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foto Juan Lémann

Juan Lémann: A Projection of the "Chilean Style"

(Chapter extracted from the Doctorate’ s Thesis: “Chilean Music for Solo Cello: Four Views” by Dr. Pablo Mahave-Veglia, approved by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in may 2002.). 

The shifting styles found in the work of Juan Lémann (1928-1998) can be attributed to an individual search for the continuation of the Chilean musical heritage. Lémann sought to integrate the mainstream European compositional trends of his time into the Chilean forms of a musical culture dating back to the nineteenth century.

Juan finished high school at the Sagrados Corazones in Santiago, and then attended the Universidad Católica’s School of Architecture from 1948 to 1950. As his piano and compositional studies grew more demanding, he decided to pursue them full time, leaving his architecture studies unfinished. He completed his piano degree at the Conservatorio Nacional of the Universidad de Chile in 1954. In 1949 and 1951 he had already been awarded the school’s highest rewards, the "Orrego Carvallo" and "Rosita Renard" prizes, respectively.

He had simultaneously pursued composition studies with Domingo Santa Cruz (1899-1987) and Pedro Humberto Allende (1885-1959), two icons of nineteenth century traditions in Chilean music. After finishing his formal education, Lémann furthered his piano studies privately with Alberto Spikin and Germán Berner (Amengual had died in 1954), and his composition studies with two of the major figures of modern Chilean music: Gustavo Becerra (b. 1925) and Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919). Becerra and Orrego-Salas reacted differently to the strong Germanic post-romantic tradition prevalent up to that time. This tradition can be said to be exemplified by such composers as René Amengual, Domingo Santa Cruz and Pedro Humberto Allende, all of whom had been Lémann's teachers during his college years at the Conservatorio. Inspired by the experimental practices of Becerra, Lémann ventured into different styles and techniques during the 1960s. From the more neo-classically minded Orrego-Salas, Lémann seems to have inherited an understanding of the teaching of composition as a comprehensive musical practice of aesthetics, theory and technique, as well as his love for pedagogy.

After writing some early piano pieces in the late 1940's, Lémann first approached composition as the logical extension of his skills as an improviser. His earliest compositions tended to be extemporaneous piano works, some of which were later written down. His set of variations on the theme La Vaca Lechera (1946-1947) is a satirical interpretation of a nursery rhyme in the fashion of different composers. The work became popular first as a cocktail party novelty act, eventually being recorded by the composer and even staged as a ballet.1 Most recently it has been used didactically in schools as an introduction to musical styles. Revealing his trademark dry sense of humor and skills as an improviser, it became Lémann's most popular work. His incidental music for the mime play by Alejandro Jodorowsky, Pierrot (1951) was also improvised during the shows and only later written down by the composer. It is noteworthy that his first attempts at composition took place during Lémann's formal college education, which at that time had been focused on architecture and piano performance. It is also notable that his first compositions were grounded in improvisation since later in his career he would return to the more un-academic and arbitrary nature of improvisation in search of greater musical individualism.2

Throughout the 1950’s, Juan Lémann pursued a performance career, playing numerous recitals all over the country. He also appeared as soloist with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Chile performing concerti by Schumann, Bloch, Poulenc, Ravel, and Jorge Urrutia-Blondel. Known for his extensive repertoire ranging from baroque to twentieth century works, Lémann also championed the performance of Chilean compositions. During the same time he also began his activities as piano teacher, choir conductor and arts administrator, endeavors that he would pursue in the future. Indeed, the few works that date from this decade relate to his performing activities, and they are either short piano pieces or choral works.

In 1960 he made the momentous decision to leave his performance career in order to dedicate himself fully to his other musical interests. That same year he became a founding member of the Agrupación de Música Contemporánea, a group that advocates musical creation in Chile. In 1961 Lémann joined the faculty at the Facultad de Artes y Ciencias Musicales (a new institution that absorbed the old Conservatorio) of the Universidad de Chile, where he remained until retirement. During his tenure he was at various times director of the music library, chairman of the composition department, vice-dean of the school, as well as a teacher of piano, theory, counterpoint, orchestration and composition. In this first decade as a full-time composer, true to the zeitgeist, Lémann's embarked on a search for a personal style. In 1960 he wrote his first piece for orchestra: El Cuerpo y la Sangre, incidental music for the film by Rafael Sánchez. His sense for the colorful orchestration that would characterize his more mature style was already evident here. Like several other Chilean composers at the time, Lémann also experimented with the twelve-tone system. From the more strict application of the system in Cuarteto para flautín, dos flautas, y clavecín, to the freer Variaciones for piano, both from 1962, Lémann adapted a foreign technique to a style concentrating with matters of rhythm and sheer tonal color.3 Another major influence of the decade was Stravinsky's, who visited local composers during his 1962 trip to Chile. Lémann's Pieza para Dúo dates from that year consists of ten different sections, each with a distinct character but nonetheless sharing melodic and rhythmic motives.4 Other styles that he applied include electronics in Teorema (unique in his catalog), and didactic piano pieces (a genre that he would revisit later in life). Also singular among his compositions is Tensiones, a work built upon the mathematical derivations from charts of interval tension developed by Juan Amenábar. Described by the musicologist Inés Grandela as "a study of harmonic color in relation to the degree of acoustic tension of intervals",5 this work, written in 1969, represents Lémann's strictest use of a compositional technique. By 1971, with the publication of Roberto Escobar's study of Chilean composers and composition Músicos sin Pasado,6 Lémann was being classified as part of the generation of Nuevos Músicos. This group, Escobar said, "embraced with enthusiasm aleatoric music and electronic sources and finally broke with the former tradition of music in Chile," adding that they had "…a special interest for new notational systems." Observing that more members of this generation sympathized with Marxism (not the case with Lémann), for Escobar it is most notable, and most untrue of Lémann as he later developed, that this group neither delves "into independent musical activities, nor searches for individualism."7

From 1970 to 1972 Lémann resided in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship to attend the Juilliard School in New York as Visiting Professor and to do post-doctoral work in contemporary musical practice. While in New York he offered several talks and classes about Chilean music, and continued his compositional practice with Hall Overton and Jacob Druckman. Most memorable perhaps from his time in New York were the weekly composition master classes and forums, where discussions may involve such guest composers as Boulez, Copland, Xenakis, Babbitt, Stockhausen, Berio, and others. This more informal and less scripted process made an impression on him as a dynamic teaching method, and one that he tried to implement back in Chile.

Upon his return to Chile, he consolidated his musical language while reestablishing himself as a composition teacher and administrator at the Facultad de Artes of the Universidad de Chile. Although he composed only four works during this decade, Lémann finished his period of experimentation and focused his time and energy into his favorite genres and forms. He completed one work of incidental music for film, one orchestral work, one piano piece, and one choral work, each a veritable synthesis of his previous achievement on the genre. Most notable for its scope and ambition is Leyenda del Mar, a ballet in three parts written in 1977-1978, first performed in concert form in 1979 and then staged the following year. Leyenda del Mar is remarkable for several reasons. As a ballet based on La Pincoya, a folk legend from the southern Chilean island of Chiloé, its genre and subject matter are significant departures from the more common practices of Chilean "academic" composers. Ever the pedagogue, Lémann published a paper describing the work's dramatic and technical characteristics, a practice also rare among Chilean composers.8 Most exceptional is the music of Leyenda del Mar, balancing coherent structure with programmatic content and combining a modern European language and folk elements, even employing onomatopoetic imitation of native instruments. In an orchestration that maximizes the timbre possibilities of each instrument, over forty different instruments are played by eighteen players. Particularly the first scene, a description of the sea, is notable for its textural and atmospheric orchestration, which in turn becomes central to the dramatic discourse of the work.9 Years later, during an interview in 1988, he would admit that since Leyenda del Mar his style had been "stabilized." His language would still expand, he said, but from then on it would do so "within a clear aesthetic conviction."10 For its idiosyncratic use of varied styles, atmospheric orchestration, and plastic form, Leyenda del Mar can indeed be said to be the first work of Lémann's mature style.

In 1981 Juan Lémann was named vice-dean at the Facultad de Artes. This increased responsibility and a prolonged heart illness into the mid 1980's all but stopped his composing. Ultimately, it would be health concerns that prompted his retirement in 1988 from the Facultad. His most lasting legacy at this institution was the formation of a generation of Chilean composers more worldly and eclectic than their predecessors. Even after retirement, Juan Lémann taught some classes and stayed on as a consultant at the Facultad until the year before he died.

In his last and most prolific years of composing (1985-1997) Lémann received numerous awards and honors allowing him to work almost exclusively on commission. His style became more abstract and more loosely structured, and he relished working with texts for the first time in non-choral settings. His instrumental works, with exception of those didactic in nature, became more virtuosic, more rhapsodic, and less strict in their use of a particular musical grammar, almost as if ruled by an unspecified non-musical component. He describes his Fantasía Concertante for piano and orchestra (1987) as "a work of a free form, whose structure is varied and unified at the same time, with cadenzas that do not imply virtuosity, but rather have an expressive character and texture."11 The same may be said of his other instrumental works of this time: Eólica for cello (1990), Rapsodia for guitar (1995), and Resonancias for piano (1997). In a speech delivered in 1993 at the premiere of his Barrio Sin Luz, he claimed to have "no stylistic prejudices" since he "belonged to no compositional school." That may have been true of Lémann in 1993, a composer finally secure in his language as purely expressive means. Lémann's independence as a composer revealed itself in his total dedication to each work, adapting his language to the specific character and expression posed by each piece.12Lémann himself never thought of his stylistic pilgrimage as "experimentation", but rather regarded each piece as a new artistic challenge.13

The musicologist, composer and teacher Juan Amenábar introduced Lémann to the Academia Chilena de Bellas Artes as a Full Member in 1983. In his welcoming speech, Amenábar described Lémann's work as representative "of the general character of Chilean musical composition in this century."14 Amenábar generalized Lémann's writing, as well as "the Chilean musical work" as:

  1. Succinct, short in length;
  2. Consisting of more or less rhapsodic, non-rigid structure;
  3. Very lyrical slow movements that are more accomplished than the fast ones;
  4. Not presenting or appreciating repetitive rhythmic patterns;
  5. Supported and structured with motives (not in long phrases or sequences), which appear, varied or different, in great numbers throughout the work;
  6. The Chilean composer preferring the intimate nature of chamber music. There are symphonic works, of course, but their quantity (and even sometimes their esthetic signification) being inferior, vastly inferior to that of the chamber music works;
  7. In using the human voice, the use of the female voice predominating amply;
  8. Sometimes appearing, seldom, elements of the musical folklore, but without being decisive in most of the musical production, or in its esthetics; but being a mere effect;
  9. Practically without opera or lyric theater;
  10. Neither the works nor the composers themselves showing esthetic common tendencies that may group them. Strictly speaking, the composers develop and go about life on their own."15

About both the general character of Chilean music and Lémann's conformity, Amenábar's assertions were much more accurate in 1984 than just a decade later. In any case, Amenábar is perceptive about Lémann's respect for the Chilean tradition and, more importantly, his absorption of it into his own personal style. Moreover, it can be said that however unconscious, becoming a paradigm of Chilean music was but the arrival of the long musical journey of Juan Lémann.

As president of the Asociación Nacional de Compositores Juan Lémann was instrumental in lobbying congress for the codification of the Chilean Copyright Law of 1970. A tireless worker for the cause of music education in public schools, he submitted a report on the subject to the Chilean government, at the request of the secretary of education. In 1983 he was invited to join the Chilean Academy of Fine Arts. In his acceptance speech he stressed the importance of better basic music education as the way to re-establish music in national culture.16 In 1986 he was nominated for the national Award for the Arts and in 1992 he was distinguished with the "Adriazola Cruz" prize for his contributions to art and education in Chile, only the second time such an honor was granted to a musician. In 1996 Lémann traveled to Russia, invited by the Chilean Embassy in that country. There he met with representatives of the Composer's Association of the Russian Federation, with cultural personalities and had works performed at the Moscow Conservatory as well as the Claudio Arrau Hall of the Chilean Embassy.

A composer in varied genres and styles, Lémann set sacred texts, wrote for film, documentaries and ballet, and produced chamber and orchestral music, as well as didactic works and even institutional anthems. After he wrote his early neo-classical works, he developed a mature style based on an individual approach to atonality and a plastic sense of form. Never allowing structure to rule the musical discourse, he preferred more loosely constructed forms that bent to his fine sense of orchestral color and instrumentation.

Juan Lémann was also a published photographer. His portraits of Chilean composers have been widely reproduced and are on permanent display at the Composer’s Hall of the National Library in Santiago. He left four unfinished works at the time of his death, on May 16th 1998.

Dr.Pablo Mahave-Veglia

1. The ballet, titled La Vaca Cornelia, was choreographed Gaby Concha and first performed by the Ballet de Cámara at the Universidad de Chile in 1970.

2. Juan Amenábar, "Algunas claves para acercarse al conocimiento del músico Juan Lémann," Revista Musical Chilena 161 (1984): 48.

3. Inés Grandela, "La música chilena para piano de la generación joven," Revista Musical Chilena 113-114 (1971): 44.

4. Juan Lémann, Un Espíritu de Amor por la Música, various performers, SVR MHA-3006-9.

5. Grandela, 48-49. This and all other translations from Spanish are by the author.

6. Roberto Escobar, Músicos sin Pasado (Editorial Pomaire: Santiago de Chile, 1971), 147-148.

7. Escobar, 148.

8. Juan Lémann, "Leyenda de Mar, Música para ballet, en tres actos," Revista Musical Chilena 152 (1980): 23-28.

9. Luis Merino, "Los festivales de Música Chilena: génesis, propósitos y trascendencia," Revista Musical Chilena 149-150 (1980): 92-93.

10. "Juan Lémann: 'Debo Tener una Motivación porque No Compongo para el Escritorio,'" El Mercurio de Santiago, 2 December, 1998.

11. "Juan Lémann: “Debo Tener una Motivación”.

12. Juan Lémann, "Barrio sin Luz," (speech given at the Universidad Metropolitana de Ciencias de la Educación at the premiere of Barrio sin Luz, Santiago, Chile, 1993)

13. Juan Lémann, interviewed by Pablo Aranda, radio interview, Santiago, Chile, 30 April 1992.

14. Amenábar, 50.

15. Juan Lémann, "Consideraciones sobre el medio artístico musical y la composición en Chile," Revista Musical Chilena 161 (1984): 39.