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Sheet Music Spotlight: Augustin Cortada

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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

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