brouwer conducting. Photo by Gabriel Guerra Biancini

Brouwer takes abstract inspiration from geometric design, painting, literature, film, and other extramusical forms. He employs small musical components in constructing a piece. Much of his music features short, angular melodic cells. One notable exception is the melancholic “Un Dia de Noviembre (“A Day in November”), the main theme from the 1972 movie of the same name by Cuban director Humberto Solás. It was an ensemble piece in the soundtrack, but Brouwer’s later solo guitar arrangement has been embraced widely by two generations of international players.

Personally, I don’t care if melodies as such are ‘pretty’ or if they are the main feature in the compositional architecture. Melody is just another element.

—Leo Brouwer

In a series of emails and voice recordings sent from his home in Cuba, Brouwer detailed his thoughts on melody. “In earlier centuries, melody was one of the most important parts of the structure in music,” he said. “But starting in the 20th century, melody became just one more element among the four or five that constitute a musical creation. Personally, I don’t care if melodies as such are ‘pretty’ or if they are the main feature in the compositional architecture. Melody is just another element. It can be a conductive line, bass line, pedal point, or the accompaniment. It can reemerge with variations. In the 20th century, many composers—renowned ones among them—still conceived the division between melody, accompaniment, harmony, rhythm, etc.” Brouwer says his methods include employing the rhythm as the melody, the melody as the rhythm, or even accompaniment as a main feature. “In my opinion, the extrapolation of compositional components and the metamorphosis or transformation of one into another is a supreme exercise in creativity.”

Brouwer acknowledges that he never uses the guitar or any instrument when composing. “He doesn’t want to be seduced by the instrument,” Fisk suggests. “What he writes is always enjoyable to play on the guitar; he doesn’t ask the instrument to do what it doesn’t want to do. Somehow, he always finds a way to throw you an open string when you need it. That’s not to say some of his music isn’t hard to play, but it always teaches you something about the instrument. He invents new sounds for it all the time. No one has penetrated more deeply into the mystery of the guitar than Leo. He is a unique character in the history of our instrument and has created a huge, high-quality catalog. We’re lucky to have him.”


Irrepressible, Unsinkable 

Fisk relates that in addition to professional triumphs, Brouwer has also experienced major hardships. “Without getting into specifics, I know that he has overcome some very serious health challenges over the years,” says Fisk. “But he is irrepressible and has never been sunk by storms that would have put someone else out of commission. It’s a remarkable character trait.” 

At 82, Brouwer is currently working through a stack of commissions for new pieces of various types. One commission is a set of preludes for Zaira Meneses. She first met Brouwer when she was 15, visiting relatives in Cuba, and has kindled a deeper friendship with him in recent years. She performed his Concierto Elegiaco with the maestro himself conducting at the 2018 Boston GuitarFest. Afterwards, he offered to compose something for her. “I didn’t want to be presumptuous and ask him to write for me, so it was great when the idea came from him,” she says. “He sent me ‘Preludio Elegiaco,’ which is about two and a half minutes long. It hints at a theme from the concerto and comes from the experience we had onstage performing it. He wrote it in about two weeks. As soon as I started reading through it, I emailed to tell him I wanted more.”

Zaira Meneses performing Brouwer’s Concierto Elegiaco with the maestro himself conducting at the 2018 Boston GuitarFest

Brouwer is currently completing five additional movements for a set that will be titled Preludios Elegiacos. Meneses is planning a recording that will include the new work and Brouwer’s popular six Preludios Epigrámticos. Meneses and Fisk observed Brouwer’s extreme focus during his visits to Boston. “He is serious about his work,” Meneses comments. “When he was at our home, he would write for eight hours straight at our dining room table without taking a break.”

Brouwer’s current efforts involve revising older works in addition to composing new ones. Recently completed works include a cycle of guitar pieces: Motivos de Son, inspired by the texts of Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. Another project, for harp—Fables of the Black Decameron—is dedicated to Taiwanese harpist Nöel Wan. Juego de Manos is for viola da gamba player Roland Martin; Sonata de Primavera No. 2 for flute is dedicated to Niurka González; Sonata No. 2 is for cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason; and Perpetuum Mobile for clarinetist Osiris Molina and guitarist René Izquierdo. Additional items include music for the Australian quartet Guitar Trek and the Newman & Oltman Duo, who put out an entire album of Brouwer’s works, called The Book of Imaginary Beings: The Music of Leo Brouwer for Two Guitars, in 2020. Brouwer is also revising some orchestral works and updating editions for his publishing house Ediciones Espiral Eterna.


“To me, composing is a game of marbles,” Brouwer says. “I’m not seeking to write the greatest symphony of the 21st Century, or something along those lines. I want to entertain myself by playing with the highs, the intensity, the silences, the sonorous explosions, the nuances, the whispers, a great number of experiences of that kind. I try to write my reflections on life, nature, and art in general. I am happy with what I do and I will continue.”

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Mark Small
Mark Small

Mark Small is a New England-based classical guitarist, composer, and music journalist.

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