"I wanted to come face to face with a master: I recognised him as such." (Hélène Grimaud)
  1914-1990

The legendary Cuban American pianist Jorge Bolet

Click here to1914-1990  "I wanted to come face to face with a master: I recognised him as such." (Hélène Grimaud) 

Picture (by Eduardo Manchon) of the Calle San Lazaro, in which street the Bolets lived in 1926.

El Cerro, district of Havana

The area dates from 1803 when two property owners José Maria Rodríguez and Francisco Betancourt established residence. Cerro was chosen by wealthy families of the capital as a place to spend the summer. In 1843 there existed five large vacation residences, with 23 others notable for their sumptuousness.    A rare example of urban planning, the nineteenth century Calzada del Cerro in Havana, Cuba, is a sinuous colonnaded street that stretches more than three kilometres from Old Havana to the barrio of El Cerro, a one-time summer retreat for Havana's Creole aristocracy. Well into the 1920s, the elite built classical-styled mansions along the thoroughfare, each more Italianate than the next.   In the 1930s the area began to fall into decline.

Hubert de Blanck

Hubert de Blanck (Hubertus Christiaan de Blanck) born 14 June 1856, Utrecht, the Netherlands, died 28 November 1932 in Havana, buried in the Cementerio de Cristobal Colon.  He lived most of his life in Cuba.  He studied with Ferdinand Hilelr in Cologne and 1873 moved to the imperial city of St Petersburg in Russian where he made his formal debut as a concert pianist aged 17.  He landed in Rio de Janeiro in  April,1880, with the violinist Dengremont and was recieved at the court of Emperor Pedro II of Brazil.  On 24 December 1881 in New York, he married Anna Maria Garcia-Menocal (a  cousin of the future president of Cuba, General Mario Menocal).   He spent the Christmas vacation of December 1882 in Havana and in 1883 moved there, settling in a large house located at Calzada Real de Puentes Grandes, No. 130 in a neighbourhood called La Ceiba.   Fully ensconced in Cuba's musical community, he began contemplating Havana's lack of a conservatory of music .- which was founded in October 1885, at Calle del Prado, No. 100 (the building no longer exists).   Ernesto Lecuona y Casado 1895-1963 was one of the first students.   At the end of 1890 in the Centro Canario in Havana, de Blanck gave two piano recitals, the first time that such events had been given in Cuba.  on 6 Septmeber 1896 he was deported from Cuba for being involved with revolutionaries , leaving by steamer for New York.   In December 1898, after the Cuban War of Independence had ended, he returned with his family to Havana.  See further this website in Dutch & English.
Alec Guinness being offered a poisoned daquiri in Our Man in Havana.

Amelia Solberg, patron

Amelia married an American named Hoskinson.   She had ‘a very beautiful old townhouse in the older part of Havana, and once a month she held a real typical nineteenth-century salon... Now I don’t remember who exactly took me there, but I think I must have been ten years old the first time I was invited.   I do remember that Ernesto Lecuona...was one of the regular visitors.   ...I don’t exactly remember my choice of work, but from my limited repertoire I would surmise a Chopin etude or waltz, or maybe a Beethoven sonata.    [A]t one of these salons, a Mrs Campbell [Amelia’s sister-in-law] from Erie, Pennsylvania, took special notice of my work.    When she returned to Erie, she sent Amelia a newspaper clipping touting the Curtis... founded two years before in 1925 [1924 ed.] by Mary Louise Curtis Bok and endowed with twelve and one-half million dollars.  the article went on to say that Josef Hofmann was the director.   Amelia wrote the Curtis Institute and received a catalogue and an audition blank and called my mother and told her that ‘Jorge is going to Philadelphia for an audition.’  Elyse Mach interview.

Ernesto Lecuona

The composer and pianist Ernesto Lecuona was one of the most important musicians from Cuba.  He had an international career that extended to the United States, Canada, Spain, France and all of Latin and Central America. Admired by and friendly with musicians such as Ravel and Gershwin, he was at home performing at Carnegie Hall one evening, and opposite Sid Caeser and Ed Sullivan at the Roxy Theater in New York City two nights later.

Ernesto Lecuona y Casado was born in Guanabacoa Cuba on Cereria Street (today Estrada Palma). Although his birth certificate and Cuban passport have 6th August 1895 for his date of birth, Lecuona always celebrated it as 7th August 1896.

 

Beginning piano studies with his sister Ernestina he gave his first recital at the age of five. He continued his studies with Rafael Carreras Antonio Saaverda and Joaquin Nin, and graduated from the Conservatorio Nacional Hubert de Blanck in Havana with a gold medal at the age of seventeen.

 

Mientras yo comía maullaba un gato.

Lecuona was dining at the home of Amelia Solberg de Hoskinson  when a cat on a nearby platform began miaowing at him and the table guests incessantly disturbing everyone. Not to lose the moment, Lecuona later that evening improvised this danza at the piano, imitating the event.   It is full of puttering cat walks, miaowing and mischievous cat paw gestures. [Thomas Tirino 1996]

 

In September 1925 at the request of Lecuona, a foundation called Antiguos Alumnos de Blanck was created.   It was initially chaired by Amelia Solberg de Hoskinson and held its inaugural concert on 24 March 1926 at the Sala Espadero

Havana in Jorge's early years

Havana in the 1920s was a lively international city with a tradition of opera and concert going but with little to offer other than the standard repertory.    Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical and others ‘pandered to the tastes of Havana’s ruling classes’ by programming popular classics from Bach to Wagner, together with virtuoso concertos by Heifetz, Casals, Arrau and the young Jorge Bolet.  

 

The Orquesta Sinfonica de la Habana was founded in 1922 by Gonzalo Roig and Ernesto Lecuona with the support of  the great cellist Pablo Casals.   The inaugural concert was in the Teatro  Nacional, 29 October 1922:  Weber, Oberon overture, Saint-Saens, Piano Concerto No. 2 (Ernesto Lecuona was the soloist).  

 

The writer Alejo Carpentier despaired of the city’s entrenched conservatism.   In opera, singers ‘were being observed with the same anxious expectations circus acrobats’.    (Revista Musical Chilena, December 1947]

 

The Filármonica, founded by conductor Antonio Mompó and pianist-composer César Pérez Sentenat in 1924, performed more innovative repertoire.   The composer Roldán directed from 1932.   One of his pieces, Obertura sobre temas populares cubanas [1925] was very popular.

 

Gerardo Machado was the president, 1924-1933.   His rule became increasingly oppressive as the economic crisis on the 1920s deepened.  He was deposed in the revolution of 1933, only to be replaced (after a short provisional presidency of Cuban academic, Dr Ramón Grau San Martín) by US supported military populist Fulgencio Batista.   Out of the repressive frying pan into the despotic fire that was, for some, only quenched by Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution in 1959.

 

Caroline Rae  ‘In Havana and Paris: The Musical Activities of Alejo Carpentier’, Volume 89/3, August 2008.  See also programmes: Maruja Sánchez, Filármonica Memoria 1924-1959 (Havana, 1979)

 

Early years in Cuba

Cuba is the largest island in the Antilles archipelago; between 1500 and 1515 an expedition of about 300 men, headed by Diego Velasquez de Cuéllar, searched the island for mineral wealth.   The full name of the capital is San Cristóbal de la Habana.   There is some doubt about the etymology of the name.   There is a Spanish word Sabana (savanna or prairie).   Still others contend that western Cuba was ruled by an indigenous cacique, Habaguanex.   It was founded in November 16, 1519.   Poets have praised its luminous aura and diaphanous sky, in particular José Lezama Lima, Alejo Carpentier and Italo Calvino.

Havana

Jorge Leopoldo Bolet Tremoleda was born in Havana on 15 November 1914.   He was the son of Antonio Bolet Valdez and Adelina Tremoleda de la Paz.  Both parents were of Catalan descent, and neither was a musician.  His mother Adelina [born 1884 in Carballo, Cuba] was an only child but his father was one of 8 brothers and sisters, none of whom was musical.   Antonio was a Lieutenant in the Cuban army.   "Bolet was born ... in Havana into genteel poverty, the fifth of six children of a disabled Cuban Army veteran and his once upper-middle class bride. In their reduced circumstances, Jorge’s mother, and to varying degrees her children including Jorge, became evangelical Presbyterians." (Francis Crociata)

 

Jorge was the fifth out of six children.  He had two sisters, Maria Josefa (1904-1991) and Hortensia [1906] and three brothers, Joaquin Antonio/Nico [1902-1982 born in Caraballo],  Alberto (1905-1999), Guillermo [1919-2013].   Maria had studied piano with Alberto Falcon (graduate of the Paris Conservatoire; he had a conservatory in Havana).   She never touched the piano again after Jorge entered Curtis in 1927 – she was destined for other things.   She attended one of the many evangelical Christian schools that proliferated in the pre-Castro era.   Eventually traveling to the U. S., she studied at Philadelphia School of the Bible – at the same time as Jorge was at Curtis -  and then became a missionary in Spain, going there first in 1933, ‘armed with a Bible and flannelgraph’ to teach the word of God.  (She seems to have rented mission hall on Calle Villegas in the old part of Havana which eventually became the Church of the Nazarene.)

 

Alberto, who became a conductor, studied music (violin) at conservatories in Madrid and Paris from 1922 to 1926.   He had previously studied at the Conservatorio Falcón 1913-1918, violin with Casimiro Zertuche 1917-1921 and Fermín Touche 1923-25, composition with Silvain Noack 1930-33.   

Childhood

JB was born on 15 November 1914 in El Cerro (according to his application form for the Curtis Institute), one of the 15 municipalities in the city of Havana.   As a historical note, on 15 November 1533 the Spanish arrived in Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire, followed by Francisco Pizarro in March 1534.    An ominous, double-edged event.    (The Pro-Arte Musical, an important music society instrumental in helping young Jorge’s career, was founded in Havana in 1918.)

 

‘I am a very even-tempered person.   I have my mother’s temperament and character.’   His mother said that as a baby of 2 or 3 months he was unruly but when he heard Maria, his sister, play, he became quiet.    (John Gruen New York Times January 28, 1973) 


"I vowed I'd be that man up there on that stage."

It was in c.1919, as a five year old boy, that Jorge heard his first professional pianist, the Swiss-American Rudolf Ganz (1877-1972) at the National Theatre in Havana.    "Well, that was my moment of decision. I vowed I'd be that man up there on that stage."      Ganz intriguingly claimed direct descent from Charlemagne, (Charles the Great), king of the Franks and Christian emperor of the West who died in 814 AD after having done much to define the shape and character of medieval Europe and presiding over the Carolingian Renaissance.   (Interestingly both Bolet and Ganz both served on the jury of the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962.  One would love to have heard their conversation.)   Bolet "was attentive to concert artists performing in Cuba. The first major figure to have made a lasting impression was Wilhelm Backhaus." (Francis Crociata)


Jorge began piano lessons with sister Maria.  He says he was seven years old at the time,  in an interview in 1943.    He then had some lessons, briefly, with María Jones de Castro and Hubert de Blanck.    The Nuevo Herald Miami had a conversation with JB in New York City by telephone when he was en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico (14 December 1982).   In a baritone voice, 'con un accento mas iberico que antillano' (with an accent which was more peninsular Spanish than from the Antilles), he explained that in his youth in Cuba the violin was considered a boys' instrument (para varones) and the piano was for girls (las hembras),  yet he did not encounter any prejudice or opposition.  


Jorge's  primary education was in the Colegio Metodista Central (from 1926).   It was, in his own words, a normal education – ‘My childhood was like that of any other boy.   There were no picturesque or striking episodes’.    (‘Mi infancia fué la de cualquier otro muchacho.   No hay notas pintorescas ni estridentes’.)  (Interview with Arturo Ramirez 'Nuestra farandula' Carteles, October 3, 1943)

Caberet Montmatre

In 1925 Eliseo Grenet founded a jazz band which played in Havana’s Caberet Montmatre and the Jockey Club.   The line-up included Grenet on piano, Manolo Castro (alto sax),  José Ramón Betancourt (tenor sax) and apparently Jorge Bolet (piano sub): information from  Leonardo Acosta, Cubano be, cubano bop: one hundred years of jazz in Cuba, 2004 p.28.   At that time, Grenet had already made a number of recordings of Cuban music for the Brunswick label, with a group consisting of two violins, a flute, a clarinet, a tenor sax, a piano and a güiro.    A guide to Havana from 1956 describes the Montmartre thus: ‘Located at 23rd and P, and housed in a onetime indoor dog track, Montmartre is eminently successful in concealing its past beneath a lavish overlay of Gallic fittings and atmosphere.  It is the only major Havana club which is entirely indoors, and is conveniently located in Vedado, near the center of the city.   Expensive, and favorite with native Cubans as well as tourists.’


During the troubled 1950s, some of the most chilling of insurrectional acts ‘were those carried out in cabarets themselves. While infrequent, they received significant media attention and negatively affected all facets of entertainment. On October 28, 1956, for instance, members of the Directorio Revolucionario entered the cabaret Montmarte and killed colonel Blanco Rico, chief intelligence officer under Batista, as he attempted to leave the building.   Colonel Marcelo Tabernilla, son of Batista’s notoriously ruthless chief of staff, was also wounded along with his wife.  The event forced club manager Mario García to close down for a time and to take his entertainers on tour in South America.’   Robin Moore, Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba (2006).

Discovery

Aged 9/10 Jorge played in the old-fashioned salon in Havana of Mrs Amelia Hoskinson, a Cuban married to an American.   He says he played the Chopin Etudes "with considerable ease" (New York Times 28.1.73).   He also performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with the Havana Sinfonica under Gonzalo Roig in the Teatro  Nacional.    The programme included Valse Fantasia by Glinka and Les Preludes (Liszt).   Then Jorge (in the review he is called Alberto!), a talented 12 year old boy,  played Mozart's D minor concerto.   ‘His playing was so clear - his marvellous ability coupled with his boyish grace touched the heart of the audience.’  

 

Mrs Hoskinson was born in 1875 in Baltimore, Maryland.   Her husband was John Francis Hoskinson, from Erie, PA., who worked for the Tropical Engineering and Construction Company, an American corporation.   Their address was 95B San Lazaro (in November 1919 when she applied for a new passport).   

 

A house guest of Mrs Hoskinson from Erie, Pennsylvania contacted the Curtis Institute which had just opened (in 1924) and  Mrs Hoskinson financed a trip for the audition.   The house guest can be identified as Mrs Maud H Campbell, born in Philadelphia in 1867, sister-in-law to Amelia.  She lived in Erie, PA., at 441 W10th Street and was aged 60 at this time.   She returned to Havana to New York City on 31 March 1927/ 4 April 1927 on the ocean liner Veendam.

 

The address of the Bolet family at this time is San Lazaro 75, Havana, near the Malecon.   The address is given as Calle San Miguel 224, when JB sails to Florida in Septmeber 1927: this is in the heart of El Cerro which is listed on JB's Curtis application form.

Farewell concert, 4 September 1927

(Programme received by Curtis, 1 Sept, 1927)   Gran Teatro Nacional, Havana, Sunday 4 September at 10am.   ‘A concert for the benefit of the young Jorge Bolet so that with the receipts he can go to complete his piano studies in the US.'

Various artists performed in the first half.   Srta. Consuelo Miro sang a Cuban song, there was a recitation by Srta. Dalia Iniguez, the Dance of the Hours was performed on 2 pianos/8 hands.   In the second half Jorge played various items:  a Prelude (Bach/de Blanck), a study by Henselt, Impromptus by Chopin, a Waltz by Levitzki, "Nocturno" (which is probably Liszt's Liebestraum 3), the Allegro Appassionato by Saint-Saens, then the Konzertstück by Weber with the Havana Symphony under Gonzalo Roig.

La Habana in the 1930s

A little bit of Cuban history, 1924-1929

Cuba gained formal independence from the U.S. on May 20, 1902, as the Republic of Cuba.   Under Cuba's new constitution, the U.S. retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and to supervise its finances and foreign relations. Under the Platt Amendment, the U.S. leased the Guantánamo Bay naval base from Cuba.


Aurelio Mario Gabriel Francisco García Menocal y Deop (1866 – 1941) was 3rd President of Cuba from 1913 to 1921. His terms as president saw Cuba's participation in World War I.   It was November 1914 that Jorge Bolet was born.


Mario García Menocal was re-elected President in 1916, though the election was challenged by the liberals. In perhaps his most notable action, García Menocal authorized Cuba's declaration of war against the German Empire on April 7, 1917, entering World War I a day after the United States. This was believed by many to be an attempt to get the United States to give more support to his government. In December, war was also declared against Austria-Hungary.


Alfredo de Zayas y Alfonso (1861 – 1934) was the fourth President from May 20, 1921 to May 20, 1925.   He had been born in Havana into an aristocratic family with old sugar plantations.


Zayas was an intellectual, not a military leader, and during the 1895-1898 Cuban war of independence, he was arrested and sent to prison in the African possession of Ceuta. When deported (September 20, 1896), while in transit in Spain's Cárcel Modelo of Madrid, he wrote some of his best poetry, like "Al Caer la Nieve"  subsequently published in his Obras Completas.   Zayas was sometimes referred to as the "erudite civilian president", because unlike his predecessor and his successor he did not have experience in the field of battle.


Upon his return to Cuba after the Spanish–Cuban–American War (known in the U.S. as Spanish–American War), he became acting mayor of Havana.  A vocal leader of the opposition against U.S. annexation of Cuba, he voted against the Platt Amendment and against granting naval bases to the United States in Guantánamo and Bahia Honda.


Zayas became president in 1921. He served only one term, during which he started the process to give the vote to Cuban women (resolution in the Senate, 1921).


Although his administration was systematically defamed by the opposition as corrupt, it actually was less corrupt that preceding and subsequent administrations.   This brought him the nickname "el Chino" (the Chinaman), because of his stoicism ("la flema de Zayas") and his "oriental patience".  When he took office in 1921, the country was in bankruptcy, with debts exceeding US$40 million, and sugar prices plummeting from 22 cents to 3 cents per pound. In spite of this, he carried out a number of reforms, particularly in the field of education.


Gerardo Machado y Morales, born 1871, was the youngest Cuban general in the war of independence that ended with U.S. occupation (in 1898) when he was 27. During the occupation he served as Mayor of Santa Clara, where he was born.  Shortly after taking office as Mayor in 1899, a mysterious fire burned the records of his criminal past, hiding from the Americans the fact that prior to the war of independence, Machado and his father were cattle robbers.


(On 15 October, 1923, Italo Calvino, Italian novelist [If on a winter's night a traveller;  Invisible Cities], was born in Cuba.)


In 1924 Machado ran for president and defeated Mario G. Menocal of the Conservative Party to become Cuba's 5th president.  As a businessman/candidate, Machado tapped into the resurgent nationalism of the time.   Wilfredo Fernandez, leader of the Conservative Party, said in December 1925 that Machado's programs were so "full of patriotism" that to oppose them is "unpatriotic”. 


But the general economic situation was not good for Cuba in the late 1920s, and Machado's attitude towards opposing points of view was arrogant and dictatorial.   He was described by a student activist Mella as 'the tropical Mussolini'.  He built the vast Captiolio building, modeled on Washington's eponym.   To thousands of US citizens who flocked to Cuba during the era of Prohibition, the island and its rum were enchanting and they knew little of the politics.


An embryonic Communist Party was formed in August 1925 by socialists attracted by the Russian Revolution.   Some of the more prominent Cuban Communists were Jews from eastern Europe - a fresh input into Cuba's ethnic mix - some of whom still found it easier to speak Yiddish rather than Spanish.


On 28 October,1927 Pan Am Airways launched the first scheduled international flight. Pan Am was founded in this year as a mail carrier to Havana by Juan Terry Trippe.   In 1928, a Chinese community newspaper was founded in Havana’s Chinatown.


In April 1928, dissension grew from university students against Machado's "dictatorial tendencies”. He had earlier orchestrated the amending of the constitution to permit a 6-year term, and in November 1928 he won a second term, unopposed.

The Teatro Nacional where young Jorge heard Rudolf Ganz

Claudio Arrau

It is instructive to compare the early years of Bolet with another great pianist from Latin America.  Claudio (Chinito) Arrau León was born at midnight between the 6th and the 7th of February 1903 in Chillán (Ñuble, Chile).

 

He gave his very first piano recital at the still under construction Municipal Theatre of Chillán on Saturday 19th September 1908  at 9:30 pm (sic), as a 5-year-old child prodigy using pedal extensions specially made for him.  The performance seems to have  included: one of Beethoven's sets of Variations (on Nel cor più non mi sento), a Mozart Sonata {K545?], Schumann's Kinderszenen, and L. Streabbog's Louis XIII Air Op.115 (as reported in an article in El Comercio newspaper of Chillán, Tuesday 22nd September 1908).

In 1909 his mother, Doña Lucrecia León Bravo-de-Villalba (1859-1959), decided to move temporarily to the capital Santiago and settled at Calle Dieciocho.   After listening to the young boy playing at his presidential residence, the then President of Chile, Mr Pedro Montt, entertained the idea of Claudio Arrau studying overseas.  The President expressed his admiration for the child in a written dedication, dated 30 September 1909, accompanying a book on famous musicians [Los nacionalistas musicales (?)], given as a present.  The dedication read:

"To Claudio Arrau as a token of the loving admiration with which I have heard him playing the piano at the age of six years.  In Santiago, on the 30th day of September of 1909.  Pedro Montt ".

Influential Chilean musician Enrique Soro Barriga was reported to have stated after the recital that he had just heard a genius playing; he wrote an article entitled ‘The Chilean Mozart’.   [Newspaper El Comercio, Chillán, 16 October 1909; Selecta magazine of Santiago in November 1909 (Year 1, No.8, pages 275 & 276).]

In 1909-10, Claudio undertook private tutoring with distinguished Italian music teacher Bindo Paoli  from the Santiago Conservatory.  In 1910 he gave a piano recital at the La Moneda Presidential Palace in Santiago on 4th June, at the age of 7, before an audience including President Pedro Montt and a number of ministers, diplomats, and artists.  The recital included works by Bach, Grieg, Mozart, and Carl Reinecke.  

In February of the same year, 1910, he received a Scholarship from the Chilean Parliament to undertake studies in Santiago with Professor Paoli.  In November, the privilege was extended to pursuing studies in Berlin, at the time held as the artistic capital of the world.  [The Scholarship was subsequently debated and renewed in Parliament, until discontinued in 1921]

 

Claudio’s farewell recital in Chillán on 7th May 1911, aged 8, with a program comprising:

Chopin:  Étude No.3
Schumann:  Andante and Variations (for two pianos)
Mozart:  Fantasie in D minor
Moszkowski:  Danse Espagnole (for four hands)
Chopin:  Rondo (for two pianos)
Beethoven:  Variations on a Theme
Raff, Joachim:  Tarantelle (for four hands)
Duvernoy, J.B.:  Feu roulant Op.256 (for two pianos)

 

In the middle of 1911 he departed for Germany, from the port of Valparaíso, on board the German cargo-and-passenger ship Titania, accompanied by his mother (aged 55) and siblings Carlos (18) and Lucrecia (14), for a 4-week journey across the Atlantic.  At age 8, on his way to Germany, he gave his first piano recital in Buenos Aires, before an astonished audience, especially invited to the Chilean Embassy for the occasion, which included a music critic for La Nación newspaper.

During 1911-12 he was a short-term pupil of Waldemar Lütschg and, subsequently, of Paul Schramm in Berlin.   But in 1913, introduced by Chilean pianist Rosita Renard, who was already making a promising career in Europe, Arrau became a pupil of the legendary Martin Krause (Leipzig 1853-Berlin 1918), himself a former pupil of Franz Liszt, at the Julius Stern Conservatory of Berlin.    After listening to the child playing, Krause is reported to have said: ‘This boy shall be my masterwork!’

 

At the age of 11 (1913), he began studying Franz Liszt's 12 Études d'exécution transcendante at the under Krause: Mazeppa, Feux follets, Eroica.  [See further at www.arrauhouse.org]