José Martí wrote of the eminent violinist and author of “La bella cubana, José White: “White deserves each and every praise. White possesses everything that art means.”
In the magazine Universal, dated May 25, 1875, Martí described White’s concert at the National Theater of Mexico, which received rave reviews: “White doesn’t play, he subdues. The notes trickle from his strings, they groan, glide, weep; they sound one after another as pearls would sound when they fall… His violin moans, weeps, excites, scolds…The audience was stirred with the movements of his powerful bow: an instrument that does not seem to obey: before a superb spirit that captivates, dominates, commands.”
However, French writer and researcher Sabine Faivre d’Arc, in José White y su tiempo, a biography of the musician undertaken with support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in Cuba, notes that the patriot, musician and award-winning author born in the province of Matanzas, is little-known in Cuba.
In the well researched book La Musica en Cuba, by Alejo Carpentier, José White does not appear on the index of names. However, a more detailed search of the text reveals mention of White in “Chapter XV, Epoca de Transición”, pages 182 -183, among other musicians such as Guillermo Tomas, Cecilia Aristi, José Manuel (Lico) Jiménez, Ignacio Cervantes, and six pages on José Sánchez de Fuentes.
Carpentier wrote just one paragraph on White: “In this group, the musician who maintained the greatest ties to his native land, despite his cosmopolitan life, was the great mulatto violinist José White. Although I mistrust the superlative accolades showered on Cuban performers of the past, a comparison of the criticism published in Europe, Brazil, and Havana allows one to affirm that he was an absolutely extraordinary artist. Moreover, there must have been a reason he was given the professorship previously held by Allard at the Paris Conservatory. Although his activities as a professor and performer drew him away from composition, White wrote a Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which premiered in Paris, a quartet and various melodies, among which is “La bella cubana” – one of the most traditional songs of the island – with a skillfully constructed melody over a rhythm that appears in the most ancient guarachas and Haitian merengues: three eighth notes in binary rhythm, the first two eighth notes with a point of augmentation.”
Born in the city of Matanzas, to a French father, Charles White, and Cuban mother Maria Laffite, who was born into slavery, José White Laffite died in Paris on March 12, 1918. Although there are different versions regarding the exact date of his birth, January 31, 1836 is taken as a reference. We are now approaching 180 years since this significant event.
The painstaking research by Faivre allows us to discover something perhaps truly unknown, which glorifies our José White even further. On July 29, 1856, he won first prize in cello and violin as the twentieth and final contestant to enter the prestigious Paris Conservatory. Not yet 20 years of age, he had already provided one of the most brilliant performances in history. However, his family informed him that his father, who guided his first steps on the violin, was seriously ill and he was forced to return to Cuba, where he began a brilliant career. In November 1860, he returned to Paris to establish himself as a successful composer and performer.
In December 1974, he returned to Cuba and his birthplace of Matanzas. The war of independence initiated by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in 1868 had already been waging for over 6 years and the country was alive with revolutionary fervor, which had inspired White from the beginning. “On October 10, 1868, José White marked a huge cross on his calendar …There is great hope which he celebrates with his mother and his two sisters.”
Even before his arrival on the island, he had been in contact with Ignacio Cervantes in Paris, who was very committed to the independence cause. They met together with Teresa Carreño, the equally illustrious pianist who accompanied him on his violin on a memorable night, June 7, 1866, when he celebrated his marriage to Sofia Vivien.
In Cuba, Cervantes advised that White offer concerts for the benefit of the independence cause. The two were in agreement and performed the first concert in Matanzas. White played the Concerto for Violin he had composed in Paris in 1864, the two agreed they would always play the patriotic theme “La Bayamesa”, which later became Cuba’s national anthem, composed by José Fornaris, Francisco Castillo and Céspedes himself, during their concerts.
White performed three concerts in Santiago de Cuba before returning to Havana in February 1875, to perform with his friend Cervantes in the Tacón Theater. On the opening night, they repeated this heroic act. No sooner had the first notes of “La Bayamesa” rung out, met with shouts of “Viva Cuba Libre” (Long live a free Cuba) from the audience, than the Spanish authorities responded, truncheons in hand, and evacuated the theater.
As it became increasingly difficult to offer concerts in theaters, the two were obliged to content themselves with performing in private houses, until the situation had calmed. They later returned to the Tacón and on the second night, April 17, the police watched White closely. Provocateurs had infiltrated the audience, a fight broke out and authorities surrounded the theater. The following day, the Spanish Captain General accused Cervantes of provoking the incident and detained him, informing him that he was aware that funds generated by his concerts were destined for the independence cause and warning him to leave the island together with his friend White. The two left for Mexico, and on May 25 they offered the wonderful concert at the National Theater which José Martí eloquently referred to in Universal, praising their interpretations of “Carnival of Venice” among other works, which won them much acclaim.
The Maestro returned on June 6 to enjoy Beethoven’s sonatas and Mozart’s quintet, played by White accompanied by Puerto Rican pianist José Nuñez. Martí wrote of that night: “That divine music still resonates in my heart!”
White later traveled to New York, where he repeated his success. He performed in the Steinway Hall with Cervantes and received reviews in the Tribune, Daily Telegraph and Evening Post.
He returned to Paris, where he died. He was buried on March 12, 1918, in a family vault in the cemetery of Boulogne-sur-Seine. The brilliant musical career and patriotic pedigree of this Cuban-French son of Matanzas is well deserving of heartfelt tributes during this 180th anniversary of his birth.