Roque Cordero’s Adagio trágico

Notes by Peter Laki, Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College

“When you read about me, you will find that I am the only composer from Panama, and because I am the only one, I am called the best,” Roque Cordero said, with typical self-deprecating irony, in an interview with noted Chicago radio host Bruce Duffie. Having moved to the United States as a young student, Cordero received a thoroughly European education, studying with Ernst Krenek at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and receiving advice, as well as financial support, from Dimitri Mitropoulos, then the music director of the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra). After completing his studies, Cordero went back to his native country, where he directed the National Conservatory of Music and led the National Symphony of Panama, eventually returning to the United States to accept appointments at Indiana and Illinois State Universities.

Despite its brevity, Adagio trágico had an unusually long gestation period. Cordero first started working on it in 1946 after the death of his mother. He then set it aside, completing it only in 1955 after another tragic event: the assassination of Panamanian President José Antonio Remón Cantera, whose wife, Cecilia Pinel de Remón, had been a benefactor of Cordero’s. The composer recalled that, after receiving a request for a musical tribute to the late president, he finished the piece “in five days, with all the emotional intensity accumulated over the years.”

The use of the 12-tone technique produces some highly chromatic melodic lines and harmonic progressions, creating an elegiac mood. The central portion of the work is taken up by a fugato culminating in a fortissimo climax and then subsiding into pianissimo. The cellos and basses, having opened the work, also conclude it all by themselves, on a single, haunting unison note.