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Juan Bautista Plaza and Musical Nationalism in Venezuela

Marie Elizabeth Labonville

Publication Year: 2007

Juan Bautista Plaza (1898-1965) was one of the most important musicians in the history of Venezuela. In addition to composing in a variety of genres and styles, he was the leading figure in Venezuelan music education and musicology at a time when his compatriots were seeking to solidify their cultural identity. Plaza's compositions in the emerging nationalist style and his efforts to improve musical institutions in his home country parallel the work of contemporaneous Latin American musicians including Carlos Chávez of Mexico, Amadeo Roldán of Cuba, and Camargo Guarnieri of Brazil.

Plaza's life and music are little studied, and Labonville's ambitious book is the first in English to be based on his extensive writings and compositions. As these and other documents show, Plaza filled numerous roles in Venezuela's musical infrastructure including researcher, performer, teacher, composer, promoter, critic, chapel master, and director of national culture. Labonville examines Plaza's many roles in an attempt to assess how the nationalist spirit affected art music culture in Venezuela, and what changes it brought to Venezuela's musical landscape.

Published by: Indiana University Press

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pp. ix-xii

How did the nationalist spirit affect art music culture in Venezuela? Did it bring lasting changes to the musical landscape and to the musicians that peopled it? If so, were the changes regarded favorably by those who were affected? Can an exploration of music-related events in Venezuela enhance our understanding of issues in Latin American art music culture? ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

Scholarly activity is always collaborative, and I am fortunate to have enjoyed the assistance of many excellent organizations and individuals. Their contributions to my project not only enabled me to bring it to a conclusion but also filled me with many fond memories....

Part One. Background

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pp. 1-2

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1. Introduction: Early Twentieth-Century Art Music Culture in Caracas; The Significance of Plaza and His Colleagues

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pp. 3-11

In 1993 Francisco Curt Lange, patriarch of Latin American musicology, made a startling pronouncement about Venezuela. That country, he declared, “is, considering its territory and number of inhabitants, the most musically developed country of Latin America.”1 Lange could never have made that remark, however, during his first visit to Venezuela fifty-four years earlier. ...

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2. A Portrait of Plaza: The Man, the Musician

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pp. 12-27

Juan Bautista Plaza was shy—although he did not like to admit it—and “preferred to express himself in writing, avoiding verbal improvisation as much as possible.”1 His youthful diaries and letters reveal a sensitive, self-critical perfectionist who habitually set lofty standards for himself. These early writings, together with the reports of those who knew him in his maturity, show that he was a complex, driven man who refused to ...

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3. The Composer

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pp. 28-38

Plaza’s compositions, and those of his generation, reflected a dual mentality common in Caracas at the time. Many people, as newspaper articles indicate, wanted their country to become more “modern” so it would have greater legitimacy in the international scene. At the same time, many saw value in identifying and exalting cultural traits that seemed quin- ...

Part Two. Plaza’s Life and Works

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pp. 39-40

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4. Beginnings; First Compositions; Vocational Indecision; First Writings on Music (1898–1920)

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pp. 41-51

Juan Bautista Plaza was not a child prodigy, nor was he especially interested in music during his pre-adolescent years. Both of his parents were musically inclined and enjoyed hosting musical evenings in their home, yet their son’s earliest fascination was with astronomy, not music. Infact, he did not display a special inclination toward music until puberty. ...

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5. Rome; Plans for Musical Renewal in Venezuela (1920–1923)

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pp. 52-60

Plaza departed for Rome on July 19, 1920, his twenty-second birthday. Aboard ship, he was pensive. In a letter to a friend he confided that he felt a grave sense of responsibility toward himself and toward the Metropolitan Chapter, with which he had contracted a formal obligation. For the first time in his life, he was completely alone. No one in Rome would look after him, and he would have to become accustomed to that. At ...

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6. Paid to Compose: The Chapel Mastership (1923–1948)

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pp. 61-73

In the years before Plaza’s chapel mastership, fruitless efforts had been made to correct the deplorable musical situation in Caracas churches. In 1920, for example, the Caracas daily newspaper La Religión lamented “so many, many failed efforts to implant in our choirs the Motu Proprio of Pius X,” publicly applauding the archbishop and the Metropoli- ...

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7. The Educator, Part 1 (1923–1928)

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pp. 74-76

As a student in Rome, Plaza had reflected seriously on what needed to be accomplished in Venezuela in order to modernize art music culture. He had been particularly disturbed by the prevalence of poor taste in music, widespread ignorance of the masterworks of Western art music, and a general laziness that made Venezuelans disinclined to learn about new kinds of music. Education, he came to understand, was the best way ...

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8. The Early Secular and Nationalist Compositions (1924–1929)

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pp. 77-87

After Plaza had been at the cathedral for nearly six months, and had oriented himself at the School of Music and Declamation, he felt ready to return slowly to secular composition. Most of his creative energy, however, was directed toward composing new works for the cathedral. In 1924, his first full year as chapel master, he wrote fifteen or sixteen sacred works but only five secular pieces. ...

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9. The Nascent Journalist (1925–1928) 88

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pp. 88-93

A born educator, Plaza recognized early in his career the potential of the print media to teach his countrymen about good music. In 1925 he began using local newspapers, magazines, and journals for this purpose, and he maintained a dynamic association with the press for the rest of his life. ...

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10. The Founding of the Orfeón Lamas, and Plaza’s Creative Response (1927–1963)

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pp. 94-114

The Orfeón Lamas was Venezuela’s first organized, stable choral society for mixed voices. Named after José Angel Lamas, a beloved Venezuelan colonial composer, it was created by Plaza and others to perform nationalist secular a cappella music by living Venezuelans. The celebrated chorale burst onto the scene to great acclaim, remained active for three ...

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11. Plaza and the Orquesta Sinfónica Venezuela (1930–1957)

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pp. 115-130

The Orquesta Sinfónica Venezuela, Venezuela’s first permanent symphony orchestra, came into being at the same time as the Orfeón Lamas. This orchestra still exists and, like the Orfeón Lamas, has inspired the formation of similar ensembles—not only other professional orchestras but also a nationwide system of youth orchestras. Like the Orfeón it ...

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12. The Mature Journalist; Writings on Nationalism in Music (1929–1948)

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pp. 131-146

Plaza took seriously his self-appointed responsibility to educate the public about developments in Caracas concert life. Fortunately, local periodicals welcomed his articles about musical events and specific composers. Articles on these subjects make up the majority of his journalistic output. ...

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13. The Principal Nationalist Compositions with Instruments (1930–1956)

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pp. 147-172

After the 1920s, Plaza rarely wrote overtly patriotic compositions. Instead, his music with nationalist intent generally fell into one of the following categories: pastoral/sentimental “Venezuelan madrigals”; pieces that are nationalist principally because of their titles, texts, or programmatic content; and pieces whose rhythms or textures make reference to Hispano- Venezuelan folk music. ...

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14. The Educator, Part 2 (1930–1941)

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pp. 173-180

Although Plaza ended up leaving his early post teaching harmony and composition at the School of Music and Declamation in 1928 or 1929, he had only just begun his association with that institution. In 1930 the school’s director, Miguel Angel Espinel, resigned due to philosophical disagreements with some professors and the minister of public instruction. His departure left the door open for Plaza to return, this time in...

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15. The Musicological Pioneer (1936–1964)

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pp. 181-196

Beginning in the mid-1930s and continuing to the end of his life, Plaza felt fascinated by Venezuelan colonial music. Compositions in that repertory are generally homophonic and include Latin liturgical works, as well as non-liturgical Spanish-texted sacred pieces such as tonos, p

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16. Plaza as the Subject of Reportage

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pp. 197-207

Plaza's relationship with the press was reciprocal. While he enriched the pages of Caracas periodicals with his contributions, the press in turn publicized his activities, contributing to the growing esteem in which he was held. As a result, within a few years of beginning his career he was acknowledged as the national authority on sacred music, and he later gained the same status in the areas of music history and Venezuelan ...

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17. The Later Non-nationalist Compositions (1930s–1963)

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pp. 208-223

After Plaza’s marriage in 1930, his musical productivity began to decline. He felt compelled to give his full attention to each of his many non-compositional activities, so it became impossible to compose as prolifically as before. The 1940s yielded the fewest works of any complete decade, but in the early 1950s his productivity enjoyed a temporary resurgence. ...

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18. The Educator, Part 3 (1942–1962)

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pp. 224-238

Plaza expanded his educational activities. He continued teaching and lecturing, accepted new administrative and governmental responsibilities, and made several trips abroad to study foreign educational methods. ...

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19. Retirement; Final Thoughts on Education and Culture (1962–1964)

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pp. 239-245

In November 1961—or even earlier—Plaza decided that the time had come to withdraw from teaching and directing the Juan Manuel Olivares School of Music (formerly the Preparatory School of Music). That month he reported to the Budget Commission of the Ministry of Finance that he aspired to retire beginning in 1962, because of his “precarious state of health.”1 Ten months passed with no action on his request, so...

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20. Plaza in Retrospect

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pp. 246-250

How did the nationalist spirit affect art music culture in Venezuela? Answers are found in the events connected with the life and work of Juan Bautista Plaza. Motivated by his own high standards and energized by the ubiquitous patriotic sentiments of the time, he worked to modernize his country’s musical life. Although he became one of the pioneers of Vene- ...


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pp. 251-296

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 297-314


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pp. 315-322

E-ISBN-13: 9780253116963
E-ISBN-10: 0253116961
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253348760

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 12 b&w photos, 22 figures
Publication Year: 2007