The Orchestra Hall of Chicago Musical College was filled to capacity during that unusually cold evening of December 12, 1931. In spite of the snowstorm that started earlier that afternoon, people came to hear what promised to be an interesting concert. They were going to hear, along with the music of Mozart, Liszt, Massenet, Lalo, Rossini, and Saint-Saens, the music of “that student composer from the Philippine Islands.”
To the people in that hall, the name Nicanor Abelardo was no longer new.
They had heard his Sinfonietta for String Orchestra, Violin Sonata, and the delightful Caprice for Flute, Violin, and Piano. It was ‘The Flower and the Bird,’ heard at some of the earlier student concerts that they liked.
Now, they came to see for themselves more of what this “little, dark Filipino” could do to prove his much heralded talent as musician and composer. Their judgment was based on the piece built on a larger scale. It was his Concert Overture, Cinderella.
After the intermission, the house lights dimmed as the conductor mounted the podium. There was an air of anticipation among the audience. From the first downbeat of the Cinderella Overture, the conductor felt the orchestra responding to him and to the music. The audience was touched by the inspired performance of the orchestra.
Then, the long ovation came as the audience was on their feet. Many were
shouting “Bravo!” Time and again the composer was called onstage. He was not expecting an enthusiastic reception like this. Tears made shiny the edges of his bespectacled eyes as he thought of his wife and children on the other side of the world. “They should see me now,” he thought.
Would they think that all those months of separation were worth this?
A few nights later in the quietness of his room he started writing a letter, describing the events and his emotions that evening. That was the most intelligent audience and the most enthusiastic crowd ever to hear his work, Abelardo wrote. Cinderella Overture had become the “salient feature of the evening.”
To him, it was still too good to be true. He was filled with an emotion he had never felt before in his whole life. The “skeptical critics” and fellow musicians, he wrote, came to him and shook his hand in recognition and respect.
The Cinderella Overture had won him the prestigious Wesley La Violette Scholar Award worth $1,000. Among his photographs he brought home was an autographed portrait of Wesley La Violette himself, given to him with an inscription, which says, “with every good wish for the development of his fine talent.” There were also photographs of his other professors. One even autographed his picture with “in pleasant remembrance of your charming Cinderella Overture.
But towards the end of that letter he wrote, “All this success is only a warning, a crucial point of what lies before me, the roughest, toughest, most rugged road towards my ultimate goal—SUCCESS.”
In less than three short years after that “success” in Chicago, in a small white room of the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Manila, Nicanor Abelardo died—a bitter, broken man.
But this is not a story of failure, for through all those years, Nicanor Abelardo lived on in the hearts and spirits of his people, becoming more and more a legend.
This is the story of Nicanor Abelardo’s life, the greatest Filipino composer, theorist, teacher, and best loved of all Filipino musicians.
(Preface to Nicanor Abelardo, The Man and the Artist, A Biography [Manila: Rex Bookstore, 1996]. Epistola, cellist, composer, and poet, is now based in Sarasota, Florida where he rose from member to conductor of the city’s orchestra and became a music teacher. With bachelor’s degrees in music and English from UP, he went to Yale and got his Master of Music degree. His book was based on an undergraduate thesis for his A.B. English, and had since been expanded into its present form.—Literary Editor)