Biography of José Vázquez

European Journal of Early Music,
Spring 1996 (Vol. 52, No. 1)

“The Man Plays”

Profile of a Viol Player by Christian Fuchs (Vienna)

The first crossing: from the jungle to the metropolis

True, he spent his childhood – every free moment of it – playing in the subtropical jungles of his native Cuba, where he learned to draw taut another kind of bow. Nevertheless, his parents, both ophthalmologists, envisaged another, “complimentary” form of education for him: the bilingually-run English school of St. George in Havana. As if by a fortuitous twist of fate, this better enabled him to better cope with the new environment in Chicago, where the tribulations of the Revolution displaced him on his tenth birthday. The North American sojourn – initially expected to be a mere respite – lasted thirteen long years, during which he completed secondary school at the most progressive institution of the country: Evanston High School, with its innovative system of – independent study, which equipped students with the ability to learn on their own. It was also here that he made the portentous choice of German – “the most difficult of the three offered” – as his foreign language. Did he already know towards which shores Fate would navigate him next? At Northwestern University, he also, by choice, enrolled in upper-level musicology courses , in addition to regular studies towards his biology degree.Even in his jungle days, the Beethoven Violin Concerto had been his most treasured record (incidentally, he has never taken to anything except classical music). So when the time came – at twelve years of age – he exchanged his outwardly curved Indian bow for an inwardly curved one, but only for a short time… His fondness of the Baroque masters led him while in high school to organise playing sessions of the Brandenburg concertos, Vivaldi, Handel, Corelli and the like: a premonition of things to come. Inquiring into the history of the violin, he came across the viol, becoming instantly convinced of this instrument’s virtues, above all, of the richness of the consort repertoire. Acquiring a viol from a local violin dealer shortly before entering the university, he set out to find himself a teacher: a difficult task in Chicago in 1969. The systematic search of the region yielded a total of sixteen viol players, none of whom felt himself competent enough to teach. One of them, the internationally renowned musicologist, Howard Meyer Brown, invited him to join the Collegium Musicum of the University of Chicago, in which he played for the next four years. The works studied under Professor Brown’s supervision ranged from the Cantigas of Alfonso el Sabio, through the unpublished transcriptions of Florentine music of Lorenzo de’ Medici to the cantatas of Rameau: one of the most worthwhile learning experiences of his life. For professional tutelage on the viol in America one had to rely on the summer courses; at the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute Catharina Meints and August Wenzinger changed his stroke to a more elegant one and, more importantly, his attitude towards music to a more serious one.

The second and third crossings: the Atlantic, the Pyrenees

The year 1974 ushered in an even more drastic revolution in our subject’s life: he left the USA for Europe, more specifically, for Spain, the land of his grandparents, ostensibly to continue his medical studies. Realising rather quickly that the University of Madrid differed substantially from its American counterparts (where helicopters, mounted police and tear gas were seldom employed for didactic purposes), he decided – carpe diem – to explore this wonderful country. He did so with viol in hand, by joining every early music group in Madrid for concerts all over Spain. This intense concertising was to prove an immense help during the next stage of his life, heralded by yet another dramatic revolution: in 1975, after completing the year’s exams at the medical faculty, he packed up his viol and left for Basel to commence studies with one of the finest teachers of the instrument, Hannelore Mueller. The regular concert trips to Spain helped to provide a minuscule pecuniary basis (supplemented by a position as violinist in a chamber orchestra and teaching Spanish and English at a language school) while also bringing a welcome change of scene from grey (the weather) and grim (the school) Basel.
Not knowing how long the Helvetian days would last or even how long he would remain in Europe, he decided right from the start to make use of the opportunity to work diligently on his German. Although auditioning with works by Forqueray, but his teacher called his bluff: from this point on, he decided to analyse the problems of viol technique and to master every detail of it step by step. This required approximately four to six hours of technical practising with no exceptions during a period of three years. While completing his studies, his interest in painting and history led him to found a concert series at the Basel Museum of Fine Arts, combining the pictorial arts with the music of the period. Thus, when in 1980, he was appointed to the Conservatory of Music at Winterthur, Switzerland to do courses in performance practice – a position he still holds today – he had already presented many lecture-concerts, although many more were to come.
Similarly when in 1982 he was asked to audition to become professor of viola da gamba at the Vienna Hochschule (Music Academy) – a position previously held by Prof. Wenzinger – his knowledge of German was sufficient, the repertoire had been learnt, and a lecture on the change of aesthetics in painting and music from the Renaissance to the Baroque had been prepared. None of this was ever planned: only in retrospect does it seem so. Obviously this is the main tenor in the life of José Vázquez: should one call it “planned coincidence” or “coincidental planning”? Meanwhile, the yearly meetings of the Winterthur viol class and friends, originally designed to get the viol players of the region acquainted with each other while doing some friendly consort playing, eventually coalesced through the efforts of some of his students into what is now the Viola da Gamba Society of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, with about one thousand members and a quarterly newsletter. A seed was planted and nourished and it grew!


The final crossing: from the Alps to the Apennines and the Mediterranean Coast

Ever since his Chicago days, José has had a keen interest in musical instruments. From the initial idea of gathering a fine set of two violins and a viol for the performance of trio sonatas to the outstanding collection of about 100 string instruments from 1585 to 1780 – all restored to their original condition – is indeed a long way. And for anyone who has ever met him, it would seem that the search has just begun: this is almost like a game he plays. He has decided to look for a home for the collection. At the moment Vázquez, together with a board of associates – is planting a bigger seed: they are working intensely on the realisation of “Orpheon”: a project that comprises not only the museum, but also the creation of a trust or foundation which will have as its purpose the maintenance of the collection and the running of musical activities – concerts and recordings – connected with these instruments and later on an institute for performance practice. The instruments – the strings at least – will also be regularly exhibited abroad. In the past, the exhibition has been presented in Italy, Austria, Germany and Taiwan.


“Thus march we playing until our latest rest…”