Music for silent movies
One hundred and twelve years ago yesterday the composer Nicanor Abelardo was born in San Miguel de Mayumo, Bulacan. His name does not ring a bell in our times except to those who know of Abelardo Hall in Diliman that is home to the UP Conservatory of Music. The name also escapes those who have attended an event in the CCP Main Theater that is also named in his honor. Abelardo is best known for his kundiman “Mutya ng Pasig” and the UP hymn “UP Beloved” a.k.a. “UP Naming Mahal” a.k.a. “UP Gilagid.” It is unfortunate that he is only remembered for two pieces of music when he wrote a full range of compositions—from simple tunes to counterpoint to a whole concerto. It is sad that his music is rarely played because he composed everything from kundiman to some atonal music that was strange and “modern” in his lifetime and remains so in our day.
“I still have it fresh in my memory,” Abelardo wrote for the Philippinesian, “that during my boyhood days, my parents had to dig heaven and earth in looking for me whenever there was a fiesta or musical affair of some kind only to find me among the musiqueros. To me the love of music was of such an intensity that, finally, my father consented to teaching me solfeggio and bandurria that was a favorite instrument due probably to its being easier to acquire than anything else at the time.” The story sounds like one from the Bible where the Christ child gets lost and is found by his parents in discussion with elders and teachers in the temple.
Abelardo had music in his genes. His father Valentin was often asked to accompany young men on his guitar or violin as they sang a harana or serenade to their sweethearts in a traditional Filipino courtship ritual now extinct and dead as the dodo. His mother Placida Santa Ana was a church singer whose voice was much admired in her youth. I have yet to look up Abelardo’s literary grandparents from Pampanga whose genes enabled him to set words to his music.
When he was six years old Abelardo became the town marvel playing, among other pieces, the “William Tell Overture” on his bandurria. This is the fast tune often played during a chase in cartoons and cowboy films. At seven Abelardo could play the violin too. There is something cute about child prodigies that made me wonder what happens to them when they grow up? Charice Pempengco was an overnight Internet and TV sensation because she had a powerful voice in a child’s body. Would she have gotten her break if she had been taller and looked her real age? At eight years old, the same age Rizal is supposed to have composed the poem “Sa Aking mga Kababata,” he composed “Ang Unang Buco” [The First Coconut].
Abelardo attended the Quiapo Elementary School where he received an American education, but it seems he was also educated in the old Spanish segunda enseñanza at the Liceo de Manila. While in Manila he stayed with his uncle Juan Abelardo a painter of telon or the large canvases that depicted background scenes in theater plays and musicals. It was in his uncle’s house that Abelardo observed his cousin Victoria who was then being taught to play the piano. From a distance Abelardo would listen to the entire lesson and when the teacher and pupil left he tinkered with the keyboard and thus taught himself how to play the piano!
It is said that Abelardo could not keep his hands off musical instruments anywhere even in other people’s homes. Once, while resting from a painting job in the home of the pianist Francisco Buencamino, Abelardo seeing no one opened the piano and played a tune thinking nobody would notice. Buencamino heard his playing and was so impressed he asked the boy to accompany and pitch in for him at the Cinematografico Filipino then screening silent films with piano accompaniment. Thus Abelardo was able to watch movies for free and practice his piano playing at the same time. Armed with Buencamino’s recommendation Abelardo would play in a saloon on Aceiteros Street for thirty centavos a night. It was probably here that he also learned to drink, something that would comfort and plague him in his adult life.
Abelardo returned to Bulacan in 1907 to continue his intermediate schooling and upon completion of Grade 6 was offered a job teaching music in San Ildefonso, Bulacan, as well as Sibul Springs. To get the job he antedated his birth date. A few years later his uncle Juan invited his nephew to return to Manila where there was a demand for pianists to accompany silent movies. Abelardo landed a job at the Cine Principe on Lavesares Street, and later moved to Cine It near Quiapo Church. Much later he became the leader of the orchestra that played in the Cine Majestic on Azcarraga, joining the ranks of other Filipino composers who also took on their first jobs as orchestra leaders in movie houses: Francisco Santiago worked at the Cine Ideal, Jose Estela at the Cine Serena and Antonio J. Molina at Cine Empire.
By 1916 Abelardo enrolled at the UP Conservatory of Music studying during the day and working the cinema in the afternoon or in saloons at night. It is fascinating to see what jobs were open to the young and musically gifted at the time. One wonders what is the equivalent in our times.
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