Leo Brouwer at 80: The Maestro Reflects on his Career as a Composer, Arranger, and Conductor

leo brouwer portrait classical guitar julia crowe photo

In February 2018, the esteemed composer, guitarist, and conductor Leo Brouwer toured the New England Conservatory of Music’s Latin American Fest in Boston, the State University of New York at Fredonia, Harvard University, the SUNY College at Buffalo, and New York City’s Mannes School of Music, as part of a whirlwind tour of lectures and master classes. It was the Cuban artist’s first trip to the United States in 18 years, one that celebrated the approach of his 80th birthday in early 2019. Last year he was honored with a Latin Grammy award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for his Sonata del Decamerón Negro, as recorded by Spanish guitarist Mabel Millán, but he did not attend the ceremony.

Brouwer has earned near-legendary status as a contemporary composer for the body of well-loved composition work he has created for the guitar. He has imprinted his own voice and musical style upon the guitar with his fusion of traditional Cuban music, Afro-Cuban strains, and an avant-garde sensibility, all while conveying a thorough understanding of the instrument’s idiosyncrasies, idioms, and tonal beauty. Several generations of guitarists have now been brought up on his Etudes Simples as an introduction to his music, if they did not succumb first to the recorded lure of one of his pieces.


Brouwer started his formal composition studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, when he was in his early 20s. He has written an extensive number of solo, chamber, and orchestral works for the solo guitar; guitar duos; and guitar quartets, in addition to works for piano trios, string quartets, and film. In 2005 he established his own publication company, Ediciones Espiral Eterna, as a way to beautifully present and offer his scores, recordings, and original books, which are printed in Spanish. Managed by his wife, Isabelle Hernández, the site includes El Maestro’s final revision of each score and provides both printed and digital versions of his music.

“Frankly, I realized guitar was so beautiful that I studied other instruments and rewrote their music for the guitar,” Brouwer says during an interview in rainy New York, moments before he is to give a lecture at Mannes. “The most difficult instrument is the guitar. A good composer should know the technique of other instruments. The guitar is so beautiful that I do not want to say something rude with it. Who is ultimately the composer for the guitar? The composer himself? Or the guitar?”

Brouwer, who was born in Havana in 1939, comes from a family of musicians. His mother was a singer and multi-instrumentalist who played the saxophone, clarinet, piano, flute, percussion, and guitar, and performed on a radio program in Cuba. His father’s uncle was the famous pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote “La Malagueña,” originally from the sixth movement of his flamenco dance–style Suite Andalucia, whose melody quickly became adopted into popular music. And Brouwer’s second cousin, Margarita Lecuano, wrote the Afro-Cuban tune “Babalú,” which enjoyed worldwide fame through actor/bandleader Desi Arnaz’s performances on the popular I Love Lucy television show. Brouwer’s father, a cancer researcher, was a skilled amateur guitarist who played flamenco and some classical guitar music entirely by ear. But it must be noted that, in spite of his uncle and cousin’s renown and his own family’s talents, Brouwer himself was mostly self-motivated and musically self-educated from very early on in his career.

“From the age of five years old, I loved music,” Brouwer says. “I picked up on the piano’s resonance and I loved the aggression of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I was about 12 or 13 when I first saw the guitar, and I was self-taught. My one teacher, Isaac Nicola, whom I studied with for less than a year, trained with Emilio Pujol, who studied with Francisco Tárrega. Nicola’s great lesson was to introduce me to the Renaissance and Baroque music that he played. It was a revelation and became my favorite era of music, for its voicings.

“The contemporary sound inspires me most, musically,” he continues. “When I was a child, I was magnetized by the craftsmanship of Bartók, especially his string quartets, and the Stravinsky pieces Rite of Spring and Petrushka. A few years later, when I was almost in my 20s, I studied everything written by these composers. I prefer them to Beethoven, who is a genius. I studied Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas and his concertos. I conduct his concertos still, but my favorite composers when I was 12 years old were Bartók and Stravinsky.

“In addition to those two, my musical inspirations include Fibonacci’s Golden Mean and Charles Ives’ songs, which were crazy, not like the usual of their time,” he says. “I like the 2nd and 7th interval dissonance and the polyphony of the Renaissance. My godfather at Juilliard, a cellist named Leonard Rose, had me teach there and I learned the cello at home to be able to write my Sonata for cello. I was 21 years old at the time and used cello tuning on my guitar to write.” Many years later, in 2014, Brouwer dedicated a work to cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Carlos Prieto titled El arco y la lira, which premiered at the Leo Brouwer Festival in Havana.

At first it may seem contradictory that Brouwer finds inspiration in the orderliness of Fibonacci’s golden ratio, while at the same time he appreciates the more dissonant intervals. Fibonacci’s Golden Mean derives from Aristotelian mathematics and is a sequence and formula of ratios that defines a classical theory of beauty via symmetry, proportion, and harmony, in a way that can be applied for use in other disciplines, such as architecture, design, and music. The inference can be made that he uses the Golden Mean to find musical symmetry within the dissonant chords, just as the Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudí, who also studied Fibonacci’s ratios closely within elements of nature, used this building block as the key to creating his strikingly contemporary architecture.

“Composition is not calligraphy, but sound,” Brouwer states. “Notation ought not be confused with the actual creation of music. I compose ideas, not themes. I can change musical ideas but I cannot alter themes. Every piece should have a magical moment. This helps to breathe the music. It is not easy. If I have an idea, it immediately takes on ten possible directions. The older I become, I find it more difficult to compose because of the various possibilities and directions any one musical idea can take.”

In 1970, Brouwer played guitar in the premiere of El Cimarrón by Hans Werner Henze in Berlin and also served as guest composer at the Akademie der Künste/Berlin Academy of Arts.

“I was privileged to know many contemporary figures of music in the 20th century, when I was very young. I was 30 or 31 years old when I was invited to Berlin with composers John Cage, Sylvano Bussotti, Morton Feldman, Franco Donatoni, and Toru Takemitsu, my beloved friend. Cage was not available to be there at the event.”

Brouwer describes what became an episodic weekend adventure that could have easily been dubbed, “Like Chocolate for Music.” “Every Saturday we had a weekend together in Berlin. Morton Feldman was a gourmet so he was constantly taste-testing to see if the cook, Franco Donatoni, was any good.” Rather ironically, at least in comparison to his culinary approach, Feldman helped develop the school of indeterminate music, which believes some aspects of a musical work ought to be left open to chance or, at least, to an interpreter’s choice.

“Franco Donatoni had one rule, very superb, for cooking: No sauce is perfect until every flavor is equalized so you cannot distinguish the ingredients. This was fantastic,” Brouwer says. Interestingly, early on in his pursuit of avant-garde music, Donatoni speaks of his musical intention to eliminate the perception of ego and instead seek unity in a work of art that can no longer be equated with self-expression.


“Sylvano Bussotti was the barman,” Brouwer says. And, of course, Bussotti is well known for devising a musical notation that forgoes traditional staffs, clefs, and notes in favor of lurching doodles and spectacular ink-blots, comparable to a wine-stained napkin.

“I was the disc jockey, so I played records by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and The Wall by Pink Floyd,” Brouwer says gleefully. “The possibility of conversing with these great maestros of the 20th century, who were all in their 60s while I was in my 30s—this was very beautiful for me.”


Brouwer has written many arrangements over the course of his career, probably the most well-known being seven songs by the Beatles, to which he offered his own distinctive mark.

“The day that John Lennon was killed, everyone was touched deeply,” he says. “A Japanese boy who was in tears asked me to write something. So I composed seven small arrangements of Beatles songs. These have dozens of recordings. What I did was speak on the style in each song. I didn’t touch the songs themselves but I did touch everything else—the accompaniment, the style, everything. I arranged each one as an exorcism of style, dedicating one to Bartók, one to Hindemith, and so on. Each arrangement was done in séance style, dedicated to one particular composer.

“I also completed an orchestration for John Towner Williams called War of the Galaxies [based on Williams’ Star Wars music themes], which was supposed to be used in a series of films. But only one or two series aired. And so I kept it and conducted it several times, my own version, entitled Symphonic Suite Star Wars—not the one used for filming. I have many arrangements like this.

“I’ve also arranged music for my beloved friends, Piazzolla for example: his Adiós Nonino. I put it on a CD with him playing it and I also did the world premiere of his double concerto. Composing is my main work, after many other things. I don’t know which is my favorite arrangement! This is a difficult question.

“My music is always in evolution, and now what I do is put together my early period, some Rembrandts of Cuban folklore. My music and the avant-garde period in general for my colleagues was not offered in the proper way. The avant-garde music from the ’60s, our avant-garde music, has a great problem for history and for music.

“Tension and consonance was avoided by Pierre Boulez and many other colleagues,” Brouwer explains. “As Palestrina says, ‘If one voice is moving, the other is steady and vice-versa.’ The equilibrium of everything in life is binary—day/night, man/woman, yin/yang, black/white, and so forth. This was my theory since I was 13 years old. I always composed with this idea in mind. Maybe my music is creative, of course, because I am completely involved with the great generation of John Cage. The avant-garde music from 100 years ago sounds quite different, given today’s version and its loss of tension and rest.

“I am not doing any arrangements of others’ music at this moment because I do not have time enough for composing.”


Brouwer has held the position of General Manager of the Cuban National Symphony for the past ten years. He founded the Orquestra de Cordoba in 1992, located in the Andalusia region of Spain, and served as its leading conductor for nearly a decade. He has also led the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Scottish National Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Chamber Orchestra, and the Mexico National Symphony Orchestra. Conducting is a skill that he developed early in his career and cultivated further when he found that he was no longer able to perform guitar professionally.

“I started conducting a little bit in Cuba and observed the many different styles to conducting. Some practice in front of a mirror. This is not a conductor but a clown. I know many and will not name them,” Brouwer says. “I will continue my work with conducting. When I had my accident that ruined a tendon in my finger in 1980, I stopped doing recordings for Deutsche-Grammophon. My tonmeister, my sound engineer for that project, Heinz Wildhagen, also worked for the Bergen Philharmonic [in Norway]. It was an experience I will never forget.

“After recording these four albums, I accidentally destroyed the tendon. I was going to perform a concert at the 92nd Street Y in New York on April 26, 1980, as part of a guitar music season called the Virtuoso Guitar Series, which included some of the best guitarists of that time, such as Alexandre Lagoya, Narciso Yepes, and Andrés Segovia.

“I was but [comparatively] a child at the time and they were all old and masters. If I canceled, it would have killed everything related to me and my music. So I decided to play. I stayed at Manuel Barrueco’s house and, because of the issue I faced with the tendon on my right-hand finger, I altered, in a single night, the technique I’d developed over 20 years to one where I played guitar using three fingers.

“I gave one of the best concerts in my life. And fortunately, it was recorded. I never knew it was going to be recorded. Last year, a Canadian man, who owns a big CD shop in Toronto—this man searched for 20 years my live recordings and surprised me with a copy of it, which I adore. Incredible.

“My error is that I continued touring throughout the USA, Mexico, and Japan and, upon returning to Cuba, my finger had become atrophied with a nodule.”


Brouwer heads the department of music at the Instituto de Arts Industria Cinematograficos in Cuba and has been writing prolifically for film since 1960, acquiring over 60 score credits for various films over the decades. In this context, it is perhaps ridiculous to point out just a few pieces, but possibly Brouwer’s most famous compositions for film include Un día de noviembre, the title piece of a 1976 Cuban film directed by Humberto Solás, and the suite Brouwer wrote for the internationally successful 1992 Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate, directed by Alfonso Arau. A spirited folk song composed by Brouwer and Arau, “Crush the Grapes,” was also used in the soundtrack for Arau’s 1995 American drama A Walk in the Clouds

“The main impulse for the film Like Water for Chocolate derived from an early copy of the book written by Laura Esquivel, the author, who is a close friend of mine,” Brouwer says. “I was over for dinner and she showed me one of the few copies she had printed before it became published officially. I read it in one evening in entirety and suggested to her that it must go to film because the story she’d written was a masterpiece.

“When I compose for film, I offer my opinion of the scene. I work mostly with the film editor and we discuss the contents of the scene but I never see the film. When I worked on the film Hanoi, Tuesday the 13th [1968], directed by Santiago Alvarez, I was told the scene I was writing music for depicted a scene in North Vietnam of people bicycling by just as a bomb falls. He told me it would then show a dead Vietnamese mother and her crying baby. I thought about it and told the editor to remove the sound of the bomb and crying baby. I suggested we replace these sounds with just one long sustained note. He wanted to keep these sounds, but I insisted. We won two prizes in Germany’s Leipzig Documentary Festival. I never saw the film.”


When asked what advice he has to impart to young guitarists, Maestro Brouwer emphasizes a need for open-minded exploration of other artistic media as a way of providing a steady flow of inspiration and enlightenment.

“Young guitarists must hear all kinds of music and all kinds of instruments,” he says. “Forget how the guitar is played and recorded. It does not serve to imitate. Expand the culture you have, always, with reading, seeing films, good quality art films. Look for the relationship between architectural designs, painters, writers. If you are in the United States, you must read everything from Walt Whitman to Paul Auster. You could read the same in France and Spain or wherever, but I am mentioning great artists in the history of the United States. Young musicians also need to especially see French, Italian, and German independent films from the mid-20th century and avoid the commercial Hollywood products.

“I started writing my Etudes Simples in ’61 for children and beginners, for the reason that most etude studies we had were impossible for beginners; the worst for children. Carcassi and Sor wrote very good music, but the rest of it was very difficult for children to play. Carcassi wrote for simple fingers. So I decided to write etudes for which the problems are only one, and the rest is easy, so you concentrate on one aspect of technique and that’s it. Also, I suggest using a capo for younger musicians and those who are physically smaller, to keep arms positioned organically near the body.”

When asked if there is any other kind of guitar music that he personally enjoys, Brouwer responds enthusiastically, “I love heavy metal guitar. Heavy metal guitarists have no inhibitions and they play like gods. They play freely and do not look at the fretboard, which wastes time. They understand the palette of sound and harmony. Compared to classical guitarists, rock and jazz guitarists are very open.”