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Jorge Peña Hen: A Different Kind of Human Being
Lautaro Rojas Flores, Faculty (Retired), Escuela Experimental de Música Jorge Peña Hen, Universidad de La Serena
Editor’s Note: Last month, we published an introduction to the life and work of an early luminary in the Latin American music for social change movement, Jorge Peña Hen. In the meantime, we have learned that one article hardly scratches the surface of Pen’s amazing story. This month, we continue our series on Jorge Peña Hen with an article from one of his contemporaries that describes Hen’s early years through his pivot to youth music education.
“With intelligence and will, can one sow and harvest in the desert?”
As a young man of only 17, Jorge Peña Hen was already reflecting on serious issues in 1945. In particular, the Composition and Orchestral Conducting student at the National Conservatory of Music in Santiago (Chile) had been influenced by radical new ideas about democratizing music education, and he was determined to take his new vision to the provinces.
When Pen arrived in La Serena in 1950 as a music teacher at the Liceo de Niñas, his dedication to the cause was absolute. Those of us closest to him witnessed firsthand his capacity for work. For him, there were no days off; even holidays and vacations were spent composing, planning, and organizing his projects. As soon as he settled in, Pen created a society in order to implement his vision legally and effectively. His institution, the Sociedad Juan Sebastián Bach de La Serena (J.S. Bach Society), was founded on July 28, 1950, in commemoration of the second centennial of Bach’s death. The society had just eight members, none of whom could have foreseen the scope and impact our work would have.
During our first meeting, it was decided that the society’s mission would be to spread classical music across the nation, using music education to reach everyone regardless of social status. Quickly, a choir and a string orchestra were created. Many were interested in the choir, having heard about Pen’s prestigious reputation from his time at the National Conservatory. The same could not be said of the string orchestra. There were only a few amateur musicians in the area; all musical activity was centered over 250 miles away, in Santiago.
Faced with this dilemma, Maestro Peña and his friends began searching for amateur musicians—mainly violinists—in the districts of La Serena and Coquimbo. They looked in unexpected places, for example finding violinist Luis Escandel in a local boîte and persuading him to join. Eventually, the orchestra had eight or nine violinists—the Maestro convinced two of them to switch from violin to viola—and one double bassist. However, no one was interested in playing the cello. Eventually, word got around that a police officer named Edin Hurtado was a cello enthusiast. The maestro not only persuaded Hurtado of the project’s importance but even got the police chief himself to grant his officer permission to rehearse during work hours.
This was just one of many occasions where Maestro’s charisma and persuasive power saved the day. For instance, when the repertoire required wind instruments, we appealed to the Chief of the Arica Regiment to allow musicians from his band to play with us. (In a cruel irony, this regiment would be responsible for Maestro Peña’s death many years later.)
We had formed a chamber orchestra. The group began touring within the region, extending our map to include the neighboring area of Atacama. Our activity was so intense and so well known that the Municipality of La Serena began to grant subsidies for the basic operational expenses of the J.S. Bach Society.
It was a great period. Even with so few resources, we were able to perform concerts, tour the region, and welcome guest musicians and guest conductors of renown. In doing so, we were able to expand our repertoire. Shows such as the Retablos de Navidad—massive performances intended to represent biblical events, set to music for both the choir and orchestra and performed by local actors—led to widespread community enthusiasm. Carpenters, seamstresses, and other specialists worked just for the honor of participating.
During this first decade, the Bach Society gained enough prestige that the Municipality granted a larger subsidy for the year 1959. Suddenly, the orchestra was able to fill instrument vacancies, finding its first oboe and bassoon players as well as other musicians to reinforce the weaker ranks. Growth led to more growth; the orchestra began performing works of great difficulty, hiring international soloists and conductors. Its structure fundamentally changed; the orchestra was renamed Orquesta Filarmónica de La Serena.
From 1959 to 1962, La Serena was a musical hub, featuring winter and summer concert seasons that extended to neighboring cities and towns. This was an incredible time of social and musical connection, but it came to an abrupt end in 1963, when a budget deficit caused the local government to stop supporting our institution financially. It was a hard blow for all of us. Musicians who had joined from all over returned to their places of origin. After 12 years of fighting for a social-artistic ideal, we were right back where we started—a local orchestra once more.
Disillusioned, we searched for answers. And for three weeks, none came. Until Maestro Peña received an invitation to observe schools and universities in the United States, where music was considered an important factor in the cultural education of young Americans. He accepted and left for the States. What he saw there changed everything. “We were wrong in wanting to create an artistic center without stable financing, depending on other institutions whose contribution relies on the will of other people,” he wrote me in a letter. “We must change the orientation of our work and focus on instrumental music teaching from childhood…In this way, music would be a large part of our societal heritage.”
We had to give this idea form and structure. And so, in 1964, we began teaching symphonic instruments to some of the city’s public-school students. We started small, teaching only fourth graders.
This was not only a drastic change for us—it contrasted entirely with the area’s traditional teaching models. In Santiago’s private music schools, students had to first have their own instruments, and then pass challenging admission exams that no inexperienced musician could pass. After clearing those hurdles, accepted students were expected to pay expensive tuition fees inaccessible to the average family.
We sought to fill the void that this system created. All students could access music without owning an instrument. Our only “exam” sought to detect difficulties with hands or hearing. And, of course, classes were free. We called our idea “Plan Docente Musical.”
Thus began a new phase in all of our lives. We became more than musicians: we were leading a movement that would impact generations of young people in Chile and abroad. And it was all thanks to Maestro Peña’s observance that every young person deserves access to music.
Next month, our series on Jorge Peña Hen continues with a look at the years following his newfound focus on youth music education.