Hispanic People in Classical Music

Avatar of Leila Yokoyama

In the “Golden Age of Classical Music” (from around 1700-1900), it was mostly composers from Austria, Italy, England, Germany, Russia, and France who were pumping out the music. Even after the United States was founded, there were few American composers who were widely known and received. However, one country, though lesser known for its classical music, but still with an ample number of pioneering musicians and composers, is Spain. 

Spain was largely ignored until the mid-to-late 1800s, when classical music began opening up to a broader range of countries. Due to advancing technology, travel became more accessible than ever before. Classical music composers took advantage of this luxury and began to explore new and exotic types of music. 

A great example of this is the prominent french composer Claude Debussy, who lived around the turn of the 19th century. When he attended the 1900 Paris World Fair, he was astonished by the diversity of the music from various countries, including Spain. You can hear hints of traditional Spanish rhythms and melodies in his music written after this encounter, especially in the 1904 solo piano piece “Masques.” I played this piece a few months ago, so I have a firsthand understanding of how he threw in Spanish-influenced motifs. Debussy wouldn’t be Debussy if he hadn’t incorporated the music of other cultures into his own — his compositions are unique in this sense. 

Many people have implicit ideas about which genres of music are restricted to certain categories of people, leading to stereotypes defined by age group or ethnicity. One such common — yet half-heartedly ridiculous — assumption is that “classical musicians are all white or Asian.” 

To abolish this foolish notion, people have created programs and organizations to diversify not only the ethnicities of musicians, but also their audiences. For example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched Latino Alliance in 2013. This program hosts events that celebrate Chicago’s diversity, especially highlighting its large Latinx community. 

Another program, whose mission is to introduce classical music to younger generations (particularly children of Hispanic descent), is Discovering Music, founded by Sonia Marie De León de Vega, the conductor of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra. De Leon de Vega is a bilingual 5th generation Mexican American who fell in love with classical music as a child and studied it through college. As a post-college graduate, she was bothered by the fact that most conductors she saw were white (and non-Latinx), and that classical music audiences were also  predominantly White. In an act of defiance, she created Discovering Music. In a Huffpost interview, she said, “At Discovering Music concerts, we play traditional classical music and do a lot of music from Hispanic composers.” This emphasis on Hispanic composers inspires youth to think differently about who plays and listens to classical music.

As time passes, we are becoming more and more aware that diversity is not only important to a community, but enriching as well.