Sheet Music Spotlight: Augustin Cortada

One of the pieces of sheet music distributed by Cortada’s company. May Vincenza. El Aguinaldo Danza. Propaganda Musical, New York, 1883.

The following is a guest post by retired cataloger Sharon McKinley

The Library of Congress is home to millions of pieces of sheet music, in large part copyright deposits. Self-selecting as copyright deposits are, much of this music is rather pedestrian in quality, and what catches the researcher’s attention is some other aspect of the publication: a handsome cover or an interesting story. We’ve featured such music before. Researching the composer or topic can become far more absorbing than the music itself. The social history of the nation, its immigrants, fads and fashions, and everyday life: all are reflected in the music of their time.

So I was looking at some dance music online recently and ran into this little piece: “Aguinaldo Danza,” by May Vincenza. An aguinaldo is a Christmas folk genre rather than a dance form, but no matter. One thing led to another, until I met Augustin Cortada, a Cuban immigrant who was a composer, musician, and music publisher, and flourished in Brooklyn and Manhattan in the 1870s and 1880s.

I found one tantalizing piece of information after another. The Library of Congress has two pieces by Vincenza that were published in New York. “Aguinaldo Danza” features a dedication in Spanish: “Compuesto y dedicado al bello sexo por May Vincenza” (“Composed and dedicated to the fair sex by May Vincenza”). This tantalizing piece of information led to more. At the bottom of the single page of music is the name of the publisher and copyright holder, La Propaganda Musical and Augustin Cortada (ca.1846-Feb. 28, 1889).

Even more interesting, on the back of the music is a full-page Spanish-language ad for the Propaganda Musical. Cortada offered a full-service music store and publishing establishment. Organs and other musical instruments, full scores of operas and zarzuelas, and librettos were all available. Given that the number of Spanish-speaking people in New York City only numbered in the low thousands in this era before mass immigration from Latin American countries, I imagine that Cortada was looking to expand his clientele, rather than trying to make a living from major sales to his linguistic compatriots

Who was this publisher reaching out to a Spanish-speaking audience in the 1880s?

Augustin Cortada was born in Cuba between 1846 and 1848. He studied in France before moving to Brooklyn around 1870. There was already a Cuban community in New York; several thousand had migrated north as political and economic conditions deteriorated at home. So perhaps returning there wasn’t a viable option for Cortada. As a music teacher and professor, he readily found employment in his new home. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle provided extensive coverage of local cultural events, and mentioned him regularly. He taught at the Brooklyn Musical Academy, served several different Brooklyn churches as organist and choir director, and worked with many amateur choruses, including the Brooklyn Heights Vocal Society, the Amateur Opera Association, and the short-lived Philharmonic Chorus, which boasted 400-600 members! This group participated in a huge festival in 1881 as one separately-rehearsed component of a 1200-member chorus, led in part by Leopold and Walter Damrosch. Cortada obviously was well-known and successful as a conductor.

In 1879 Cortada took his wife and young daughter with him to England to study, but was back in time to be counted in the 1880 census, living in a heavily Irish neighborhood. He continued his well-established performing career.

At some point after that, Cortada decided to change his residence and the focus of his work, and moved to Manhattan, where he opened a music store that served the Spanish-speaking community. He had a church job with a wealthy congregation, but one obituary suggests that he was less successful as a publisher. He died young, in 1889, leaving behind his widow and two children.

Augustin Cortada had a cosmopolitan and varied background, and through his diverse endeavors, had many local contacts. The Library of Congress has a large number of pieces written and/or published by him. Several of these were by Hispanic composers, so we can imagine that he tapped into that specific market as well as catering to other demographics. New York was home to many successful and wealthy immigrants in all types of businesses, and particularly as the next generation grew up, they took part in all the typical endeavors of the day, including getting a musical education. Although his music store eventually failed, he was highly successful in the other aspects of his musical career. Augustin Cortada is just one example of the creativity and success of 19th-century newcomers to the United States.

Thanks to Catalina Gómez from the Hispanic Division for her assistance.

Selected sources

A Musical Artifact Rediscovered for Nagrin and Starer’s Indeterminate Figure

Last week we featured a guest post from summer Fellow Rachel McNellis who shared discoveries from her work with the Daniel Nagrin Collection. This week she links an unidentified score titled “Vanity” to one of Nagrin’s seminal dance works, Indeterminate Figure.   Daniel Nagrin, a renowned modern dancer with a humanist worldview, included this brief […]

Learning the Backstory to “Rent”

This post is by Emily Hauck, a summer intern in the Library’s Communications Office. A version of this post was first published in the Library of Congress Gazette and it also appeared on the Library of Congress Blog. No matter how much you think you know about a topic, there is always more to discover. I […]

Finding Afro-Kola at the Library of Congress

The following is a guest blog by 2016-2017 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar Ingrid Monson. “Finding Afro-Kola at the Library of Congress”  Ingrid Monson, Harvard University 2016-2017 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar For scholars and researchers interested in jazz, a visit to the Music Division of the Library of Congress can be a rewarding improvisation […]

Courage and Improvisation: The Max Roach Papers

The following is a guest blog by 2016-2017 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar Ingrid Monson. “Courage and Improvisation: The Max Roach Papers” Ingrid Monson, Harvard University 2016-2017 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar As I sat going through box after box of the Max Roach Papers in the Music Division at the Library of Congress, the […]

Jazz Scholar John Szwed on Visiting the Library

The following is a guest blog by 2016-2017 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar John Szwed. Notes on My Visit to the Music Division By John Szwed I’ve visited the Library of Congress a number of times over the years for many different reasons, sometimes for research on a writing project, at others just out of curiosity. […]

Pride in the Library: LGBTQ+ Voices in the Library’s Collections

This is a guest post by Meg Metcalf, women’s, gender and LGBTQ+ studies librarian in the Main Reading Room. It was originally posted on the Library of Congress Blog. The collections of the Library of Congress tell the rich and diverse story of LGBTQ+ life in America and around the world. To share this story, […]

Stars and Stripes and Sousa…Forever! Music Division Acquires the Christopher Dodrill – John Philip Sousa Papers

The following is a guest post by Senior Music Specialist Loras John Schissel.   We are pleased to announce the acquisition of a collection of rare John Philip Sousa materials donated by the well-known educator and Sousa researcher Christopher Dodrill. The collection includes many first editions of Sousa’s marches and concert works in mint condition. […]

Re: Discovery–The Two Opus 2s of Eugen d’Albert

Every so often we read about the discovery of some long-lost manuscript in the crypts of an archive, or the unearthing of a heretofore missing missive found locked in a trunk in somebody’s attic. At the Library of Congress we encounter these proclamations more frequently than you might think, usually in the world of special […]