“Look here, Maria Fedora. I’ve brought you a treasure...” - it was the voice of my brother Juan Cristián as he crossed the doorway of our mother’s house one morning in January 1983. Peering over the staircase banister, I saw him raise his right hand with something clenched inside. He was just back from a quick trip to La Serena, and I was spending my holidays in Chile. I had travelled home to show the family my beautiful baby girl, María Paz, my first child born in Caracas.
“What is that?” I asked as I descended the stairs.
“It’s something from Dad…. And it still has his scent,” said Juan Cristián, as he opened his hand to reveal a scrap of paper, neatly folded with the precision and thoroughness characteristic of my father in everything he did. “He composed it during his days in solitary confinement,” he added. “I have just received it, now, ten years later.”
I took the tiny piece of paper that had been meticulously folded, on which one could make out snippets of musical staves and some notes. Without opening it, I brought the paper to my nose. Closing my eyes, I breathed in deeply, and I felt my father’s scent permeate my soul. There he was! No doubt about it! My eyes flooded with tears and my throat tightened in a knot. We rushed to embrace each other, and Juan Cristián said “Sister, you cry like children do.” He used to tell me that when the sorrows were because of Dad.
We have learned to coexist with these sorrows, but sometimes they are unleashed with the kind of outburst I was feeling at that moment, exploding through my pores, spilling out irrepressibly, because those sorrows by their nature represent him. In their essence. In the love of music as a spark of life, in the quest for beauty, for justice, for transcendence, and his love of humanity in all its greatness.
And now we come back to the starting point, to his smell, his deep voice, his commanding presence filling every space, his jokes, his tenacity, his fast and easy stride, indestructible optimism, his arcane humming, his rigour, his requirement of discipline, his inexhaustible talent, his generosity and nobility. Personally, I have cried for him, and I still cry for him as I did as a little girl, because I was a child when horror struck me yet I wasn’t allowed to cry.
Juan Cristián took the scrap of paper, unfolding it with his skill as graphic designer; not just anyone would have been able to unwrap that perfect wrapping. Only someone with his professional knowledge could open it, one fold at a time. He brought it near his nose again, and then handed it to me. Before my eyes were three minuscule staves, poised, serene, rock-solid; the treble clef perfectly rounded, and my father’s unmistakable musical calligraphy. Refined, neat.
“Some of the notes have a halo,” I remarked to my brother.
“That is because he wrote them with burnt match tips moistened with his saliva,” Juan Cristián replied. And both of us fell silent. You were so clever, old man! - I thought to myself.
The knot in my throat tightened again, as I felt the big tears running down my cheeks. The diminutive crotchets, quavers and minims run up and down the stave. It’s a posthumous composition! In the most bitter moments of his life, he had the nobility to do what he loved doing above all else!
I can see my father standing, aged 45, his shoulder leaning against the wall, precisely under the beam of light that enters through the only slit in his isolation cell. I see him in his unfathomable universal loneliness, defiled and deserted in his senseless confinement. And in the midst of that nothingness, I see the historic man celebrating life.
Furrowed brow, piercing gaze, ears alert to the message from his creative mind, translating the feelings of his soul into a melody, with the composure and determination to create beauty above and beyond the slander and betrayal, beyond the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring. He writes feverishly on the wrapping of his pack of cigarettes, moistening again and again the phosphorous match tips with saliva: “Quick - if they dry out they'll be useless, and once the sun sets, I’ll be in the dark,” he might have thought.
May everyone play these notes, may everyone sing them, may everyone hum them. Music by Jorge Peña Hen - the best way to remember him.
This is dedicated to the most noble, courageous and generous people I have ever known: my beloved grandparents Tomás Peña and Vitalia Hen.
Jorge Peña Hen was a famous conductor, composer and pedagogue. He started the first children’s orchestra in Latin America.
Victims remembered in this testimony:
Published on: 01 July 2016
Unfinished melody written by Peña Hen with a burnt match shortly before his assassination. Recorded by Katia Chornik in 2018. Manuscript: Peña Camarda archive.
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