Appreciating the Music of José White Lafitte

A. Kori Hill

The name José White Lafitte (1835–1918) may not be familiar to you. But he lived and worked with folks you may recognize. Like Louis Moreau Gottschalk: he was the pianist on José’s recital debut in 1854. Like Theodore Thomas: he conducted two performances with José and the New York Phil–the first time they had a Black soloist. Like Gioacchino Rossini–The Barber of Seville and William Tell guy–who wrote this to José in 1858: 

“Your warm execution, feeling, elegance, the brilliance of the school to which you belong, show qualities in you as an artist of which the French school may be proud.” 

José White Lafitte’s career took him all over the world; but his world began in Cuba. He was born to María Ecolásta Laffite, an Afro-Cuban woman, and Carlos White, a French businessman. He began studying music with his father, who also played violin; and when he showed that he was really good, started studying with Afro-Cuban José Miguel Román and Belgian Pedro Haserf. José was so good that a year after Gottschalk performed with him in Matanzas, the internationally renowned pianist and composer helped raise money so José could go study at the Paris Conservatoire. In the early 1800s, Paris was the center of classical culture and education, so the Conservatoire was very prestigious and very competitive. José not only got in but was accepted into the studio of Jean-Delphin Alard, a famous performer and pedagogue. In 1856, one year after entering the Conservatoire, he won the Prix de Rome in violin–one of the most prestigious prizes in classical music. 

José had a productive career as a performer, chamber musician, and teacher. He toured Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. He co-founded three chamber groups: Société des Trois Anciens et Modernes, Société Schumann, and a lecture-recital trio with Georges Pfeiffer and A. de Gasperini. He counted Camille Saint-Saens as a colleague and championed the music of Robert Schumann, who wasn’t as well appreciated in Parisian circles. He was the head of the Imperial Conservatory in Brazil at Rio de Janeiro from 1877 to 1889; and wrote at least thirty-two compositions, including Le Bella Cubana and his Violin Concerto in F sharp minor. 

José completed his Violin Concerto in 1864, when he started teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, filling in for Alard. He gave the Parisian premiere of his concerto in 1867, but the work wouldn’t be performed in the Americas until 1974, with Ruggiero Ricci as soloist with the Symphony of the New World under Kermit Moore in Avery Fisher Hall. Like his contemporary Henryk Wieniawski, José was riding the technique wave that Niccolo Paganini had inspired several decades before. His concerto has a lot of double stops, octaves, and large leaps that require the soloist to shift quickly and accurately. In the first movement, the main theme is dark and rhapsodic, leading to intense development by the soloist. The second movement also has wide leaps but within a lyrical, stately character. The final movement is inspired by folk qualities within a rondo form, not as serious as the first movement so it’s a lot more fun. Check out Rachel Barton Pine’s recording of it from 1997. If you fall in love with it, ask your teacher if you can learn it!

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