Singing to Havana with God’s Music

By: Yarelis Rico Hernández

Moisés Santiesteban a cargo de la dirección musical y la coordinación general
Moisés Santiesteban.
Moisés Santiesteban.

More than six years ago, the Chair of Sacred Music was born in the Centro Cultural Padre Félix Varela. Three people inspired its origin, the then Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, the rector of that Catholic institution, the priest Yosvany Carvajal Sureda and the organist and pianist Moisés Santiesteban. Although the Cabinet in Musical Heritage Esteban Salas, of the Office of the Historian, had been making efforts to dust off the sacro-musical repertoires of the colonial era in Cuba and bring them up to date on a religious level, no one more obligation than the Catholic Church to rediscover them to the public and especially to their faithful.
Names such as those of musicologists Miriam Escudero and Gabriela Rojas accompany the silent and meticulous dedication to bringing to light a high-value documentary collection in the musical memory of our temples. But… and I take up what has already been said, so too, the Church, as an institution, had to, in some way, accompany such an endeavor.
With the visit to Cuba of St. John Paul II, in January 1998, the choral formation carried out by the teacher Alina Orraca to accompany this event was commendable. An important point of support was the musical rescue work that was being developed in Havana by the sacred musician Ada Ravelo; a work that, although silent, proved very valuable, if we think, above all, of the position assumed by this lay woman engaged at a time marked by the migrations of musicians en masse and a poor Church that did not yet have the conscience and training to safeguard the sacred documentary musical heritage. They also ran post-reconciled times and the effort to produce Church music that was closer to Cubanity resulted in a break with the organizational tradition developed up to that point. Gradually, the organs were falling into disuse.
These and other realities were able to arouse the interest of Father Yosvany Carvajal Sureda, parish priest of the Cathedral of Havana and rector of the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center in creating a Chair of Sacred Music. Thus thinks the organist Moses Santiesteban, whom the priest made the proposal to establish studies in the field of sacred music. Today, this idea is a fact that materializes, mainly, in the annual celebration of a week devoted entirely to the knowledge and dissemination of a music that seeks to bring the hearts of people closer to God.
On this interesting project we talked to its coordinator, the musician Moisés Santiesteban. He insists on presenting himself as “a Protestant converted to Catholicism.” Just as a Protestant he began his organ studies at the Catholic Institute of Sacred Music and Musical Pedagogy of Regensburg (Hochschule f’r katholische Kirchenmusik und Musikp-dogik Regensburg, HfKM). In this section it is important to take into account the interest shown by the Office of the Historian (represented in Drs. Miriam Escudero and María Antonia Virgili, the latter professor of the University of Valladolid) in forming an organist that fulfilled functions in the then newly restored organ of the church of Paula. This interest, together with that of the young Moses in interpreting the repertoires to the organ with the best possible preparation, motivated the first conversations with the flutist Claudia Gerauer and the organist and professor Stefan Baier, both teachers of the prestigious Catholic institute of Regensburg.

Once the approval was obtained by Baier (now rector of that German institution), a meeting was held with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who was very interested in preparing the musician for the cultural enrichment of Habanero and to resume organizational traditions in Cuba after almost forty years of silence. The cardinal himself wrote to the Bishop of Regensburg, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, who saw the project in a positive way and gave the green light for the Cuban musician to begin his studies in organ. In payment, and upon agreement with Cardinal Ortega, Moses would provide services as organist in the Cathedral when he was called. He did so on the occasion of the celebrations for the fourth centenary of the discovery of our Lady of Charity of Copper. At that time he also worked with the set of ancient music Ars Longa of the Office of the City Historian and developed work as a sacred musician in the Evangelical Church of Cuba Los Pinos Nuevos, of which his parents are retired pastors. Most of her family comes from her.
Is there a link between your conversion to Catholicism and the birth of the Chair of Sacred Music?
“Actually when I think about it I would say yes, not in a direct way, but one led to the other. And it is that my desire has always been to serve God from music. For a few years, and from my theological training at the Latin American Faculty of Theological Studies of the University of Florida (FLET), I started a multi-year quest to belong to a community of faith where I felt linked to the rich and vast tradition of the Church. I found the conversations with my godfather, Father Fernando Pijúan, then a student of the Seminary, and with the sacristan of the Cathedral, Felipe Winston, very illuminating. They helped me to clarify my thinking and embrace, as an expression and path of faith, the dogma, creed and tradition of the Holy Catholic Church.
“Months after taking the sacraments of initiation and marriage to Cardinal Jaime Ortega in a humble but emotional ceremony for me in the chapel of the Cathedral’s Sacrament, Father Yosvany told me about the project of creating a Chair of Sacred Music within the Institute of Ecclesiastical Studies Father Felix Varela. I was already doing acting as the titular organist of the Archdiocese of Havana and conducting bachelor’s degree studies in organ interpretation under the tutelage of Professor Stefan Baier in Germany. I was asked to submit a project on the content that chair might have. We include, of course, studies, because an institute the first thing it contemplates is study. We also add instrument restoration, i.e. organ restoration, and sheet music editions. The study proposals, as well as the main event of the Chair, the Week of Sacred Music of Havana (SMS Habana), have counted since its beginnings, in 2014, with the academic tutoring and cooperation of the Catholic Institute of Sacred Music and Musical Pedagogy of Regensburg”.

Why do you consider Sacred Music Week the chair’s main event?
“Being an event organized between the Chair of Sacred Music of the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center and hfKM Regensburg, and between the archbishoprics of Havana and Regensburg, and with the collaboration of national and international institutions, Sacra Music Week gives us greater visibility not only in the ecclesial sphere, but within the cultural proposals of the city. We talk about a whole week specialized in the sacro-musical theme, which through workshops, conferences and concerts becomes a message of preterit and contemporary eras for both the Christian people and lovers of sacred culture. It is, without a doubt, a cultural proposal that has sought since its beginnings to supply academically what the Cuban music teaching system has not developed as a stable line of study; I am referring, above all, to the two workshops that have accompanied the SMS Habana since its first edition: the Gregorian singing workshop and the organ interpretation workshop.

“The proposal has not only motivated the approach of the faithful who perform the musical functions in our parishes, but has become a means of overcoming relevant to students of the different levels of music, as well as to professionals of the National Concert Music Center of Havana and other institutions on the island.
“From a first week that began with a concert and two workshops, we reached the most recent, the sixth, which included at least seven concerts and many more workshops, more conferences, more audiovisual proposals, exhibitions of photography, plastic arts… Added to this is the support of the Church’s media, but also of state institutions and digital publications. We have also received the recognition of prestigious musicians, including the teacher Juan Piñera, who has written compositions to make an almost complete concert of his work in this space. This shows us that our cover letter is still Sacred Music Week (SMS Habana)”.

Now, it all started out there, but what happened next within the study target?
“In the context of the celebrations of the SMS Habana came the idea of a Diploma in Sacred Music that would have the academic tutoring of HfKM Regensburg. The idea is to prepare a staff sensitive to the functions of a sacred musician who can meet the sacro-musical needs in our parishes, as well as be trained for a much more complete defense of these repertoires in the cultural scenes.”

An idea born of the Church must, in my opinion, have a pastoral benefit, and this is not contrasted with an outcome that benefits and expands the culture of the country. We already know the interest of the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center, but what has the Archdiocese of Havana wanted with this Chair?
“Raising the level of Catholic worship, the musical level of the liturgy: that is the interest that remains as the main. And then, contribute so that this repertoire continues to be released in the cultural field. What I never imagined as coordinator is the cultural impact that the Chair project has had inside and outside the Church.
“When Cardinal Jaime led the Archdiocese, the pastoral wing of the Chair was already enhanced through workshops for parish musicians at Sacred Music Week. This pastoral feeling has continued to be amplified with our current archbishop, Archbishop Juan de la Caridad García, and on holiday we began to give seminars to parish musicians. They are people of faith, very dedicated, but who have no knowledge or tools of musical reading, solfeo or direction, to which we give a preliminary formation so that they can raise the level of music in their communities. Last year we started this type of seminar that we intend to promote in the present. While since our first edition of the Week we developed a workshop for choral singing and a workshop for choral direction focused on Church musicians, such a studio, a little more ambitious, we did not have it.”

Without moving away from the objective study and now opening ourselves to a level of specialization, in the case of the graduate, who can choose him?
“This diploma is two years long and quite ambitious, as it becomes almost half a bachelor’s degree. Of course, he is for professional musicians and contemplates his training as directors, organisers and choral singers. His program includes elements of liturgy and sacred music. There are communities that benefit from this type of modality of study, because they have graduate musicians of the middle or higher levels who are studying it.”

It would be ideal for a number of Catholic communities to benefit from musicians graduated from this diploma.
“That’s the goal, but it’s hard, because several things have to converge. First, find the musician who is sensitive to religion, who belongs to or wants to be part of a community of faith and who, at the same time, is musically trained and wants to commit to musical work in a parish and in turn wants to consider the role of the musician as an office and is in a position to offer an honorary for his services.
“From the graduates of the first generation within the ecclesial field, the musician Susana Hernández performs this work. First she was the sacred musician of the Cathedral of Havana and is now in the church San Francisco de Asses, where the second oldest organ of the diocese is located”.

The whole dream is fulfilled there: a musician who is seeking to raise the musical level of the Church, the son of the Chair, and also playing a restored organ.
“This is not a unique case. Two other musicians, still in training in the Diploma in Sacred Music, perform their duties and confirm their knowledge as sacred musicians in a manner committed to the service of the Church. This is the case of Antonia Reicino, a current sacred musician from the community who gathers in the Cathedral and Ramon Leyva, who performs his duties in the parish of San Juan de Letrán.
“One content that includes training in the Diploma in Sacred Music is production: students are called to participate actively in the production functions of the different events and activities, because a Church musician has to be also a music producer, the same rehearses the choir, which plays the organ, who sings a psalm, who conceives a festive program for Christmas , mount the lights, the audio… anyway, it has to do with many elements in the life of the parish.”

One of the initial approaches of the Chair was the restoration of instruments. While there was not much flaunt about it at first, today it is taking place. How many Habaneros bodies have been restored thanks to the management of the Chair?
“We have just done coordination work for the restoration and inauguration of the second oldest organ in the diocese. I am referring to the Merklin-Schétze organ, whose original location was in the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity and is now in the custody of the Chair in the Church of St. Francis of Asses. This restoration project, commissioned by Germany by the Swiss organiser Ferdinand Stemmer, has been the result of cooperation between the Archbishopric of Havana, Ambassador Thomas Neisinger, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Cuba, the organist, the Stralsund Baltic Organ Centre (Baltisches Orgel Centrum, BOC), the UNESCO Heritage Bureau of Stralsund and the Culture Preservation Programme.
“We hope that this instrument can be used by Susana Hernández, as a sacred musician of this church, to enrich the liturgy faithfully performed by The Franciscans in this headquarters. Likewise, we designed for the instrument a regular agenda of concerts and educational activities.”

Do you have in mind the restoration of others?
“The idea is to comprehensively revitalize the instrumentarium of our Archdiocese starting with the oldest organs. Right now we are very interested in recovering the organ of the parish of the Holy Angel Custodian, a temple of considerable importance in liturgical life as in the cultural life of the historic center”.

How does the Chair assume this restorative mission?
“The Chair does not promote direct restoration, but it does encourage dialogue with institutions that want and want to revitalize these instruments and return them to their liturgical and cultural function.
“The acquisition of new instruments is another function that we assume from the Chair. In this sense we remember with great joy the year 2015, when we received several instruments to be used both in liturgical celebrations and in cultural events, thanks to the efforts of the Swiss organiser Ferdinand Stemmer, restaurateur of the Merklin-Schsitze. I refer to the Graf organ (Luzern, 1989) donated by the sisters of Saint Anne of Lucerne and the one we place, at the discretion of Cardinal Ortega, in the parish of the Holy Spirit. Ferdinand himself, responsible for the assembly of the instrument, also donated a key figure that we have placed in the Aula Magna of our Cultural Center, a harmonium that is located in the Shrine of the Cathedral and a chamber organ that we have put according to the accompaniment of the choral groups in the liturgies and concerts in this same church”.
Sacred Music Week and other celebrations born from the Chair are an example of how much can be done when several voices converge in an endeavor… why this obvious interest in opening up to collaboration?
“It is very important not to forget that the creation and development of the Week and Diploma of Sacred Music enter into intimate dialogue with the Catholic Institute of Sacred Music and Musical Pedagogy of Regensburg of Germany and its rector, Professor Stefan Baier. It is the institution where I did my bachelor’s degree and where I currently have two master’s degrees. Why can’t you lose sight of this? Because these being the two most representative spaces, one of event and one of study, the support and direct collaboration of this institution recognized as one of the most prestigious in the European sacro-musical field is coincidental. When we say ‘Regensburg’, specialists quickly form a concept of a very serious reference on sacred music at the international level. To this institution and its rector, our thanks.
“We also recognize the collaboration of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, who accompanied the original project of the creation of the Chair, as well as the conduct of my studies, and then to the current Bishop of Regensburg, Rudolf Voderholzer. Both have maintained the idea of supporting us in the Diplomacy and that their teachers come to sponsor us at the Sacred Music Week of Havana.
“For the sake of cooperation in pursuit of sacred culture in Cuba, we have established important working relationships with various instances of the Historian’s Office. In turn we continue to build close relationships with the National Concert Music Center of the Cuban Institute of Music. Likewise, we contribute to the training of students of the different levels of musical education and maintain a close dialogue with other cultural instances of the country. We have the collaboration of cultural sections of several embassies and organizations and universities from other latitudes that contribute altruistically to the development of our proposals. When it comes to culture, I think that every dialogue is little, it is necessary to continue to realize the ideas, to make the projects a reality. Culture is nobody’s exclusive land. We make it between everyone.”
The sixth edition of Sacra Music Week was added to the activities for the 500 years of Havana, however, other proposals of the Chair arrive in the midst of this commemoration…
“This has been a year of projection of new events that we intend to maintain annually, so that the cultural presence of the Chair is not a matter of a moment but a constant that guarantees the assessment over and over again of the sacro-musical. I’m talking about MusicaNova and Havana International Organ Week. MusicaNova is a space designed to encourage new creation; For its part, Organ Week, is the exclusive portal to publicize and promote the organ heritage in our city.
“Coinciding also with the 500th anniversary of the founding of havana’s Villa de San Cristobal and within the framework of the Humboldt Year, we embark on the adventure of ‘Mendelssohn in Havana’ for the 210th anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birthplace. This, presumably, is not intended to be a fixed space, but becomes one more proposal. Likewise, we collaborated in the production for the concert of A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms in the Cathedral of Havana, a project organized by the Mozartian Lyceum with the competition of more than two hundred musicians.

“The Chair also regularly organizes Christmas concerts, the celebration of the Sermon of the Seven Words and other cultural activities of the diocese. Since the beginning of the Jubilee year for the half millennium of Havana, we assumed the musical management of the celebrations. We were given the revision of the Hymn to San Cristobal of Havana composed by the seminarian Jesús Enmanuel Gómez. After extensive review, we commissioned a band version from maestro Rafael Díaz Carter and his first performance was assumed by another project of the Chair, the School of the Archdiocese of San Cristobal of Havana composed of children and adolescents and directed by the teacher Mailán Avila”.

What would be your dream in the future?
“At the very least, that our musicians of parro-quia took the Diploma in Sacred Music, and that we too, as a Church, were able to assume them as workers, not to be exclusive, nor elitist, but to, through that qualified staff, contribute to raising the sacrosanct-musical level of our diocese for the glory of God and spiritual and cultural enrichment of their people.
“We need to rethink what we have done in our musical history after the Second Vatican Council, in terms of repertoire and vocal and instrumental interpretation. Ask ourselves the extent to which what we have done responds to what the Council wanted, to what extent it did not; how far it was prudent in some cases to break almost completely with tradition and to what extent we should take a few steps back and recover what has always been ours.
“I think homework is not a matter of one person. I have a firm conviction that what we project from the Chair is not an exclusive matter for a generation. It will be years before we can meet again in a sacro-musical tradition that was ours and in which the contemporary and the past enter into intimate dialogue. For now, we must create spaces for the revaluation of our reality. If there is one thing that defines the walk of our Church, it is that novelty and tradition walk hand in hand.”

It’s not fair to demeritate the new…
“Neither wise. The novelty must be reread and rethread to create new tradition.”

First, do you think the Chair has made a musical impact? If so, what is it all about?
“Yes, I believe it, and I think, moreover, it’s a providential thing. I believe that Havana needed a space dedicated to sacred music and who better than the Church as an institution with primate authority and, therefore, with a sense of responsibility for what is its own, to facilitate this space for its faithful and for those interested in creating within our rich capital projection”.

With the assurance that it can become increasingly effective, organist master Moisés Santiesteban ensures the continuity of Sacred Music Week. Between 8 and 15 March 2020, it set its next celebration. It will undoubtedly be an event that will celebrate the half millennium of Havana, but with the distinction of bringing it closer to God. Ω

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