Symphonic Mexico

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Symphonic Mexico, performed on Nov 17, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The fact that too many Americans, even those with a college education, know as little about the history of Mexico as they do is a cause for consternation and wonderment. The relations between the United States and Mexico have long been complicated and troubled. The ongoing immigration to the United States from Mexico constitutes the most important influx of new population in modern American history since the massive wave of immigration from eastern and central Europe between 1880 and the mid-1920s. Furthermore, in the nineteenth century Mexico and the United States were at war. What is today a large part of the United States was once part of Mexico. Yet all that remains in the popular imagination are the textbook versions of the Mexican-American War, images of John Wayne at the Alamo, vague clichés of romanticized Mexican revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, and the Mexican food industry in the United States. Mexico for many northern Americans has been little more than a locus for tourism, an object of fascination for its pre-Columbian Aztec and Mayan civilizations, or for a few extremists, a cause for paramilitary patrols.

The European conquest of Mexico which began in 1519 was among the most brutal and traumatic examples of European expansionism. Ultimately, over centuries the Spanish presence in Mexico created a unique and powerful synthesis between colonizers and colonized, the survivors of destroyed civilizations. Religion, language, and daily life in Mexico are a powerful amalgam of European and indigenous traditions framed in large part by a long painful history of radical inequality and economic exploitation. In the nineteenth century, Mexico experienced several phases of revolutionary political change. The central figures in the history of an independent Mexican political tradition were Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811) and Benito Juárez (1806-1872).

Part of that political story involves the imposition by European powers of a monarch, Maximilian, the brother of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef. Franz Josef, suspicious of his far more gifted younger sibling, conspired with Napoleon III to install Maximilian and his wife Carlotta as the rulers of Mexico. Ironically, Maximilian turned out to be a sympathetic figure who became deeply attached to Mexico. Despite the presence of French troops, the Emperor was ultimately executed by Juárez when the Republic of Mexico was established. (Interestingly, it was the experience of the French soldiers returning from Mexico that inspired the imagination of the painter Henri Rousseau, even to the point of his falsely claiming he had been to Mexico himself.) But this hard-fought independence led to a persistent oligarchy that was challenged in the Revolution of 1910, in the era of Francisco I. Madero (1873-1913). That revolution remained incomplete, even though it resulted in a democracy that has persisted to this day, albeit with constant tensions and accusations of failure to institute genuine democratic institutions and agrarian reform.

The United States has played a constant but dubious role as Mexico’s near neighbor, and has with some justification been seen by many Mexicans as a force against genuine democratization. At the same time, the sustained population growth of Mexico has led to the influx of Mexicans into the United States, which has resulted not only in an intense economic exchange but also a rich mutual influence of cultures. In the 1920s, the government of Mexico, much to growing American displeasure (despite FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policies) took a turn to the left under the presidencies of Plutarco Elias Calles (1877-1945) and Lázaro Cárdenas (1895-1970). In this period, the oil industry of Mexico was nationalized and the Mexican government took a proud position during the Spanish Civil War on behalf of the republican cause and socialism. Mexican democracy in this era deepened its sharp secular and anti-clerical posture.

It was also in the 1930s that Leon Trotsky lived in Mexico and the renaissance of Mexican painting, particularly the muralists, took place. Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and his wife Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), now made popular by books and movies, were what we now term as left-wing intellectuals, as was the last of the great muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974).

The twentieth-century achievement in the visual arts in Mexico, from Orozco to Tamayo, has received the most attention north of the border. Next in line have been the great writers of modern Mexico, such as Mariano Azuela, Rosario Castellanos, Octavio Paz, and Carlos Fuentes. In literature and painting, the twin influences—European and indigenous—have continued to make their mark, with the addition of the appropriation of European modernism. Music, however, stands as perhaps the least disseminated dimension of the cultural renaissance of twentieth-century Mexico. Music for the concert hall written by Mexican composers since the early 1900s also reveals a strong allegiance to distinctly Mexican traditions and an adaptation of European models. The main concert hall of Mexico City, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, was begun in 1900 although it was not completed until 1930.

The European influence in music in the case of Mexico dates from the sixteenth century, but it became especially profound from the 1930s on. Mexico became a destination for European émigrés particularly after the fall of the Spanish Republic. But other Europeans went there as well, notably Marcel Rubin, the Austrian composer, and Henryk Szeryng, the great Polish-Jewish violinist who made Mexico his home. He was one of many émigré European musicians, some of whom taught at the National Conservatory. Erich Kleiber, the justly legendary Austrian conductor, who was not Jewish but an anti-fascist, and who arranged Revueltas’s film music into the suite on tonight’s program, fled to South America, a fact that led him to develop a long-standing interest in the composers of Latin America.

Significantly, one of Carlos Chávez’s closest friends was Aaron Copland, who fell in love with Mexico in the 1930s and made it his second home. One of Copland’s greatest achievements was his pioneering support for his Latin American colleagues, especially Chávez (1899-1978). Copland was tireless in his efforts to promote the work of his Latin American contemporaries and bring their achievements to the attention of the American public. Like Copland and Rubin, Chávez was influenced by French modernism both in music and literature. Chávez’s Symphony on tonight’s program reveals the sustained symbiosis between Mexican intellectuals and artists and twentieth-century French culture.

It is safe to say that the twentieth-century Mexican achievement in art, music, and literature rivals that of the United States. While Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) will probably be remembered as the most distinctive and compelling compositional talent, and the composer with the most persistent interest in the indigenous Mexican traditions, the pride of place in terms of leadership in musical culture must be given to Chávez, without whom most of the prominent musical institutions in Mexico would not exist. He was a tireless organizer and a brilliant conductor, who created the infrastructure that has sustained Mexican musicians since the middle of the last century. One of my most memorable experiences from my adolescence, when I spent summers with my grandparents and uncle, who emigrated in 1946 as Holocaust survivors to Mexico City, was to listen to Chávez conduct the orchestra he had founded. Also in Mexico I had the privilege to hear Stravinsky when he and Robert Craft conducted the National Orchestra in Mexico City.

The oldest and arguably the most conservative composer on tonight’s program is Manuel Ponce (1882-1948). But despite the Romantic surface of most of Ponce’s music, in his Violin Concerto one encounters the canción, a particularly Latin musical genre related in part to Caribbean equivalents, replete with distinctive rhythms and dance-like qualities. The canción ranchera is in fact closely associated with the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Like other forms of canción, it stresses a deep emotionalism and settings of text that frequently describe the travails of soldiers. In Ponce’s Concerto, this distinctly Mexican element is integrated into a European concerto model.

As Leonora Saavedra aptly points out in her program note, this late work became an object of controversy among Mexican critics. This in turn reflects the fact that in cultures that have experienced the confrontation between European conquest and domination, and indigenous traditions, varying avenues of artistic expression present themselves, each of which competes for legitimacy as authentic and distinctive of a national identity. The European musical traditions that emanated from Europe, particularly France and Germany, have contained within themselves the unspoken conceit of objective aesthetic merit. Cultures considered as being “on the periphery,” whether those cultures are Russian, Hungarian, Scandinavian, even American, and certainly Mexican, have, for the artists within those cultures, often inspired a debate over the modes and propriety of adaptation.

But for both the composers and their audiences, there is no need to apply a simplistic notion of an authentic national voice. Béla Bartók may have argued against what he regarded to be a corrupt notion of what was truly Hungarian (in that case, gypsy-influenced music), but there is no right or wrong in what ought to be regarded as genuinely Hungarian. The power of musical composition as an art form rests in the fact that it is ultimately the expression of an individual voice that is a construct of many influences and inspirations. It is this which makes composers starting with Liszt and reaching to Ligeti in their own way individualistic, universal, and Hungarian. The same eclectic appreciation needs to be applied to the case of Mexican composers. Each of the composers on tonight’s program reveals a distinct brilliance and originality. Each work played tonight is suffused with a deep commitment to the richness of the Mexican national and cultural heritage.

If each possesses a cultural essence, it is developed out of a unique interpretation of identity. In point of fact, the history of any nation—Hungary, Mexico, even Germany and France—shows that cultural identity is fed by many sources and is always in a state of flux and flow. Indeed, is this not how cultures have always enriched themselves? To try to build a security fence around cultural identity is a fool’s endeavor.

One of the enduring virtues of the United States is its history as an immigrant nation that believes in its unique hallmark as an open and free democracy. The privilege of being an American in this day and age is the opportunity to protect that legacy. The traditions brought by Mexico have long been part of America’s tradition, and they certainly extend beyond language and simplistic markers of national identity and origin. Tonight’s program is a tribute to the ongoing vitality of Mexican music, and its glorious achievements beyond the familiar folk and popular forms. The Mexican concert music in the classical tradition presented tonight by the American Symphony Orchestra (in proper fulfillment of the adjective “American”) is just a sampling of the richness of the repertoire for the concert hall by Mexican composers of the twentieth century and of today.