Justin Elie is best known as a Haitian composer, whose journey took him from Haiti to France and the United States, and then back to Haiti again towards the end of his life. He was born in Cap-Haitien on 1st September, 1883.
Elie began studying the piano at the tender age of 6 under his mentor Ermine Faubert, until 1894. He continued his education with a brief interlude at the Institution de Saint Louis de Gonzague in Port-au-Prince, before traveling to France with his parents in 1895 and attending the Cours Masset, a prep school for the Paris Conservatory.
Formative years: learning the trade
In 1901, Elie entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied under the tutelage of Émile Pessard for harmony and Paul Vital for composition. Charles Wilfred Bériot and Antoine Francois Marmontel tutored Elie on piano.
In 1905, Elie made his way back to Haiti, where he joined a group of Haitian musicians. The group included another notable musician, Ludovic Lamothe. Over the next four years (1905 to1908), Elie toured several Haitian locations, including St. Marc, Port-au-Paix, GonaÏves, Les Cayes, Jacmel, Jérémie, and Santo Domingo, the Dominican
Over the next two years (1909 to 1910), Elie toured some areas of Latin America, including Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Curaçao, Cuba, and Venezuela. His concerts, which featured pieces from European composers, were highly popular in Jamaica.
During the years between 1910 and 1922, Elie worked on his “Chant du Barde Indien”, which was based on a text composed by Joaquin Bonilla, a Honduran poet. In 1916, he set the words of “La Mort de l’Indien”, a work composed by Jean-Joseph Vilaire, a Haitian poet, to music.
In 1917, Elie arranged music for Cléopâtre, a work composed by Louis-Henri Durand, an amateur poet. The piece draws largely upon Haiti’s rich Vodou heritage, blending it with a classical subject (Cleopatra) to dramatic effect. The inclusion of Vodou influences in Elie’s works began with the earlier works he composed in Haiti, including Deux Poèmes Vaudouesques and Scènes Vaudouesques. Duranc also composed the libretto for another musical creation of
Elie’s known as Aphrodite.
A series of political musical statements
In 1920, Elie’s compositions took on a political flavor when he arranged a set of six dances, the music of which was filled with the tone of resistance against the United States occupation. Although this political slant was clearly audible to many Haitians, it remained unrecognized by other audiences. R. de la Rozier Co. published this work, called Méringues Populaires, in New York City.
The USA years
On September 12, 1922, Elie relocated to the United States and moved to New York City, where he hoped to begin a career as a musical composer. The following February, his wife, Lily, traveled to New York to be with him. Together, they began performing some of Elie’s compositions at local recitals.
At this time, consumer interest in exotic music was high, and music publishers offered enticing contracts for Elie, in part due to his standing as a Caribbean-born pianist/composer with conservatory training. Prior to traveling to the U.S., Elie had signed a contract with QRS Music Company, which was in the business of producing rolls of music for piano players.
Carl Fischer Music, Inc. negotiated a contract with Elie when he first arrived in the United States. The company agreed to publish some of his compositions, including Haitian Legend (violin and piano), Prayer at Eventide Invocation No. 2 (chamber orchestra), and The Echo: Ancient Mountain Legends, No. 1, Nostalgia: Ancient Mountain Legends, No. 2, and Nocturne: Ancient Mountain Legends, No. 3 (piano).
The film industry also accepted Justin Elie as a noteworthy composer. In 1925, one of his musical pieces was used by the conductor of the Rialto Orchestra, Ray Hart. It was used during the presentation of the silent version of The Phantom of the Opera. This was only one of the silent films featuring his work. He made an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony for Paramount Studios as well.
In 1928, Elie composed Kiskaya: An Aboriginal Suite for Orchestra, drawing from Central and South American cultures. Some scholarly sources suggest that this piece portrays a Native-American influence, whereas a number of publishers and scholars imply that the music solely reflects aboriginal culture.
Although it was never published due to his untimely death, his artistic composition, Fantaisie Tropicale, was played by Lolita Cabrera, a Bolivian pianist. She played the piece during a concert held by the General Electric Company in 1930.
In 1931, Elie was able to make an arrangement with the National Broadcasting Company that allowed him to showcase his talent for The Lure of the Tropics, a weekly radio show. Elie provided, conducted, and arranged music for the show, which was produced by WEAF, a radio station in New York City.
Some of Elie’s compositions were performed during concerts held by the United Service Orchestra. By the year 1931, this orchestra performed 53 concerts focusing on Latin American music.
A sad and untimely death
Justin Elie died suddenly on December 3, 1931 as the result of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage. Lily, his wife, brought him home to Haiti, where his funeral was held. A well-known composer who had mentored Elie, Occide Jeanty presided over the event.
Justin Elie enjoyed an international reputation of prominence as a notable Haitian composer, particularly during the height of his popularity while he was alive. His reputation was buoyed by the frequency of the tours that took place beyond the borders of his native birthplace.