Why did a great artist like Levi Celerio die poor?

- Wilson Lee Flores () - April 6, 2002 - 12:00am
It is tragic that one of the truly great artists of the country, 91-year-old composer and lyricist Levi Celerio, had to die an impoverished man. His priceless legacy of over 4,000 songs has immeasurably enriched Philippine culture. On the evening of April 3, this writer, friends George Siy of Jag Jeans, Edgar Madrazo and wife Elaine of New Life Supermarket, attended his wake at Funeraria Paz in Quezon City. The only prominent person present when we were there was President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. A performer played the beautiful masterpieces of Levi Celerio, and one felt that he was alive through his music.

It was pathetic to have seen one of the most distinguished persons in Philippine musical history eking out a living at a very old age, playing music with a fiddle at Mario’s Restaurant in Quezon City. Ed Madrazo once gave him a cash gift of P500, in appreciation for the old man’s talent.

In death, politicians and other very important people will be lavished with tributes, floral wreaths, and even a state funeral. However, it would have been much better if National Artists like Celerio were, at the very least, assured of decent living conditions, housing and other basic needs befitting their importance to national life.

Levi Celerio had also been cited by Guinness Book of World Records for producing music using a leaf as instrument. His many original songs have been used countless times nationwide without being paid royalties for intellectual property rights. Among his creations are such familiar favorites as: Ang Pasko ay Sumapit, Pasko na Naman, Namamasko, Gaano Ko Ikaw Kamahal, Saan Ka Man Naroroon, Sapagka’t Kami’y Tao Lamang, and many others.
Van Gogh, Mozart, Poe, Kafka
It is tragic that unlike movie stars, politicians and basketball players, artists behind the creation of important music and literature are often not adequately compensated. But this is not unique to the Philippines. The great painter Vincent Van Gogh could not sell his works and he died a starving artist. Yet today, only giant financial institutions and corporations can afford his paintings at world record multi-million-dollar prices.

Johann Chrysostomus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is perhaps the world’s greatest composer and pianist, but he died in poverty and obscurity at age 35. Only a few friends went to his wake, and a storm kept them from going to the burial, so nobody would have ever known where his unmarked pauper’s grave was located. Brilliant poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe died in poverty at 40, but his poems, short stories, detective stories and essays are now world-famous.

Another artistic genius who was unappreciated in his lifetime was Czech Jewish writer Franz Kafka. His wealthy father cared nothing for his son’s literary aspirations and did not earn much from his brilliant writings. Kafka spent hungry years in Berlin, Germany after 1918 and died in 1924 at 41.

Many outstanding artists and writers possess too much romantic idealism and uncompromising intellectual honesty, often neglecting to take care of their business or their finances. They also do not have business or public relations managers who can make hard bargains (unlike movie stars and athletes) for them. Spending their last years in poverty and dying bereft of material wealth, artists like Levi Celerio have enriched our lives. They’re the true heroes of all time.
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Please send comments/suggestions to wilson_lee_flores@hotmail.com or P.O. Box 14277, Ortigas Center, Pasig City.
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