Timeless: Musing on music and Rizal

by Sampaguita B. Flores-Nepomuceno

Leonor Rivera

Music is timeless in our environment—from informal noises that do sound musical to the classical music and the modern music of popular culture. Music has been part of humanity’s environment since before the dawn of recorded history.

What if we find ourselves having a conversation with National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal about music? Now, there’s a thought. Colleges and universities teach the subject of Rizal so students can learn about the person behind the hero, the man who penned the well-known novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

Definitely, Rizal wrote poems, essays, and editorials in the Spanish newspaper La Solidaridad. He composed the words that immortalized his affair with Leonor Rivera, the song is titled, “Leonor.” Spoiler alert: The two were not destined to be together. Their romantic story was an unpleasant tragedy, true, but it is the stuff of literature. “Leonor” was written in Spanish and the piano accompaniment to it was arranged by Dr. Alejandro Venteres, a member of the Venteres family who were the Riveras’ landlords in Dagupan, Pangasinan. A copy of the musical score is contained in the coffee-table book, Dagupan: The Story of a Coastal City and Dagupan Bangus. Rivera is widely believed to be the inspiration for the character of Maria Clara in Rizal’s two novels.

If one were, indeed, conversing with Rizal, we’d have the opportunity to hear his thoughts on the music now favoured by the Millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 1995), Generation Z (1996-2010) and Gen Alpha (2011 to present). He might be astounded by this new music, or disoriented after a decade of listening to these modern musical pieces. The author of the essay “The Philippines a Cewntury Hence” might even be overwhelmed, seeing as his last musical experiences were probably the kundimans , folk songs and zarzuelas of the Spanish colonial era. The man didn’t get to see the Philippines as a nation sovereign and free, you know.

National hero Jose Rizal

Let me quote Rizal from his fourth letter to his parents and brothers dated 11 March 1886, and written at 12 Ludwigaplatz, Heidelberg, Germany on the topic of Fackelzug : “It is worth describing to you the Fackelzug or the torch festival which I mentioned to you in my previous letter. On the occasion of the election of the Rector, the students numbering from 650 to 700, hold this celebration. All are dressed in the uniform of their corporations, usually preceded by two bearing duel swords. Each corporation selects its finish young men and these lead the march. Ahead go the Rector and the highest official in a carriage and behind them march the students with bands of music. All carry lighted torches and walk at a light gait.” He continues: “After going through the streets of Heidelberg, they all gather at this square and form a square leaving a big space in the middle. At a given signal all throw their torches up in the air – seven hundred torches fluttering in space. Those that fall are picked up ad thrown up again, while all sing in chorus Gaudeamusigitur to the beat of the music and clashing of the swords. Here, it is the student who prevails; without students Heidelberg is a dead city.”

In Rizal’s epoch, there was sacred music—mostly Roman Catholic religious music for the Mass, and the Lenten and Christmas seasons. The Philippines is now one of only two mainly Catholic countries (the other one is Timor Leste). Secular music during this period was made up of folk songs, kundimans and brass band music for fiestas in the provinces.

While this music played in our archipelago, European colonization spread across Asia: The Dutch colonized Malacca and Indonesia in 1641, Singapore was colonized by Great Britain in 1891, and 1913 saw colonial powers annex Burma (now Myanmar), and the territories of Malaya and Borneo territories (now part of the Federation of Malaysia), French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).

Since the American occupation in the Philippines, colonial mentality came into play: Filipinos tend to admire international pop artists now and that isn’t changing anytime soon. Millennials now access Google, YouTube, Netflix, iTunes and Spotify to find varieties of music that Rizal couldn’t even dream of listening to.They have an endless menu of choices from local music to the songs of pop superstars, to world music from all nooks and crannies of the planet.

Rizal would probably be amazed at hearing the Manila Sound of the late 1970s, where Original Pilipino Music (OPM) was at its height. He’d probably be just as amazed that the era of Manila Sound is now hailed as a golden era of music here. Millennials like cosplay fashions and the Japanese Pop (JPop) and Korean Pop (KPOP) music that flow with the costumes. If Rizal were still with us, he is likely to be just as curious about using the internet to gather information and, yes, listen to music. Perhaps the Philippine Revolution would have had an alternative timeline had it begun just now, but then again, maybe not.

Philippine music has a diversity of genres and styles. The compositions are often fusion of different Asian, Spanish, American and indigenous influences. Indigenous music includes the gong music of the Cordillera region and the Kulintang of Mindanao, as well as bamboo instruments used throughout the islands—bamboo is plentiful here, after all.

Filipino folk music includes formidable composers in its list of advocates: National Artist for Music Lucio San Pedro is known for his song “Sa Ugoy ng Duyan” that retells about the caring touch of a mother’s love for her child.

Hispanic-influenced music includes pieces played on the Rondalla, as well as harana (love songs) and kundiman music, and it is often played to accompany the folk dances called Tinikling and Carinosa.

Original Pilipino Music or OPM refers to pop songs: the Manila Sound, the Pinoy bands of the 1990s including the Eraserheads. Underground bands also put their own awareness of idealism and self-expression out there. We have Pinoy pop, choir music of the kind sung by the Philippine Madrigal Singers, Pinoy rock by influential bands like Parokya ni Edgar and Joey Ayala, Pinoy hiphop pioneered by Francis M. and Electronic music that began to gain popularity in the mid-1990s in Manila thanks to artists like Somedaydream. Perhaps Rizal would have appreciated the wide variety of choices and, perhaps, that music would have answered his worry over hoe Spain repressed Filipinos—the music is myriad in genre and extremely creative. There is no repressing this form of expression where Filipinos are concerned.

Rizal would have appreciated the diversity in our choices of music technology, too—we can compose songs using the apps MuseScore or Sibelius 8 now. These programs help budding composers arrange and encode notes and lyrics, listen and edited music played on everything from a solo piano to a full-score orchestra. He might even have composed more poems into songs and arranged them with these apps.

Long gone are the days of the of a long-playing vinyl album that allowed humans to carry their music where they went and share it without having to set up live gigs. Gone are the tape recorders of the 1980s and the CD players in the 1990s. The iPod is still going strong, thoug, but iTunes and Spotify allow people to stream, listen to, collect and share music over the internet, mainly over social media. Globalization has brought people closer, in a virtual network spanning Asia, Africa, North and South America, Oceania and Europe. Culture and language are enormous factors in one’s learning—and music is the soul of culture. Rizal would have learned so much more with these technologies if he’d had them. How formidable would he then have become?

But Rizal would have experienced culture shock too. But I don’t see that stopping his curious and seeking mind from engaging in research, or from getting up to speed with what is happening in the sovereign Philippines and in the rest of the world. With our technology, Rizal would have found a way to write more literature and lyrics for musical pieces. He might have even become a musician—what with all the YouTube tutorials we now have. For sure, Rizal would have added more treasures to our cultural heritage, at the very least. The National Hero was very big on encouraging Filipinos to keep learning.

Whatever music Rizal might have liked had he lived to see our days, we know that OPM, K-POP and World Music would be accessible to him—and he’d even have the choice not to listen to music he didn’t like. Given all that, Rizal himself is likely to tell us that music is timeless. It always was and always will be.



About the author: Sampaguita B. Flores-Nepomuceno finished her bachelor’s degree in commerce and music education at St. Scholastica’s College, Manila, where she is taking her MA in music education. She teaches piano and voice lessons to children with autism, as well as neurotypical students, in Las Pinas City.



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