Nicaragua: Alejandro Cousin on the Importance of Music Education (1888)

30

January
2013

The more I discover about Alejandro Cousin (d. 1910), a Belgian musician and businessman who moved to Nicaragua during the second half of the 19th Century, the more I become fascinated by his life and experiences, the more I become obsessed with searching for documents (or any evidence, really) about his life.

It was through a few leads that I came across an essay he wrote (see below), originally published in the Nicaraguan newspaper El País on January 19, 1888. As you will read, Cousin was a well-educated gentleman who not only knew his craft well, but was able articulate a strong argument for the importance of music and musicians in a country that was still developing. His observations are astute, to say the least.

Here is the original essay in translation*.

Music Education

It is an apparent fact that, after a few years here, the government of this Republic has made an effort at expanding public education, reducing illiteracy in the most remote villages, and preparing a new generation that would compare favorably with many cultivated countries in Latin America.

For this, one factor is necessary—peace—a requirement alongside the integrity of a government which has ruled up to this point, and with the hope that the future may see a continuance, which would undoubtedly advance education towards greater strides, and as a consequence, the progress of the agriculture industry, the only future wealth that the generous soil of this beautiful country bestows on us.

I repeat, the government has done much for education, but I dare say it isn’t everything they could have done. It might be due to omission or lack of initiative, yet one thing is certain, there’s an absence of music education in our cities. Music, which is heard in all programs on the smallest stages in other countries; music, which has raised the stature of some cities, more than literature; music, which strengthens familial ties and relieves the soul diminished by work; music, nearly the only diversion of long tropical nights; music, the necessary adornment of youth, etc.

As a country progresses, one necessity brings about another. Nicaragua’s advancement arrived a few years ago to the point at which music education can now be introduced.

Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica have known for some time how to fill this gap. They have established conservatories and schools of music, and unsurprisingly, in every city of each of those countries various symphony or philharmonic societies may be found (regularly presenting concerts); they perform masses by the best composers in their churches; they delight with the most popular dances; and provide theaters with orchestras, which without them, no opera could be presented, even the simplest zarzuelas.

Music is so common in Europe and the Americas that it dominates within many an establishment, first and foremost, in schools where music is part of the curriculum. As well, in institutes of arts and crafts, for the blind, orphanages, and even prisons, the most important factories, miners of coal and [ ] etc.—all possess music societies, either instrumental or vocal.

The delayed growth of music as an art form in Nicaragua is by no means unusual. Furthermore, those few musicians who achieved an average level are, indeed, worthy of praise, since they did much to achieve proficiency in music without an instructor.

The few musicians which Nicaragua possesses, referred to as “professors,” owe their achievements to individual efforts, who—having taken four or five times longer to arrive at than it should have taken if they had received lessons at a well-run school of music—have managed to make a name for themselves.

In general, those who dedicate themselves to the profession [ ]; their parents were able to discover great talent in them, while neglecting the acquisition of a trade. But, noting the disappointment of that error too late, which arrives at the moment when a living must be earned, they understand that they have achieved a certain level, acceptable for an amateur, yet insufficient to become a teacher.

In this country, the musician’s profession is something sacred to those who practice it, and yet unprofitable. After many years of living in Central America, I have yet to find a musician who has assets earned from their profession, while noting them all to be poor. For those that I’m aware of, there is no rarity among musicians who—seeing themselves without a future, some for want of ability, and others with ambition to someday achieve status—put aside their instruments in order to take up the hoe, the pen, or the rifle, later becoming famers, businessmen, university graduates, officials, or even generals and senators.

To what is owed these changes in career if not for the little money offered by that profession which tends to disappear for these and other reasons? I’ll take a moment here to give an example: a municipal tax which arrived indirectly to take away a musician’s daily bread. May the observation be excused and not recorded in this essay if said tax was not so damaging to tradesmen and all who work to earn a living through sweat and tears.

I now return to the point of my essay, which is to urge the government and the municipalities towards a goal of fostering music; that it may be taught in schools, and a conservatory of music established in the capital where teachers might be trained, who in turn would then direct schools in the departments. Within a few years, such progress will have come to deliver the perpetual monotony from Nicaragua. The sound of the piano and voice will be heard in the home; concerts of instrumental and vocal music in parks; and opera and zarzuela in the theater.

A. Cousin

*Please note that the brackets represent flawed sections in the original newspaper that were otherwise illegible.

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