Looking Back

Music for silent movies

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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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