Ramiro Cortés, Jr., Mexican-American classical music composer and educator, was born to Ramiro Cortés, Sr., and Elvira (Acosta) Cortés in Dallas, Texas, on November 25, 1933. He became perhaps the first Mexican-American composer of classical music to earn an international reputation.
His father sang, played guitar, and wrote poetry and worked as the business manager for Spanish-American bandleader Xavier Cugat. In 1936, when Ramiro Jr. was just three years old, his father left the family, and his parents later divorced. His mother found it necessary to work to support her family and to put Ramiro and his younger brother, Arturo, in the care of two separate families for a while.
Cortés attended Travis Elementary School in Dallas, and his talent for music was discovered by his choral teacher who also located a piano instructor who agreed to teach the youngster. He began piano lessons at eight years of age, and by the age of eleven, he had begun to compose music. At the age of twelve, Cortés competed with other young orators from all over the world at the Optimist Club’s international contests in Florida. In 1946 Elvira Cortés remarried, and the family moved to Denver, Colorado, where Ramiro continued to study the piano. An anonymous benefactor envisioned that the young music student could have a very successful career as a tenor and paid for voice lessons for him. In 1947 Ramiro Cortés met Nancee Heimbecher in junior high school in Denver; years later the two would marry. Nancee recalled, “When I was in junior high, my choral teacher invited him [Ramiro] to our class, where he performed the works of Chopin on the piano. He was just 14 at the time, and his rendition of the music was just magical.”
Cortés attended Denver’s South High School and composed the music for a show that his high school class produced. During his high school years, he also composed a number of piano pieces as well as solo and choral pieces. He became a student of master lutenist Joseph Iadone in 1950 and studied music theory; Iadone had been a student of Paul Hindemith. For two years Cortés studied twentieth century music, harmony, and counterpoint with Iadone.
Cortés was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Denver in 1951. While studying music composition and other courses at the university, Cortés was able to continue his studies with Iadone. Cortés entered some of his compositions in a competition of the National Federation of Music Clubs, and they awarded him the Charles Ives scholarship, which allowed him to attend the Indian Hill Music School in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1952 and study with Henry Cowell. Cortés then entered the Yale School of Music, where he studied with Richard Donovan. In 1953 Cortés was awarded the John Day Jackson Prize for a composition for a string quartet entitled Introduction and Fugue. That year he also received the Student Composer Award by Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) for his piece “Flamenquerias.” Later in 1953 he attended the University of Southern California and also began studying with Halsey Stevens and Ingolf Dahl. In 1954 Cortés received national recognition when he won the George Gershwin Memorial Award for his composition “Sinfonia Sacra”; he was heralded as the youngest composer ever to win this honor. Cortés graduated from the University of Southern California in 1955 and received a bachelor of music degree. That year he also won the Steinway Centennial Award for his Piano Sonata. His composition “Yerma, a Symphonic Portrait” won the Los Angeles Philharmonic Prize.
Cortés attended graduate school at the University of Southern California in 1956 and resumed his studies with Dahl and Stevens. Later that year, Cortés was awarded a Fulbright grant that enabled him to go to Rome and study music composition with Goffredo Petrassi. Later in 1956 he won first prize in the Young Composers competition; the prize was awarded by the National Federation of Music Clubs. The following year, his Fulbright grant was renewed for another year, so he was able to stay in Rome and study there for a second year with Petrassi. During the summer of 1958 Cortés worked at the Huntington Hartford Foundation on three sacred compositions commissioned by the Concordia Society of Princeton. He also won first place in the Student Composers competition awarded by BMI. That fall he studied music composition with Roger Sessions at Princeton University. During that semester, Cortés received a commission from the Pittsburgh Bicentennial Association to compose music for a film about the history of Pittsburgh. In addition, he wrote a song cycle based on Herman Melville poems, for which he was given the George Bolek Memorial Award by the National Federation of Music Clubs. Ramiro studied again at the Huntington Hartford Foundation during the summer of 1959. He was also awarded a John Hay Whitney Foundation fellowship.
On February 6, 1960, Cortés married his former schoolmate Nancee Heimbecher (whose professional surname was Charles) in New York. That year he wrote Symphony in Three Movements for small orchestra and won a silver medal for it in the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium International Competition.
Cortés was awarded the Rodgers and Hammerstein scholarship in 1961 to attend the Julliard School of Music, where he studied with Vittorio Giannini. While there, he won the Benjamin Prize and the Alexandre Gretchaninoff Memorial Prize. He completed his master’s degree in 1962 and also won an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was given the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Standard Music Awards for an unprecedented thirteen years.
Meanwhile, Ramiro’s wife, Nancee, a ballet dancer and choreographer, was chosen by Robert Joffrey to take over his ballet company when he left for Denmark. She later commented, “At the time I was so mad at him. He basically threw the company in my hands, and I was totally unprepared.” But Joffrey had a high regard for her skills as a choreographer, and she rose to the occasion. Her success there led to other choreographing and dance coordinating jobs at Radio City Music Hall, the Connecticut Dance Academy, and many others.
Ramiro and Nancee lived in Wilton, Connecticut, at that time and commuted together to New York City. The couple owned a single automobile. In the early 1960s, System Development Corporation (SDC), an early computer software company, decided to explore the possibility of a connection between music composition skills and computer programming skills. They approached Cortés about perhaps employing him for their research project. Before making him an offer, they invited him to take a battery of aptitude tests in New Jersey. That day Nancee commuted alone to New York in the family car, and Ramiro took a bus to the New Jersey location. She recalled that Ramiro returned home that evening and announced to her that he was contemplating buying a Mercedes. He had done so well on the tests that he was offered a job that same day, and the salary was very attractive. The couple moved to California in 1963. Ramiro worked at SDC as a computer programmer for four years, and Nancee worked in Los Angeles, where she worked closely with composer Igor Stravinsky and violinist Jascha Heifetz.
In 1966 Ramiro Cortés became a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1967 he accepted a faculty position at the University of Southern California; in 1970 he was promoted to associate professor and given tenure.
Cortés had an artistic temperament, even characterized by some as bipolar. Author Victoria Etnier Villamil in A Singer’s Guide to the American Art Song: 1870–1980 characterized the marriage of Ramiro and Nancee: “…their stormy relationship mirrored Cortés’s own troubled personality.” In 1971 they separated and subsequently divorced in December of that year.
In the 1972 school year, Ramiro Cortés was composer-in-residence at the University of Utah. The following year, he became chairman of the music theory and composition department there. During the 1978–79 school year, he took a sabbatical and spent it in Los Angeles. On June 23, 1979, Ramiro and Nancee remarried. He returned to the University of Utah to his faculty position, and Nancee was hired to teach in the dance department there.
Ramiro studied extensively the works of Igor Stravinsky and became an international authority on Stravinsky’s works. In 1982 he presented fifty-five lectures on Stravinsky’s music that were broadcast over Utah radio station KUER.
Ramiro Cortés died unexpectedly of heart failure in Salt Lake City, Utah, on July 2, 1984; he was just fifty-one years of age. His body was cremated, and his ashes were buried at Saint Mark’s Cathedral Columbarium in Salt Lake City.
Cortés was a Democrat. Nancee Cortés once characterized Ramiro as “generous, thoughtful, sweet, funny, brilliant, disciplined, caring, [and] conscientious.” She also said that he was “an exacting and inspiring teacher, a great cook, an enthusiastic gardener and was considered a genius by many of his colleagues.”
Cortés’s compositions have been performed by many major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Denver Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Utah Symphony. Many of his works have been recorded and published.