Biography Benjamín Gutiérrez

Compositor Costarricense

BENJAMIN GUTIERREZ was born in San José, Costa Rica on January 3rd, 1937. At a very young age he began his musical studies with his maternal grandmother, the daughter of Pilar Jiménez, a well known cellist and composer within Costa Rica. In 1953 he entered the Conservatory of Music at the University of Costa Rica where he studied piano with Miguel Angel Quesada. He left to Guatemala in 1957, after receiving a grant, and studied piano and composition with Augusto Adenois at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música de Guatemala.
Mr. Gutiérrez continued his musical studies at the New England Conservatory of Boston where he obtained a Master of Music degree in 1960. In 1961 he continued his composition studies in Aspen, Colorado with the French composer Darius Milhaud, and in Ann Arbor, Michigan with Ross Lee Finney. The early sixties were a period of great musical productivity for this composer. His most important works from this time period are Improvisation for String Orchestra, Symphonic Prelude, Pavana for strings, Absolutio Post Missam Pro Defunctis for choir, soloists and orchestra. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Trio for Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano, and Woodwind Quintet with Piano and Percussion for seven instrumentalists. As will characterize his entire career as a composer, there is a good variety of music, ranging from pieces exclusively for strings to pieces that encompass more instruments.

In 1965, by means of a grant, Gutiérrez was able to study at the Latin American Center for Music Study of the Torcuato Di Tella Institute of Buenos Aires, Argentina. There he was to earn the Degree of Composer at the highest level based on his studies of orchestration and composition with the renowned composer Alberto Ginastera. This stay in Argentina was a critical time in his artistic formation, particularly his studies with Ginastera, and put him more deeply into contact with Latin American music.

Gutiérrez’s primary means of livelihood has been as a professor of musical composition at the University of Costa Rica, where he now has Professor Emeritus status after many years of service, service which included a period as Director of the School of Music. Through the years he has conducted orchestras, choirs, and operas within Latin America and Europe. At one time he was the Assistant Director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica. Gutiérrez built his reputation as a composer in the ’60s and ’70s and continued to produce major works into the mid ’80s. In 1983 he worked with Pierre Boulez at the IRCAM in Paris. His last piece to receive the national award in Costa Rica was El Regalo de los Reyes o Las Dos Evas, an opera which was recognized for its quality in 1985.

Into the ’90s he continued to make public appearances as a pianist (as a soloist and chamber musician he developed a very strong reputation within Costa Rica) and was the subject of a number of press interviews.. Repeatedly he has emphasized that young composers need support and opportunities to develop their skills and to have their works performed. Since 1994 he has been the Costa Rican liaison for a program that awards scholarships to Costa Ricans to study music in France.

As a composer he received a number of awards. Examples would be honorable mention at the Aspen Music Festival in 1960 and first prize at the Juegos Florales de Guatemala in 1966. But his major awards are the national award within Costa Rica for musical composition which is named the «Aquileo Echeverría Award.» Gutiérrez received this national award a record number of times: 1962, 1963, 1964, 1973, 1977, 1980, 1985.

Gutiérrez has always displayed an interest in different musical genre. His first major piece Marianela (premiered at the National Theater of Costa Rica in October of 1957) is an opera that was produced at the time in his life when he realized that his true vocation was as a composer and not performer. With a marked appreciation for the bel canto style of singing and its vast repertoire, it is not surprising that his first major piece, written at a very young age, was an opera. He would go on to produce pieces for strings, for the piano, for choir, soloists and orchestra, for band and piano, for orchestra, for woodwinds and percussion, for clarinet, bassoon and piano, and so on.
Some of his works consciously reflect literary and historical influences beginning with Marianela (1957) which is based on the novel by the great Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, continuing with Homenaje a Juan Santamaría (1966, a piece for orchestra conducted at one time by Leonard Bernstein), focusing on Costa Rica’s national hero in the war of liberation of 1857, Presencia de Jorge Bravo (1979), music for orchestra combined with the reading of poems written by Jorge Bravo, and culminating in the mid ’80s with the opera El Regalo de Los Reyes o Las Dos Evas (1985), the plot of which is based on a short story by 0’Henry titled The Gift ofthe Magji, and the orchestral music for Fuego y Sombra de Federico García Lorca (1986), the theater work by Lil Picado first performed in C.R/s National Theater with the participation of the National Dance Company and the National Symphony Orchestra. This last work was dedicated to Federico García Lorca (fifty years after his death as an early victim of the Spanish Civil War) and is based on García Lorca’s last poem Gazela de la muerte oscura.
Gutiérrez reports that he employs different techniques but does not consider himself follower of a particular style and does not feel compelled to use anything in particular as a composer. He is a great admirer of the lyricism of Brahms (to whom his first symphony – winner of the national prize in 1980 – is dedicated) and emphasizes that it is important to write what one feels. His orchestration is considered to be clear and precise. Gutiérrez’s works utilize different harmonic styles and a great variety of genres that are enriched by how he treats the harmony. While not abandoning tonality, Gutiérrez often plays with polytonality. Divergent tonalities move his music into post-romanticism. Las tres canciones para soprano y piano, for example, contains climaxes that remind us of Wagner and delayed resolutions reminiscent of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Overall the harmonic techniques and polyrhythms heard frequently in Gutiérrez’s works remind us of the music of Bela Bartók and Bartók appears to constitute a key influence on Gutiérrez’s musical production. An example that comes to mind is La danza de la pena negra, a short piece for piano, which is also influenced by the driving rhythms and harmonis of some of Ginastera’s works.
Certainly characteristic of Gutiérrez’s music is a lyrical melodic line. In his La Tocatína (1973); written for the violinist Jan Dobrzelewsky and the cellist Jacques Trvillet), for instance- there is much use of polyrhythms with a strong emphasis on counterpoint while maintaining a theme which is presented in its original structural line, then inverted, at times fragmented, and then concluding with the same melodic line. The musical language is contemporary but the contrapuntal techniques, traditional.
Of his varied musical production, the most popular pieces appear to be Preludio y la danza de la pena negra and the piano versión of La Pavana. The latter work was written originally for a string quartet or string orchestra and in memory of a relative named Carmen María who died very young. In speaking of the piece, Gutiérrez emphasizes the traditional Latin American notion that dead children become angels in heaven.
Based on the length of his career as a composer, the variety of what he has composed, and the awards that he has received, Benjamín Gutiérrez has long been considered Costa Rica’s leading composer in the latter part of the twentieth century. In 2000 he was honored as the Musician of the Century by La Nación Diary (most important newspaper of Costa Rica), and in 2001 he received the Magón Award, for a work of a lifetime.