Guatemalan Composers, pt 1

By Diana Pastor

I recently enrolled in the Academy of Music of Quetzaltenango in order to learn to play the piano. From the first day that I arrived to the place, I thought to myself that it couldn’t have been baptized with a better name than the one it has been given: it was named after one of the most remarkable and outstanding Guatemalan composers, an artistic revolutionary who forged the foundation for folk classicism in Guatemala. His name: Jesús Castillo.

Castillo was born in Quetzaltenango in 1877. His studies in folk music, despite their limitations at the time, led to introduce new marimba styles. A direct product of his hard work in the genre was the appearance of “concert marimba.” His love for his country and his creativity joined together to lead to the composition of indigenous suites, symphonic poems and many other pieces of music of notable importance for the history of Guatemalan music, such as a the wonderful “fiesta de pájaros” (party of birds), a marimba composition that was totally different from the usual compositions of that time. Although Castillo passed away more than half a century ago now, his legacy has left a strong mark on the history of the national music of marimba, breaking through as he did with the traditions of the time.

Alongside Castillo there is another remarkable Guatemalan composer called Dieter Lehnhoff, who still performs on national and international stages. He was born in the 50s and studied abroad, but returned to Guatemala years later looking for new musical projects, such as classical composition and music education. As a result, he founded the music departments in two private universities. His love for spreading the joys of music, led him to create a series of concerts called “Viva Mozart!”, which was performed in 2006 and was so successful it awakened the passion of many people in Guatemala city and Quetzaltenango for classical music. Some of his best-known compositions are “Ka´I xajoj”, an orchestral piece with the clarinet and marimba; Hai-kai for the pianao; Chaaj, a sung marimba piece; and his Caribbean suites No. 1 and 2.

And we can´t forget to add Jorge Sarmientos to the list, who has emerged in the field of music as one of the leading musicians, composers and directors of Guatemala. He conducted orchestras in almost every capital of Latin America and in various cities in the United States, France, Israel, Japan and Spain. He began studying marimba but then mastered other instruments in order to later study in Paris and Buenos Aires. He was conducting orchestral symphonies from the 1970s through to the 1990s. An interesting fact about Sarmientos was that he composed a piece of music for Japan on its 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Since then, his music is well known throughout Japan and has been performed by various Japanese musicians.

Many of his symphonic pieces have included elements that characterize the rich culture of Guatemala. “Cinco estampas cakchiqueles”, “estampas del Popol Vuh”, “estampas de Rabinal Achí”, “El Pájaro Blanco” (for ballet), “Sextet No. 2” for the piano and “Vientos” are just a few examples of his amazing and extensive catalogue of work.


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