Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews


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Esteban Salas 

Salas CD coverOne of the most unusual references to Neapolitan music that I have ever come across was in a  music catalog; there was a short blurb for a CD of music by Esteban Salas, "a composer of the Cuban-Neapolitan Baroque". That, of course, piqued my interest. Who could have ever imagined such a thing as a Cuban-Neapolitan Baroque connection? (Actually, with a bit of reflection, it isn't at all bizarre: Cuba and Naples were both part of the same Spanish Empire.) I sent away for the item and am very happy that I did so. It is called Esteban Salas, Cuban Baroque Music of the XVIII Century and is a recording from 1995, a collection of the composer's Christmas carols performed by the Exaudi Choir of Cuba. The music is beautiful—so delightful and effortlessly innocent that it just seems to sing itself. It is one of the unfortunate quirks of history that Salas is obscure today. 

Esteban Salas y Castro was born in Havana on Christmas Day in 1725 and died in Santiago de Cuba in 1803. He parents were natives of the Canary Islands and, thus, musicologists list Salas as one of the first important native composers of the New World. He started the study of music at age 11 and by the end of his long career had composed hundreds of liturgical pieces. He also taught philosophy and theology. 

The Neapolitan connection, mentioned above, comes from the fact that Cuba—the "Pearl Beyond the Sea"—and the Kingdom of Naples were both part of the Spanish Empire. The Spanish ruled Naples as a vice realm from 1500 to 1700 and are responsible for establishing the important music conservatories in Naples in the mid-1500s. It is logical that the Spanish exported their culture to the rest of the empire, as well—a music school in Havana, for example. (Now that I pursue this line of thought, perhaps they established such schools even in the Philippines. That is something I shall have to find out). 

This, then, from the liner notes of the CD:

…We know nothing of his masters, nor how he acquired all the refinements of his art. It is possible that a certain Cayetano Pagueras of Barcelona, a seafarer but also a good musician and singer, had passed on to Salas the astonishing technique apparent throughout his compositions. In 1750 he had sailed from Spain to Cuba…He may have furnished Salas with scores…accessible to musicians in Spain at that period: those by Porpora, Paisiello, Alessandro Scarlatti and other 18th century Neapolitan masters (for Naples then belonged to Spain), notably those by Francesco Durante, the harmonies and styles of which are present in those of Salas…

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