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After receiving early musical training from his father, who was an amateur violinist, José White gave his first concert in Matanzas on 21 March 1854. He was accompanied by the visiting American pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, "who encouraged him to pursue further violin studies in Paris and raised money for him to travel there". José White studied at the Paris Conservatory between the years 1855 and 1871 and was highly praised by Rossini.
From 1877 to 1889 White was director of the Imperial Conservatory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he served as court musician for the Emperor Pedro II. Afterwards he returned to Paris to spend the rest of his days. The famous 1737 "Swansong" Stradivari was his instrument.
His most famous work is La Bella Cubana, an habanera. White also wrote a virtuosic violin concerto, recorded several decades ago on the Columbia label.
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