Tania León: The Uncommon Woman

This is a guest post by Melinda Gonzalez, a full-time intern working with me through December on an inventory of the Music Division’s primary sources related to Latin American composers. Melinda is here in the Music Division through the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities National Internship Program (HNIP).

I have always been a music lover. When I received notification that an internship experience in the Library of Congress Music Division was a possibility, I was blown away! While I do not have any formal education in music, my experiences with music date back to my earliest days. Like most of us, I have always been surrounded by music. That is why I think the current project that I am working on is so important. By creating an inventory of all primary sources related to Latin American composers in the Music Division, we are able to extend the lives of the moments represented by these sources.

Head shot of Tania León from her website, http://www.tanialeon.com.

During my first few weeks at the Library, I was given the amazing responsibility of going through holograph scores dating back hundreds of years. The goal was to find holographs by Latin American composers. During my search, it became evident that the bulk of material was created by male composers. Emilio Agramonte, Ernani Braga, Mario Davidovsky, Reynaldo Hahn, Alberto Ginastera, the list went on! On my second day here I asked my supervisor, “Where are the women?” Then, I found Tania Leόn. She is one out of five Latin American women composers who have been added to the inventory so far.

Her name was the first thing that stood out to me. “León” means “lion” in Spanish, and I was curious to see if she lived up to the name. After hearing some of her compositions, I realized that her last name was the universe’s way of letting us know that we should pay attention. Her music is stealthy, powerful, and unexpected, just like a lioness. As a dancer myself, I am drawn to León’s 2011 album Tania León: In Motion. I can feel that it was composed with human movement in mind. A recording of the album can be streamed in the Recorded Sound Research Center.

First page of Tania León’s holograph pencil sketches for Fanfarria, 2000. Call number ML96.L466 no. 2 CASE, Music Division.

The first holograph score I found of León’s was Fanfarria, a fanfare composition for brass and percussion commissioned by the Library of Congress for the Copland Centennial Celebration in 2000 honoring American composer Aaron Copland. The premiere of Fanfarria was performed in the Jefferson Building’s Great Hall, and unfortunately could not be recorded. The program for the celebration highlights León’s respect for and admiration of Copland, detailing that León’s composition was a “sonically effervescent display of colors and bursts of pyrotechnical chordal sequences echoed by bursts of percussive responses.”[1]

Aaron Copland had done great work advocating for the musical talent in Latin American countries. During his lifetime, Copland traveled to several parts of Latin America, creating relationships with accomplished composers such as Mario Davidovsky of Argentina and Carlos Chávez of Mexico. Letters between these composers and Copland are a part of the Aaron Copland collection housed in the Music Division and will be recorded in the inventory I am working on.

Much of Copland’s legacy was cemented through his composition of the fanfare titled Fanfare for the Common Man, inspired by a speech given by Vice President Henry A. Wallace during World War II. Joan Tower, accomplished American composer, composed a series of six fanfares titled Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman from 1987-2016, which is sometimes considered a “feminist counterpoint”[2] to Copland’s composition. Interestingly, Tower’s sixth fanfare is dedicated to composer Tania León. León and Tower’s friendship was instigated by Tower’s familiarity with Latin America, having spent time in Bolivia during her childhood, and their particular experiences as women composers.[3]

Knowing that León’s experience as a Latinx woman composer from Cuba may have been different from other women composers, I began to research her life. I found that León migrated to the U.S. as a refugee in 1967 on a Freedom Flight. These Freedom Flights transported Cubans to Miami twice daily, five days per week from 1965 to 1973. This mass migration allowed Cubans to embark on a journey towards accomplishing their American Dream, Tania León included. When León left Cuba in 1967, she did not know if returning to her country would be possible. León viewed this opportunity as a golden ticket, as her upbringing in Cuba was marked by severe poverty.

Soon after her arrival in the United States, León became a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem, jumpstarting her career. León’s career soon evolved and she grew from a pianist to a composer, conductor, and educator. Her journey eventually brought her to the Library of Congress, once commissioned for the Copland Centennial Celebration as mentioned before, and a second time commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation. The holograph score from the commissioned piece, Desde for orchestra, is held in the Music Division, and the recording of the world premiere at Carnegie Hall has now been digitized to stream in the Recorded Sound Research Center.

The current inventory that I am working on features primary sources from nineteen other Cuban composers, including a score by Grammy Award winner Paquito D’Rivera and the collection of Aurelio de la Vega, which includes material relating to various other Latin American composers. I look forward to the progression of this project, as it increases access to the work and legacies of composers who may have been historically overlooked.

[1] León, Tania. “Tania León.” Program for Copland Centennial Celebration. Library of Congress. November 14-18, 2000.

[2] Grolman, Ellen K. “Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman.” Library of Congress. 2014. //www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/FanfaresForTheUncommonWoman.pdf

[3] Curtis, Liane. “Joan Tower and Tania León in Conversation at LAO.” Women’s Philharmonic. June 18, 2019. https://wophil.org/joan-tower-tania-leon-lao-2019/?doing_wp_cron=1573586191.4089519977569580078125

Recommended resources:

Edwards, J. Michele. “León, Tania.” Oxford Music Online. January 20, 2001. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.42484

León, Tania. “Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer.” Interview by Frank J. Oteri. NewMusic USA. August 1, 1999, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/tania-leon-what-it-means-to-be-an-american-composer/3/

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