Research in Music with Riley Peterson – Habanera (Tu)

What does music research look like?  This is the second post in a series that highlights music research by students in a Baylor School of Music class taught by Dr. Laurel Zeiss, a recipient of the 2022 Special Collections Teaching Fellowship.  These students worked beyond traditional research and learned how to engage with primary sources in the Baylor Libraries’ Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Sheet Music.   Enjoy exploring this unique collection through our new scholars’ works.

Habanera (Tu) by Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes

by Riley Peterson

“Tu (You) Habanera” is a song written for piano and voice by Cuban composer Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes. The song gained worldwide renown in 1892, when Fuentes was 18 years old, but he wrote it in 1890, when he was only 16. This was the first piece he ever wrote, and it also became his most famous. Afterwards, he shifted towards more operas, operettas, and orchestral works, all deeply tied to the images, tradition, and culture of Cuba (Gonzales, 1992). He is also famous for organizing the first festivals of Cuban song in 1922, and for his works compiling the history of Cuban music as a musicologist (Moore, 2001).

music sample

As implied by the title, the song is a style of dance, called a “Habanera,” which is a form characterized by slow, duple meter, with a “lifting ostinato.” This rhythmic undertone, as seen in the left-hand of the piano accompaniment above, contributes to the swaying, romantic feel of the music. This style originated in English country dance, drawing from a variety of European and African influences, and quickly grew in popularity throughout Europe (especially in Catalonia, a region of Spain) during the 1700s. Its popularity then spread across the Atlantic and gained particular prominence in the country of Cuba (Barulich & Fairley, 2001).

The Habanera is also known for combining aspects of nationalism and patriotism with romance. It existed as part of the ida y velta or “coming and going” across the sea, between the old world and the new (Barulich & Fairley, 2001). Indeed, the Habanera became particularly potent in Cuba towards the end of the 1800s, right around when this song was written, during the Cuban war for independence. Spaniards living in Cuba at the time may have felt the pull between their love of their native culture and their patriotism and loyalty to their new home. Similarly, the music of these dances carried thematic combinations of lyrics and sounds that paid homage to both the old and the new. There is a feeling of “sad farewell and of loneliness at sea, themes that support the notion that many men had families in both Spain and Cuba,” (Barulich & Fairley, 2001).

This song is a good example of these different themes of the Habanera. For example, the romantic pining contained within the lyrics of “Tu” moves between a love for the land of Cuba itself (“fairest is the land of pines and of palms”) and the romantic love of an unspecified female who is connected to the land (the “queen” of the “flowers in the garden”). Moreover, the swaying rhythm helps to create the feeling of the “palm trees … in the soft breezes swaying.” Paired with the minor feel of the A section’s almost sighing melody, these peaceful lyrics create a sense of distant and removed beauty, where there is a great stillness and tranquility, but something missing at the same time, a picturesque image which seems almost too fantastically beautiful to be true.

And yet, perhaps the beauty of this song lies in the positive image it paints and the love it professes, despite the feelings of unfulfillment that may underwrite them. Even in the heartaches of distance and separation, it is these messages of beauty of home that pay homage to the land and the culture of Cuba, demonstrating one of the great powers of music: to express heartfelt beauty through lyric and melody, sometimes even in the face of great distance and pain.


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