Roque Cordero Reconsidered

Roque Cordero (1917-2008) was the premier composer of his native Panamá during the twentieth century and became internationally known for his synthesis of modernist techniques with the rhythms of Latin dance. Despite his significant stature and prestige, the reception of his work has been marred by a number of unfortunate misperceptions, especially in his adopted country, the United States. Nearly every writer who discusses his music mentions that he is a 12-tone composer, insisting that his works are not “strictly” dodecaphonic. (This trend likely began with Gilbert Chase’s 1959 assertion that Cordero “employs [serial technique] freely rather than dogmatically.”) This qualification is misguided on several grounds. First and foremost, such a claim implies that his works are not composed with the same serial rigor as those of Arnold Schoenberg, when, in fact, analysis reveals that Cordero at times employed techniques of row development comparable to those found in the mature works of Schoenberg, Webern, and Babbitt. Secondly, describing his works as “loosely” 12-tone suggests that a composer’s works only may be considered properly serial if they are characterized by the same procedures as those used by the aforementioned composers. Yet in the pieces where Cordero deviates from the perceived canonical procedures developed by Schoenberg (et alia), his works betray significant similarities to the respective (and idiosyncratic) methods of Schoenberg’s own prodigy, Alban Berg, and—most crucially—Cordero’s own teacher, Ernst Krenek. By studying the corpus of Cordero’s work in greater depth and by comparing his techniques to those of Krenek, his first mentor outside of Panamá—which to my knowledge has no precedent in the scholarly literature—this paper aims to redress misconceptions about his music while revealing previously unexplored affinities with the works of his European and North American peers.