From the Archive: Leo Brouwer in Conversation with Gareth Walters (1984)

classical guitarist leo brouwer in 1984


Regarded throughout the world as one of the truly outstanding composer/guitarists, Leo Brouwer first studied the instrument with Isaac Nicola, a pupil of Emilio Pujol. He turned to composition, completing his studies at The Juilliard School and in the Music Department of Hartford University. He was the first Cuban composer to use aleatoric forms, and has written extensively for instruments other than the guitar, including a number of orchestral works. He is also a talented conductor, and has conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Scottish National Orchestra, among others. He is the Director and Chief Conductor of the Havana Symphony Orchestra, a rare distinction for a guitarist.

Gareth Waiters, composer and producer of the BBC’s Classical Guitar series, spoke to him during the Havana Guitar Festival in April.

classical guitarist leo brouwer

CLASSICAL GUITAR: Leo, can I just clear up one point first of all? How do you actually pronounce your name? I’ve heard it pronounced several ways, including the very articulated Italian and Hungarian version which carefully picks out every vowel—Bra-oo-werr—and ends on a trill How do you say it?

LEO BROUWER: As my grandfather pronounced it: Brow-er. The French, by the way, say Brewer!

The name sounds Dutch.

Yes, my grandfather was of Dutch origin, though he lived all his life in Cuba.

Do you know anything about him?

I think he was an adventurer. He was a scientific man—a biologist who later specialised as a veterinarian; then he worked with cells and micro-organisms. All his life was devoted to research.

And his wife was I believe from a musical family?

Yes, she was the sister of Ernesto Lecuona, who was famous in the light music field all over the world, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. La Comparse, Andalusia, and Malaguena were probably his best-known pieces.

So, music was already instilled into you?

Yes, but I was never tempted by the piano, and in fact I didn’t start making music until I was eleven or twelve. Then my mother died and I felt an enormous gap and loneliness. My father used to play the guitar by ear, and I loved the sound and its intimate relationship; so he suggested that I should try it, and within three months I was playing flamenco and popular pieces like Granados’ Dance No. 5, Jeux Interdits, Tarrega preludes and mazurkas, Choros by Villa-Lobos—all by ear, just like my father, who had an incredible facility. That was my first background.

Six months later I went to Isaac Nicola with my mind on flamenco and the—let’s call it superficial repertoire. But Nicola, who was my only teacher, played for me Milan, Narvaez, Sor, Tarrega, and Pujol as well as more contemporary things; and this—especially Milan and Narvaez (Guardame las vacas and so on)—had such an impact that only one evening in my life was enough for me to decide that, lovely as it was, flamenco could not for me compare with this other music.

classical guitar magazine september 1984
Classical Guitar magazine, September 1984

How old were you when you finished your studies with Nicola?

I studied with him for three years and gave my first concert when I was, I think, sixteen—that was in 1955.

And you never studied with any other guitarist after that?


Did you then turn to composition, or had you already started? 

I had already started to compose, with the crazy idea of filling the gaps in the repertoire; to compose the Boccherini we didn’t yet have, the Vivaldi we didn’t yet have, and the Beethoven we didn’t have! But at the very moment I began, some other crazy things came to my mind. I say crazy, but I should say self-criticism or a sense of dimension in culture.

I never realised that culture was so incredible, so magnificent; and so at the very moment that I began to put notes on paper I realised that this was pure rubbish compared with the enormous culture that the world was offering me. So I decided to listen to three pieces by three composers from each epoch and each country, to have a background at least. So I heard medieval, renaissance, baroque, rococo, classical, romantic, impressionistic and contemporary 20th century music—everything. And this was my real background.

And did you actually study composition here in Cuba?

No, I was self-taught. But I went for six months to the Juilliard School of Music, and then I started to teach a little.

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You came into contact with Milhaud, didn’t you?

Only briefly—in conference, where I also met people like Lukas Foss and Hindemith; but mainly Persichetti, who was my teacher, and later Isador Freed who was a famous teacher at Hartford.

Leo, you have composed in a large number of styles; you have a very wide canvas—

Because I started very early.

from the re-creation of early music up to the avant-garde.


Yes, but what happened was that I threw out all the garbage, exercises and so on, and really started in 1961/62. And for example the Prelude, Fugue, Piece without title, even Elogio de la danza and Tres Danzas Concertantes, Tres Apuntos and many other things, I just threw out! But a friend of mine had copies, so that’s why they are surviving today.

When you say you threw them out, do you mean that you actually physically destroyed them?

Yes. I felt they were just exercises and so just tore them into pieces.

So, we have a friend of yours to thank for Elogio de la danza and all those other pieces?

Yes, Jesus Ortega rescued them.

Well, it’s a good thing that he did! Leo, do you still pursue the avant-garde style of composition?

I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, and will try to explain briefly what I mean.

The so-called avant-garde was a necessity maybe ten or fifteen years ago, because language was too complicated and the heritage of Schonberg and the Vienna School was so strong that the entire world was influenced by this challenge to transform the language—the code of communication. But once this language is absorbed into you and you try to present it as a piece of art, you discover that after a certain period of time you need to create and to express in many, many other languages. It happened in all communication, I think. So, I presume in this very moment in the entire world there is a necessity for change into a kind of neo-romanticism, or into a non-structuralistic language.

In a way the Vienna School, the Schonberg tradition through the integral serialism by Boulez, Stockhausen and some other guys—John Cage, for example—was strong, but at the same time dangerous; and at this moment it is harmful sometimes; because I think in a lot of pieces I wrote—chamber music, orchestral music, as well as pieces that other composers wrote—it is becoming drier and drier as a way of communicating.

So, you believe that music should communicate as quickly as possible to the listener?

And directly… but not lowering the level of understanding and communication, and not becoming “commercial.”

In one of your fairly recent pieces—Per suonare a due—I have the impression that you are being a bit wicked at the expense of the avant-garde…

Absolutely. It’s a theatrical piece. Unfortunately, the publishers missed out some instructions in the score. At one point you have a fight with the other performer. He looks at you and then makes a noisy response, and you have to react.

You in fact quote the Eroica symphony, and also there’s a very funny section where one guitar plays a sort of study.

Yes, and he should be swaying in waltz-time!

Was that an original tune or were you quoting again?

Yes, it was an original piece.

When we recently broadcast it I mentioned these two sections in the presentation notes and said that you were taking a piece by Beethoven and a study-like piece of your own, and subjecting them both to shock treatment.

That’s absolutely it! Remind me to play you a tape some time of another piece that you may find interesting in the same way. It’s an orchestral work called “The tradition is broken but it’s a hard job.”

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I’ll certainly remind you of that! Can I ask you about your playing now, Leo? For the last two years or so this has been seriously curtailed, hasn’t it? Due, if I am correct, to trouble with the middle finger of your right hand.

Well, this is becoming dramatic and I have to solve it because I need to play. It’s a necessity for me to play and to communicate through the guitar.

The problem started when I contracted some allergy that was beginning to spoil my nail, and the sound of this infected nail was horrible; and I had some very important concerts. I remember the most important was one of a series in New York called “The Great Virtuosos,” including Segovia, Yepes, Lagoya, and me; and if I cancelled it would have been awful. So, what I did was to transpose all the actions and articulations of that finger on to the other three.

I played the concert and was very happy with the kind of results I was achieving, but then continued a very long tour of the States—about 30 concerts—then Canada, then Belgium and Holland—in fact you were in one of my concerts in Holland—and as a result of all this playing the finger was atrophied and the tendon damaged. It is still damaged and I cannot play perfectly, and so I have to reconstruct my hand.

And are you having treatment for this?


Well, let’s hope that things will soon improve. Can we talk about another side of your professional career now, Leo? Two years ago, you were appointed to the post of Director of the Havana Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor.

Yes. Mainly my work is to reconstruct what was a very good orchestra and to bring it out of the routine into a more vivid programme activity. The routine of a Sunday concert every week, with a different conductor, is stifling, and I am trying to change this. Recently, for the first time in the history of this orchestra, I did three international tours including concerts in Nicaragua and Mexico; and as a result of this we have three more international tours. To tell the truth, it was—it used to be—a first-class orchestra. But it declined and became a second-class orchestra, and now, little by little, I am working it toward that former standard, as you heard the other day.

Do you conduct them a lot?

Not a lot, but more than ten years ago; maybe as a means of compensating the catastrophic problem with the hand.

Well, it obviously provides you with an artistic outlet that has to some extent been denied you in recent years

Yes, that’s right.

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Are you still composing film scores?

Yes, I’ve recently done the score for a Cuban/Spanish production, and now I have another one from France.

So, you’re extremely busy.

Yes, but I love to create all the time, and it is a challenge also because films demand not only your own ideas, but your ideas related to history, so it is culturally very rich.

And now, apart from your Presidency of the Caribbean section of the UNESCO Music Committee you are also heavily involved with this Havana competition and Festival.

 Well, it’s really hard work, but the idea came from the young generation and I think it is good, because they are talented yet at the same time isolated. Not because of political relationships but geographically. Cuba is an island far away from our neighbours, so these young people need to compete with themselves and at the same time with the rest of the world in order to develop. At the same time it permits me to be with my friends from all over the world in my own surroundings, and this is very nice.

And for us too! I’d like to ask you something about the repertoire now, Leo. How do you yourself respond to the critics who complain of a lack of really substantial works for the guitar?

It’s an interesting point, and in a way it is true. The guitar today can sometimes become superficial or commercial. Substantial repertoire, when it becomes very familiar, often becomes commonplace. So, let us say Dowland and Elizabethan music, which is so marvellous, was so overplayed that it all became too much. The same is happening with Barrios; and this sort of boom is bound to occur. The same happened with symphonic music—with Mahler and Sibelius; and it could happen with Britten, though that may be less likely, because he has written so many kinds of repertoire—chamber music, songs, song-cycles, operas, everything.

But do you really feel that the criticism of a lack of substantial repertoire is a justified one?

No. I don’t think so, because if we consider this 400 years of repertoire including the early Renaissance, Dowland’s Fantasias, for example…

But they are lute pieces.

Yes, but they belong to us in the same way that Bach belongs to the keyboard. So, for example, you can hear Glenn Gould playing very personal, but full of genius, versions of Bach on the piano, and in the same way the guitar has inherited the lute and vihuela repertoire.

But we have two tendencies in the guitar. The “popular” tendency—the Spanish-flavoured pieces, for instance—and the serious, complex works such as Nocturnal, which are fewer but not so few as to justify the criticism of lack of repertoire. The point is that guitarists are perhaps becoming too commercial, trying to be virtuosos and to qualify as “popular” performers. And this is what is spoiling the repertoire, more than the repertoire itself.

But what about the 19th century? Would you agree or disagree with critics who say that the repertoire of that period is insubstantial?

I would disagree, because if that were so we would have to remove all Paganini from the violin repertoire, and a lot of Liszt from the piano repertoire. But this is such virtuoso music and so well written that it is not commonplace for that reason alone. It’s the same with Giuliani, or Mertz, or perhaps Gragnani, say. But the style of the 19th century—Wieniawski for the violin is another name that comes to mind—was virtuoso music. All the composers were doing the same sort of thing. When you think of Chopin’s first piano concertos, they are weak as structures—ten times weaker than Beethoven. But the solo pieces are marvellous.

You have to remember too that the guitarist was playing for a small intimate audience and trying to please them. Composers like Chopin played what they liked and were not always being nice for the audience.

That brings us to today’s guitarists. It is they who are uniquely responsible for bringing the guitar to a higher level, or to make it simply an extension of the commercial world of music.

And talking of the present, Leo, what are the hopes of our being able to entice you to England soon?

First of all, I have a debt to you in particular, who have invited me so many times to come to England. There have been many reasons why I have not managed to come, including the damage to this hand. But the first thing that I will do when I can is to have a professional deal with you, to go to England to play. In the meantime, perhaps I will come to conduct.

Happy 80th Birthday, Leo Brouwer!