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The Life of Jorge Peña Hen, Part IV: An Enduring Legacy
Lautaro Rojas Flores, Faculty (Retired), Escuela Experimental de Música Jorge Peña Hen, Universidad de La Serena
Editor’s Note: Over the past few months, we have published a series of articles on the life and work of an early luminary in the Latin American music for social change movement, Jorge Peña Hen. Our series finishes this month with a look at Hen’s work immediately upon founding the Experimental School of Music for youth music education. If you haven’t yet, read Part I here; Part II here; and Part III here.
The new Experimental School of Music provided students with institutional stability. From that moment on, they belonged to the Ministry of Education. Musical subjects became the responsibility of the Regional Conservatory—also under Maestro Peña’s management—which depended on the faculty of Sciences and Musical Arts of the University of Chile in Santiago. Unfortunately, that faculty maintained the same obsolete norms and old procedures as the National Conservatory of Santiago.
In contrast, Maestro Peña’s music school concept was truly revolutionary in its academic structure. It represented a total curriculum change—different methodologies, new motivations, and participation across several orchestras and bands of different levels. However, the budget allocated by the University only supported a violin studio, a piano studio, and a singing studio. It would require a lot of resources to finance a music curriculum that featured teachers who specialized in all instruments, the purchase of those instruments, and reliable infrastructure.
Fate came to the institution’s aid. For several years, Jorge Peña had appealed to the area’s congressmen to draft and approve a law that would tax public shows, including cinema, at ten percent. This tax would then be used to finance musical activities in the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo. In the days following the school’s founding, the bill was approved by Congress, and the situation changed drastically. Finally, there would be enough resources to fulfill our long-harbored dreams of collective music-making.
Music schools were founded in the cities of Ovalle (56 miles from La Serena) and Copiapó, the capital of the Atacama region (208 miles from La Serena). Additional support was provided to launch the Music School in the city of Antofagasta, which was later closed due to the military coup d’état on September 11, 1973.
New instruments were purchased. Seeking musicians of a higher instrumental and academic level, we recruited professional musicians from the Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestras of Santiago. These teachers formed an orchestra that toured numerous cities and towns in the Coquimbo and Atacama regions.
At the end of that year, the Children’s Symphony Orchestra performed at the Municipal Theater of Santiago, the most important concert hall in the country. Their success was a big surprise. The audience gave several standing ovations. The press did not spare praise—both musically and in a broader context, as many reporters highlighted the benefits of Maestro Peña’s new pedagogy.
It was a time of strength and hopeful will. Maestro Peña dedicated himself to working with the Children’s Symphony Orchestra, writing arrangements that empowered students to play works of great difficulty—usually more than one arrangement for the same piece, so that different types of ensembles could perform.
As more people became invested in our cause, we continued to dream bigger. In 1966, Maestro Peña composed the children’s opera La Cenicienta (Cinderella), which premiered in La Serena with a performance by the Children’s Symphony Orchestra. All the acting and the voices were performed by students of the Experimental School of Music.
In 1971, I moved to Santiago for personal reasons, where eventually I joined the National Symphony Orchestra as a violinist. And then, suddenly, everything changed. Nearly ten years after our fateful performance at Teatro del Liceo de Niñas, the military-civilian coup d’état took place in 1973. On October 16 of that year, Maestro Peña was killed by the Caravan of Death without proven cause, in the very same Arica Regiment whose band honored him with a retreta (military parade) every year. He was shot to death simply because he belonged to a left-wing political coalition.
Maestro’s death at such a young age was a mortal blow to the music project. The local citizens were speechless when they heard the news over the radio, incredulous at the atrocity that had been committed.
What followed was a series of brutal consequences for our work. The tax law that benefited local music was repealed—and, with it, all our operational and hiring expenses. And the consequences weren’t just financial. The origin and philosophy behind our work was suddenly obscured, as administrative and financial agendas overshadowed its importance. Music and traditional academic subjects were once again separated entirely. “A music school for children”—one simple idea, made complicated by red tape.
Today, the Experimental School of Music Jorge Peña Hen exists as a state-subsidized school with contributions from the students’ parents. The instruments and teacher salaries are funded by the Universidad de La Serena, which in turn charges the Experimental School of Music a fee for their services. The music schools in Ovalle, Coquimbo, and Copiapó now operate under the supervision of their respective municipalities, while in Antofagasta, a privately run music school was launched instead.
This loss changed the destinies of many instrument teachers, who emigrated not only from the city but also from the country, many of them for political reasons. Among those who went into voluntary exile were professors Pedro Vargas and Hernán Jerez, who brought the idea of musical pedagogy to Venezuela and whose achievements and successes are known worldwide.
As for me, I packed my bags and moved to San Pedro Sula in Honduras, where I took over as Director of the Victoriano López School, a traditional teaching school financed with contributions from the municipality and private companies. My wife joined as a flute teacher. She obtained the funds to create the San Pedro Sula Music School, emulating the structure of the La Serena Music School. This allowed students from Victoriano Lopez to begin music studies at the age of 6, instead of 14. It is one of many ways we honor Maestro Peña’s legacy.
I do not doubt that the life and death of Maestro Peña will never be forgotten. His work remains alive. And when we honor him, we honor all those anonymous heroes who overcome adversity to bring music into the world.