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Cuban composer Tania León, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer for Music, will be honored at the Kennedy Center. She is the third Latina artist to receive the award. Photo by Marbeth.
Cuban composer Tania León, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer for Music, will be honored at the Kennedy Center. She is the third Latina artist to receive the award. Photo by Marbeth.

A Life Devoted to Music

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, Cuban composer Tania León is making history in the art of the United States. She will be honored at the Kennedy Center.

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Only one word was on the mind of a young pianist seeking to forge her way in the world of music: France. What this Cuban pianist never imagined was that the first stop on her way to the old continent would be North America.

It was 1967 and Tania León had the illusion of finding a job in the United States that would allow her to save enough money to cross the Atlantic and make her dream come true. But destiny had another fate in store for that little girl raised between the rhythm of the son and the piano. The artist spoke to AL DÍA from her house in New York.

I told my family that I wanted to go to France when I was 9 years old, and they looked at me as if I was crazy. First, where? And second, with what?, because my family was poor. And when I left Cuba, I used the only way I had at that time and it was thanks to a fellow conservatory student and her family who was linked to the Church. They sent me a form to apply and they supported me. The number on my application form was drawn because it was a lottery ticket, and it was the only ticket I ever got in my life, she says.

A Prolific Musical Career

Tania grew up in Havana in a family that forged her talent: Before she was one year old, she received a toy piano from her grandmother; at 4 she was studying music, and at 5, her grandfather gave her an upright piano.

However, her loved ones did not see an economic future in art and encouraged her to study accounting. This profession helped her get her first job in the United States. Between laughter and nostalgia, she recalls how her career took a turn thanks to people who discovered her talent and encouraged her to study composition.

Much water flowed under the bridge until Tania León managed to establish herself as a composer, director and advisor to artistic organizations. She is founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s Community Concert Series and co-founded the American Composers Orchestra’s Sounds of the Americas festival.

She holds honorary doctorates from Colgate, Oberlin, SUNY Purchase and The Curtis Institute. She was guest conductor with the Philharmonie de Marseille, the Gewandhausorchester, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Guanajuato and the Sinfónica de Cuba.

Her honors include the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2021 for her orchestral work Stride, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

Recent premieres include works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Arkansas Symphony, NDR Symphony, Grossman Ensemble and the album Teclas de mi piano (‘Keys of my Piano’), with eleven pieces composed over five decades and available on Spotify.

Making History

“Tania León has blessed this country for more than five decades with her astonishingly original compositions and continues to be a major influence in classical music”, said in a statement David Rubenstein, President of the Kennedy Center, the institution that on December 4th will honor her along with actor George Clooney, singer Bono, singer-songwriter Amy Grant and singer Gladys Knight.

Thus, Tania León will become the third Latina artist to receive the award after Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno and Cuban singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan.

Aware that her work is an example of representation for migrants, she prefers to defend a global mentality without distinctions: “I will always be Latina and nobody takes away my rice and beans; but I think that we are all from planet Earth, without divisions of races, I look according to my ancestors. It is the human race. And with the skin it is the same, it only protects the body. So why does color matter?”, she reflects.

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