In 1948, when the French composer Edgard Varèse was asked to give a series of lectures on twentieth-century music at Columbia University, he wrote to his longtime friend Carlos Chávez, “In such a course, covering all phases of contemporary music, it is possible to speak only of a limited number of composers individually. Among these I should like to include you. I shall illustrate the lectures with records, and should also like to have a statement…a sort of credo…from each composer.” In response, Chávez sent the score and recording of his Sinfonía de Antígona as his most representative composition.
Sinfonía de Antígona was composed and premiered in 1933, but the genesis of the Symphony lay in the incidental music that Chávez wrote in 1932 for Jean Cocteau’s modernist version of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, which the Mexican experimental theatre group Teatro Orientación staged that year in Mexico City. Chávez reworked the incidental music into a Symphony that is every bit as stark, modern, and intense as Cocteau’s version of the tragedy and its modern mise-en-scène.
Mexican art in the 1920s and ‘30s has been represented as having a uniformly nationalist orientation, yet, for most Mexican artists, nationalism and modernism were but two sides of the same coin. 1932 in particular was a year of intense public debate on the relative merits of nationalism, universalism and modernity. Clearly on the side of keeping Mexican art abreast with an international modernity was the group of poets known as Los Contemporáneos—Salvador Novo, Xavier Villaurrutia, and José Gorostiza, among others—who were associated with a number of literary and theatrical ventures, such as Teatro Orientación, in which Chávez participated.
More than any other work by Chávez, Sinfonía de Antígona evidences the extent to which the composer developed a personal style that can be coded primitivist, abstract or modern, Greek or Aztec, at will. In this Symphony, Chávez makes use of resources that can be considered his trademark: unsentimental, diatonic melodies that are often modal, linear instead of harmonic textures, controlled dissonance, vertical aggregations made of open fourths and fifths, and a conjunct melodic style made of short rhythmic motives that evolve by small, almost imperceptible variations, and often curl upon themselves melodically. These resources, which Chávez shares with many composers of the time, can be used to represent the primitive or just as easily, in the case of Antígona, the ancient, remote Greek.
Sinfonía de Antígona comprises several sections, woven together by the employment in all of similar melodic and rhythmic materials; but the Symphony can also be felt as two slow parts framing a faster-paced middle section. Chávez used Greek poetic feet to determine the rhythm of some of his melodies. He based the melodic and harmonic aspects of the music on two competing but complementary tonal centers, E and B, on which he built the intense and tragic Phrygian mode (Dorian in Greek theory), with its characteristic descending semitone onto the tonic, traditionally used in Western music to write laments. Both pitches of this descending semitone are often heard simultaneously, holding back a feeling of resolution. In the last cadence of the Symphony, however, the trumpet resolves this dissonance forcefully and beautifully onto the final E. The very unusual orchestration, weighted on the side of the darker and shriller wind instruments, underscores the pervasive feeling of impending doom.
As Chávez explained in his note to Varèse, the Symphony is not programmatic, but is inspired only by the sentiments that dominate the tragedy, ascribed by the composer to Antigone herself: nobility, defiance, heroism, martyrdom. “The atmosphere of intense tragedy is established in the first measures and persists throughout the work,” he wrote. Indeed, as we know from the reviews of the composer’s many performances of this Symphony, Chávez kept an exhilarating intensity of feeling from beginning to end. Such was the breathless attention commanded by these performances that when in 1943 Leopold Stokowski conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica de Mexico in a performance of Antígona, audience and critics were disappointed by the variety of feelings that Stokowski chose to invoke.
Despite its lack of a program, Antígona has attracted attention as music for the dance. We know, for example, from a letter to Chávez sent in 1936 by Frida Kahlo, that the composer’s friend Diego Rivera was planning to create the scenery and costumes of a ballet based on the Symphony, a project he did not complete due to problems with his eyes. Antígona did finally receive a rendition as a ballet in 1951, however, with choreography by José Limón and designs by Miguel Covarrubias.