The best songs of María Grever

12/02/2021

María Joaquina de la Portilla Torres, better known as María Grever, is one of the most relevant Mexican composers of popular song in the country. According to Grever Music Publishing, the author composed around 1,000 songs and among her most emblematic pieces stand out Júrame, Presentimiento, Cuando vuelva a tu lado or Tipi tipi tin, this last melody is the reason for this Thursday's Doodle, since on February 11, 1938, she recorded it as a serenade for her loved ones.

María Grever. Image: Wikipedia Commons
María Grever. Image: Wikipedia Commons

María Grever wrote her first song at the age of 4. She studied with some of the best composers, such as the French Claude Debussy and the Austro-Hungarian Franz Lehár. At the age of 22, after getting married and moving to Xalapa, she began to write more and had three children; however, the youngest died six months later. The Mexican artist took refuge in music and her grief led her to compose the song Muñequita linda.

Later, in New York, she made a career composing musical backgrounds for films for 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. It was there where she met José Mojica, a Mexican actor, and tenor who would become the interpreter of Júrame, the composer's most remembered piece, which was later interpreted by artists such as Luis Miguel, Plácido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli, José Carreras, Ely Guerra, and Libertad Lamarque.

Another of her best remembered songs is Cuando vuelva a tu lado, of which more than 30 versions were made, both in Spanish and English. The composer Stanley Adams made a version of it titled What a Difference a Day Makes. It was recorded by singers such as Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow, Diana Ross, and blues queen Dinah Washington, who in 1959 won a Grammy with her interpretation. In Spanish, versions by Luis Miguel, Gloria Estefan, and Los Panchos have become popular.

Other hits such as Por si no te vuelvo a ver, Te quiero, dijiste and Alma mía have been interpreted by singers such as Vicente Fernández, Aída Cuevas, Fernando de la Mora, Javier Solís, Paco de María, Guadalupe Pineda and Natalia Lafourcade, among others.

In 1953, Tito Davison made the biographical film of María Grever, entitled Cuando me vaya. Libertad Lamarque starred in it and the film was so well received that Grever received a special award for the songs that appeared in the film.

The composer received multiple tributes and awards, including the title of "Woman of the Americas" by the Women's Union of the Americas, the Civic Merit Medal, and the Heart of Mexico Medal, in addition to the Ariel awarded to her in 1953.

A child prodigy of music, universal composer, and 'Madonna of the song'

María Grever exploited throughout her life all the facets that music allows. At the age of nine, she excelled in her first musical composition at school and, from that moment on, thanks to her talent and also to her father's economic possibilities, her training focused on music after receiving classes from the master Claude Debussy and Franz Léhar in France.

Years later, the unstable political situation in Mexico forced her to travel to the United States, where she became an internationally famous figure: she was a singer, composer of popular songs and boleros as well as background music for films, orchestra conductor, businesswoman, and even an artist's representative.

Grever broke the imposed rules and carved a niche for herself in the history of music in a field that until then had been the exclusive domain of men. Thanks to her prolific work as a composer, the most famous international artists covered her songs and placed them at the top of the charts for long periods of time.

However, the Mexican composer's personal life was not always easy and successful: her first daughter died at the age of six months and she was determined to give up music. Years later, in the United States, the more famous she became, the poorer she became, and she had to do everything to support her family, from embroidering handkerchiefs to selling her piano...

The rest of her life was spent between the United States and Mexico, where she was always received as a music diva who placed her country and her music in the world. Although she passed away in New York, her last wish that her mortal remains rest forever in Mexico City was also fulfilled.

María Joaquina de la Portilla Torres, her real name, was born in the Mexican city of León on September 14, 1885. Her father, Francisco, was a successful Andalusian merchant, and her mother, Julia, a Mexican of Spanish descent. Three more siblings made up the large family, whose first home was the hacienda of San Juan de los Otates, owned by his maternal grandfather, the Spaniard Geronimo Torres.

Her father's business moved the entire family to Spain when Maria was six years old. In Seville, and thanks to the commercial success of the head of the family, the four siblings received a careful education that included private teachers of English, French, piano, and singing.

Thanks to this strict training, little María Grever soon excelled in music. Her first known composition was written when she was nine years old. It was a simple carol composed as a school assignment, but it was performed at the Christmas celebrations of her school, the Sagrado Corazón, in December 1894. A plaque with the inscription "To María Joaquina de la Portilla, child prodigy", commemorates her time in the Sevillian classrooms.

Her progress in music was recognized by all, so her father heeded the advice and decided to invest in his daughter's talent by placing at her disposal the best piano and singing teachers of the time, first in Seville, then in Madrid and, finally, in Europe. Once again, don Francisco's possibilities allowed María to travel to Paris and receive lessons from the most important composer in France at the time, Claude Debussy.

María Grever was also a disciple, later on, of the Austrian composer Franz Lehár, whose influence she always acknowledged and was grateful to him for "advising me not to be subject to musical technique, to be spontaneous and sincere. And all my music has that stamp, I felt it and wrote it almost without thinking, and I owe it in great part to Lehár".

In 1900 she returned to Mexico and continued her musical studies at the solfeggio school directed by her aunt Cuca Torres. At the age of 18, María published her first song, A una ola, which sold millions of copies and was later covered by numerous artists. She continued studying music, perfecting her technique and also combining it with the facility she discovered for composing.

In 1906, at the age of 21, she met León Augusto Grever in Mexico City, an executive of an American oil company whom she married a year later. From him, she took the surname to go down in posterity as María Grever. The first years of happiness and success gave way to difficult and painful moments, making the decision to move to the United States: on the one hand, the unrest caused by the Mexican Revolution, and on the other hand, and most importantly, the death of her first daughter six months after her birth.

Maria confessed sometime later that she was determined to quit music and did so for a few months, but in the end, she realized that it was the only thing she could take refuge in. In the famous 1920s, she recorded two albums as a singer and also began to work as a composer of background music for films for Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox studios.

Her second return to Mexico took place in 1929, when she was 44 years old. María Grever, already nicknamed the Madonna of song, was received upon her arrival as a diva who was recognized as the most international Mexican artist. However, sometime later she admitted that the more famous she became in the United States, the poorer she became, because the royalties from her songs were not enough to live on and she had to sew handkerchiefs and even sold her piano to be able to meet her expenses.

The bad patch, however, passed, and upon her return to the United States, her success was unquestionable and continuous. Grever began to realize the ease with which she could compose and began to take an interest in jazz and modern rhythms that were emerging in the United States, but with the objective of making Mexican music known to the American people.

María Grever's first international hit was Júrame, a habanera-bolero masterfully interpreted by tenor José Mojica. The song became one of her most recognized hits in world music since its premiere and was performed by artists such as Nelson Ned, Plácido Domingo, Hugo Avendaño, Luis Miguel and Libertad Lamarque.

Other hits followed, such as Volveré, Te quiero, dijiste, written for Esther Williams' 1944 film Bathing Beauty, as well as Cuando vuelva a tu lado, which won a Grammy in 1959 and was sung by jazz legend Dinah Washington. On February 11, 1938, Grever recorded Tipitipitin, a waltz about serenading loved ones that became another of her greatest hits.

Artists of different styles and nationalities have interpreted María Grever's songs. In addition to those already mentioned, other world-famous singers who have covered her songs include Enrico Caruso, Ray Conniff, Bobby Darin, Nicolás Urcelay, Andy Russell, Dean Martin, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Alfonso Ortiz Tirado, Juan Arvizu, Néstor Mesta Chayres, Barry Manilow, Natalie Cole, Gloria Estefan, and Amy Winehouse.

Throughout her life, María composed the lyrics and music for more than 800 songs that were recorded in English and Spanish. Many of them became international hits in America and Europe by topping the charts on music radio.

In 1949 she returned to Mexico for the last time and received all kinds of tributes: she was awarded the Keys of Mexico City, the Medal of Civic Merit, and the Medal of the Heart of Mexico. She took advantage of this trip to work as a presenter on the XEW television network, participate in radio programs telling anecdotes of her life and write an autobiographical book before returning to New York.

Together with Cuban María Teresa Vera and her compatriot Consuelo Velázquez, they formed the triumvirate of women composers who stood out in the world of bolero music on an international level.

María Grever died in New York on December 15, 1951, at the age of 66. Her mortal remains rest in the Spanish Pantheon of the Mexico City cemetery, the artist's last wish.

Two years after her death, in 1953, Tito Davison made the biographical film Cuando me vaya, a melodrama about the life and work of María Grever starring Libertad Lamarque. In her hometown in Guanajuato, León, there is a statue in tribute to the composer and also a theater is named after her.

María Grever was a cultured person who always carried Mexico in her heart. Her lyrics and music capture the soul of those who listen to her songs because harmony was an added virtue to her great talent.

By Alberto López and Julieta Sanguino, Source: El País