Confined in his quarters, Dr. Francisco Feliciano, DMA, rustles his fingers to the soft beats of the music playing from his bedside. At the age of 73, the world-renowned composer and conductor has spent his life creating music that exemplifies his genius, his beliefs, and his Filipino pride.
Known for various liturgical and contemporary pieces, Feliciano dedicated his life’s work to the “contextualization” of music to its environment, thus earning his permanent position in Philippine history as one of the six National Artists conferred by Malacañang on June 20.
The news of his conferment first came to him while he was in the hospital recovering from pneumonia. Though his age and physical condition has rendered him weak, he finds strength and happiness through this recognition of his body of work, which he shares with his loving family who remained by his side through all his endeavors.
“Even in this condition, at least I am [now]a National Artist,” Feliciano told his daughter, Dr. Julet Feliciano-Batara, who was attending to him at the time of the announcement.
“We found out [about the conferment]through his sister, Dr. Olivia de Leon, who forwarded a congratulatory message from a town mate that saw the news about the proclamation on television and on Twitter,” the proud daughter narrated.
Together with his daughter and his wife Rebecca, Feliciano graciously welcomed The Sunday Times Magazine to his family’s humble Quezon City home last week to share his life’s musical journey in an exclusive interview.
“You would see him composing even in his bed,” his wife told The Sunday Times Magazine while Feliciano rested. “He would close his eyes and his hands would move as if he were conducting an orchestra.”
Even as he struggles with stage four cancer, Feliciano is still able to create music with the help of his family who are all musically trained and educated. He is currently commissioned to work on an opera titled Amy, a historical account of the war set in Leyte province.
Accustomed to pain and challenges throughout his career, Feliciano always struggled to be understood by the Filipino audience. But now with the National Artist award, he feels that his hurdles have turned into triumphs. The award is indeed a dream-come-true for the gifted man.
“My father’s works are highly intellectual. He created pieces that are beyond his time. But now that Filipinos are more discerning, his works are better appreciated by a wider audience,” Batara said.
A highly educated musical scholar who is known internationally, Feliciano has composed numerous exceptional pieces in different forms and themes. Described as a “monumental opera” by another National Artist for Music, Ramon Santos, Feliciano identified La Loba Negra as his proudest work—a full-length opera adapted from the novel of Fr. Jose Burgos, which took him three years to complete.
He also authored the book, Four Asian Contemporary Composers: The Influence of Tradition in Their Works published in 1983, and has composed music for ballets, orchestras, and for the church throughout his career.
Among his long list of choral compositions, Pokpok Alimpako and Pamugun are two of his highly acclaimed pieces both here and abroad. These are his works, which have been chosen as competition pieces and performed by local and international choirs to this very day.
Feliciano has also been invited as guest conductor in the national orchestras of Moscow, Chicago, New Zealand, Taiwan and the Nihon Shinsei Symphony, and was a proud principal conductor of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) for eight years during the 1980s.
As a music professor who taught exceptional Filipino talents like Maestro Ryan Cayabyab among many others, Feliciano openly expressed his dismay over the current PPO principal conductor. “There are talented Filipino conductors who are much more worthy of the [PPO principal conductor] position. Instead we have a foreign conductor leading our national orchestra who probably earns a higher salary than most local conductors,” he stated.
As founder and director of the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music (AILM), and president of Samba-Likhaan Foundation: The Asian School of Music, Worship, and the Arts, Feliciano’s musical career is heavily immersed in liturgical music—focusing on the country’s traditions as portrayed in his heavenly hymns and melodies.
A rare combination of intellect, creativity, passion, and faith, Feliciano awakens the auditory spirits of Filipinos through an inspirational story of his life’s devotion to music of praise and of his people.
Born into the band
“Kiko,” as he is called by family and friends, is fourth in a brood of nine children. With a father who owned their hometown’s Morriz Band of Morong, Rizal, the young Feliciano was unable to escape his musical fate.
While his mother managed a catering business, the Feliciano siblings became part of their father’s band that held regular practices in their backyard. It was in this joyous and energetic environment that Feliciano became aware of the beauty of music and its magic on people.
“My family owned the Morriz Band and band practices were regularly held literally in our backyard. We were nine brothers and sisters and all my brothers also played in the band. The first musical instrument I played were the piano and clarinet,” Feliciano shared.
Ever since he could remember, he had always been exposed to music. For besides managing the town band, his father was also an organ player in the parish church.
As active members of the church and municipality, music was that which got the Felicianos involved in the community.
“I think I was both born with a musical inclination and the influence of my environment. Growing up, I don’t think I can pinpoint an exact time of my life when I was most fascinated with music as I lived with music all my life,” the National Artist said.
As an excellent student who graduated valedictorian in primary and secondary schools, Feliciano spent his growing years buried in books and practicing music.
Aware of his intellectual gift and thirst for knowledge, he initially thought of setting his musical talents aside to pursue a career in Medicine.
However, as fate once again played part in Feliciano’s life, he suddenly lost his father even before he went to college, prompting him to shift interests from science to musical arts. Taking over his father’s tasks in the band and church, the young man soon forgot about his dreams of becoming a doctor and focused on music.
“My father suddenly died and I had to take over the band and I also took over his task of playing for church services. This is the root of my deep involvement with liturgical music,” the renowned composer related.
Feliciano earned his Bachelor of Music in Composition at the University of the Philippines (UP) in 1967. During his years in UP, he learned the techniques of his craft, and was mentored by such musical geniuses as Eliseo Fajardo, among many others. It was his first formal education in music that set his high standards in a quest for excellence.
Learning the classics and incorporating them with contemporary sounds and liturgical music, Feliciano began his journey toward a flourishing musical career.
“I have always been an academician, so pursuing my field to the highest degree even if it was music rather than medicine was something I strived for, and I am thankful I was given the opportunity to do so. I had the best teachers in contemporary composition and their various influences helped to shape me into the composer I was to become,” Feliciano said.
While in school, the strong-willed musician took an additional position in his musical responsibilities. In 1965, he was appointed musical director of the St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in Quezon City, a responsibility he held until 2001.
This further deepened his exposure and interest in developing church music, as the idea of incorporating Philippine musical traditions into worship songs first came to him.
“The idea of contextualization started when he attended a church conference in Hong Kong during the ‘60s. With his creative impulse stirred, he started writing hymns that mirrored the Filipino soul, with melodies drawn from Filipino music traditions like the balintaw and danzas, and the pasyon-singing during Holy Week,” Feliciano’s AILM (Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music) profile revealed.
A few years after graduation, Feliciano took an assistant professor post at the UP College of Music before deciding to take his Masters of Music in the same college.
As he continued to learn the theories behind the art of music, he also maintained his position as musical director in the seminary, as well as his teaching job in the college.
Relentless in improving his craft as a liturgical composer, he moved his young family to Germany where he took on Special Studies in Church Music at the Berliner Kirchenmusikschule, and subsequently earned his Diploma in Music Composition in Hochschule der Kunste, also in Berlin.
“In Berlin, my education was both in the Berliner Church Music School and at the Berlin School of Music. In Germany, I was very fortunate to be taught by Heinz Werner Zimmerman and Isang Yun,” he said.
He then started composing choral works such as the Isostasie II violin solo in 1979, and it was during his time in Germany that he gave serious thought into establishing a school of church music and liturgy in the Philippines, which was based from his own experience in the progressive and highly-cultural European country.