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10 More Composers With Latin American Roots You Should Know

Ángela Peralta (1845–1883)

From the time she sang a cavatina from Donizetti’s Belisario at the age of eight, Ángela Peralta’s destiny as a great soprano was sealed. Born in Mazatlán, Mexico, she made her debut in Verdi’s Il trovatore at the Teatro Nacional in Mexico City at just fifteen years old, soon giving her first international performance at La Scala in Lucia de Lammermoor. Her career brought her around the world to opera houses in Rome, Florence, New York, Havana, Lisbon, Madrid, St. Petersburg, Alexandria, Cairo, and Turin where she performed before King Victor Emmanuel II. Peralta established her own opera company in Mexico City in 1871. While on tour in her hometown of Mazatlán, she passed away at just 38 in an epidemic of Yellow Fever. Her compositions, particularly her art songs, are finally receiving more attention. Listen to “Io t’amaro”:

 

María Grever (1885–1951)

María Joaquina de la Portilla Torres was born in León, Guanajuato, Mexico in 1885 to a Spanish father and Mexican mother. Her family soon moved from Mexico City to Sevilla, her father’s hometown, when she was six. She studied music in France under notable teachers including Claude Debussy. She married American oil magnate Leo Grever at 22, moving permanently to the United States in 1916. Over the course of her lifetime, Grever wrote over 1000 songs of which the majority were boleros, a genre that emerged in Cuba in the late 19th century and featured sentimental lyrics and complex rhythmic patterns. Her most popular song, “What a Difference a Day Makes” (originally titled “Cuando vuelva a tu lado”), topped the charts when it was sung by jazz great Dinah Washington in 1959. Grever received a posthumous Grammy award for the song.

Dinah Washington performs “What a Difference a Day Makes” in a 1960 TV appearance, hosted by Ronald Reagan when he was still an actor and announcer.

 

José Moncayo (1912–1958)

José Moncayo was born in Guadalajara in 1912 and studied harmony, composition, and piano at the Mexico City Conservatory. He later studied under Copland in 1942. He began his career as a percussionist at the Mexican Symphony Orchestra (now the National Symphony Orchestra), eventually serving as its conductor. In 1934, he and three of his Conservatory classmates—Daniel Ayala, Salvador Contreras, and Blas Galindo—formed the Group of Four to promote Mexican nationalist music. Much of his music incorporates Mexican folk melodies and dances. One of his most famous pieces, Huapango, borrows from the folkdances el siquisiriíel balajú and el gavilán. The word “huapango” probably derives from a Nahuatl word “cuauhpanco” meaning “on top of the wood,” in reference to a wooden platform upon which dancers performed. Listen to Huapango:


Gustavo Dudamel leads a performance of Huapango by the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar at the BBC Proms

 

Ernestina Lecuona (1882–1951)


Cuban pianist and composer Ernestina Lecuona was born into a musical family. Her brother was composer Ernesto Lecuona. Following training at the Academia del Centro Asturiano in Havana and the Paris Conservatoire, she performed across Latin America and abroad, often giving concerts with singer Esther Borja and performing piano duets with her brother. In 1937, she founded a women’s orchestra in Cuba. She composed mainly small-scale works including songs, hymns, waltzes, and various dances. Listen to “Noches de amor” (Nights of Love):

 

María Luisa Escobar (1903–1985)

María Luisa Escobar in 1922
Venezuelan composer María Luisa Escobar began studying piano at age 5 and soon moved to Curaçoa to study piano, violin, and composition. She continued her studies in Paris under Jean Roger-Ducasse, Arthur Honegger and Charles Koechlin. Two years later, she returned to Venezuela and continued composing songs and larger-scale works for the theater and concert hall. Orquídeas Azules (Blue Orchids), her first lyrical play, was a resounding success when it premiered at the Municipal Theater of Caracas in 1941. Listen to her song “Desesperanza”:

 

Consuelo Velázquez (1916–2005)

Consuelo Velázquez
Hailing from Ciudad Guzmán, Mexico, Consuelo Velázquez began her career with the intention of becoming a concert pianist after graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Música in Mexico City. As it turned out, she was hired by the Mexican radio station XEQ and started a dance band. Her song Bésame mucho (1941) became a smash hit when it was covered by Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra in 1944. It was also popular among American servicemen deployed overseas in World War II. Her Qué seas feliz (1956) was another of her great hits, and was covered by the likes of Nat King Cole and Percy Faith. Over the course of her lifetime, she published over 45 songs.


The Alfredo Rodrigues Trio performs “Bésame mucho” live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2018

 

Irma Urteaga (b. 1929)
Argentinian composer and pianist Irma Urteaga continues to inspire audiences with her innovative harmonies and intricate rhythms. In her early works, she was influenced by Prokofiev, Bartók, Berg, and Penderecki, eventually developing a style that blends avant-garde harmony with the neo-Romantic. A significant portion of her compositions consists of art songs. Listen to her “Canción de cuna para mi corazón solitario” (Lullaby for My Lonely Heart):

 

Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016)

Photo of Pauline Oliveros by Pinar Temiz

Born in Houston, Pauline Oliveros was a key innovator in electronic and experimental composition, designing her own system of tape loops, delays, and reverbs for live effects processing. Proficient on the accordion, piano, violin, tuba, and French horn, Oliveros soon gravitated toward electronic music. In the 1960s, she was a founding member and later the director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which eventually moved to Mills College. In 1967, she joined the composition faculty at UC San Diego, where she taught until 1981, subsequently settling in upstate New York. She coined the term “deep listening” to describe a radical attentiveness that treated listening and music-making as an immersive, meditative experience. In 1988, she co-founded the Deep Listening Band with Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis (Peter Ward), performing in resonant spaces such as underground cisterns, caves, and cathedrals. Today, the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer carries on her legacy.


100 Amateurs gather to sing Oliveros’ “Tuning Meditation” at the Met Cloisters

 

Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972)

Gabriela Lena Frank considers her multicultural identity to be a fundamental part of her music. Born in Berkeley in 1972, she is of Peruvian Chinese and Lithuanian Jewish descent. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rice University and received her a doctorate in composition at the University of Michigan. In 2009, she received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship and a Latin Grammy award for her Inca Dances (2008) and is now composer-in-residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra. In her music, Frank often uses South American instruments such as the Peruvian pan flute or charango guitar alongside Western instruments. Frank’s compositions have been commissioned and performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Kronos Quartet, pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Chanticleer, the Chiara String Quartet, and the Brentano Quartet, among others. Listen to “Lamento del Panaca” from her Inca Dances:

 

Mari Esabel Valverde (b. 1986)

Mari Esabel Valverde is a Mexican-American transgender composer and vocalist known for her ethereal choral works. She studied at St. Olaf College, the European American Musical Alliance in Paris, France, and San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has received prestigious commissions from the American Choral Directors Association and the Boston Choral Ensemble, among others. Listen to “Before Spring,” a haunting work for tenor chorus:

 

Written by:
Holly Chung, Ph.D.
Holly Chung, Ph.D.
Published on 10.05.2023