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.

Silvestre Revueltas, La noche de los Mayas

By Peter Laki

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

The life of Silvestre Revueltas was tragically short, but certainly not uneventful. He was born in Mexico and spent several years studying and working in the United States as a violinist, conductor, and composer. He was a revolutionary both in his modernistic approach to music and in his political views. In 1937, he traveled to Spain to devote his talents to the Republican cause in the Civil War (he made the trip as a member of a delegation of Mexican artists that also included the poet Octavio Paz). After his return from Spain, Revueltas became increasingly prone to depression and self-doubt. He died as a result of alcoholism at the age of 40. Pablo Neruda wrote a beautiful poem in his memory that he read at the funeral.

The uniqueness of Revueltas’s music lies in his original combination of Latin American popular music with progressive twentieth-century techniques. As composer-musicologist Peter Garland has observed in an essay on Revueltas, popular music does not merely appear as quoted material within an essentially European musical language; rather, the popular and the classical elements “dance and clash with each other in complete simultaneity in Revueltas’s music.”

Revueltas had a great interest in film music throughout his career and wrote scores for six Mexican films between 1935 and 1940. The suites derived from these innovative film scores have proven to be highly effective concert pieces.

The Redes [Nets] suite comes from a movie entitled La Ola [The Wave], which made history with the way it portrayed the struggle of a group of poor fishermen against their exploiters. In its present form, it was assembled from the film score by the great conductor Erich Kleiber. One of its emotional high points is the funeral of a child who has died of starvation, placed at the end of the first of two movements. The second movement represents the struggle of the workers and their eventual triumph.

The suite from La noche de los mayas [The Night of the Mayas] consists of four movements. In the first, a solemn fanfare alternates with a lyrical second melody. The second, “Noche de jaranas” [Night of Merrymakers] is a scherzo based on the rhythm of the son, a type of folk music known throughout Latin America. The third movement, “Noche de Yucatán” [Night of Yucatán], is marked, at various points, “espressivo,” “appassionato,” and “intenso,” which just about sums up the character of the music. There is a brief middle section in a faster tempo, for solo flute and percussion, inspired by another folk melody. The last movement, “Noche de encantamiento” [Night of Enchantment], opens with a haunting oboe melody followed by a set of variations featuring the large percussion section (there is even a cadenza where each percussionist improvises freely on a given rhythmic pattern).

Manuel Ponce, Violin Concerto (1943)

By Leonora Saavedra, University of California Riverside

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

In 1943, shortly after the premiere of Manuel M. Ponce’s Violin Concerto (with a young Henry Szeryng and the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, led by Ponce’s former student, Carlos Chávez) a controversy erupted among Mexico’s leading music critics, sparked by the Spanish musicologist Jesús Bal y Gay (then exiled in Mexico) and involving Ponce himself. The issue at stake was the composer’s sincerity in writing a piece that, in Bal y Gay’s view, was far more adventurous and modernist than he would expect—or want—Ponce to write. Indeed, Ponce was the most revered and loved of Mexican composers of the first half of the twentieth century but, by the same token, he was held by his audience to a standard, in terms of quality and of style, which proved to be a burden to the composer in the last ten years of his life.

Back in the 1910s, in the early years of the Mexican Revolution—the civil war that pushed for a democratic and socially comprehensive restructuring of Mexican society—Ponce became the main force behind a re-evaluation of Mexican folk music, in particular of a rural, Italian-influenced genre known simply as the canción mexicana [Mexican song]. Ponce became an advocate of the canción and, indirectly, of the poor peasantry of Mexico, collecting and arranging these songs in versions for voice and piano that were quickly published as sheet music. Like all artists and intellectuals in Western culture who have approached folk music and poetry, Ponce collected these songs with the intention of lovingly (but patronizingly) “dressing them up.” Nevertheless, in the revolutionary fervor of those years, Ponce’s actions came full circle, as the newly recovered songs were disseminated throughout Mexico and re-adopted by the Mexican people. Ponce thus became, in the eyes of many, “the father of Mexican vernacular music.”

Ponce also composed original songs on the model of the canción, and used the melodies of those he had arranged as themes for his many preludes, nocturnes, and ballads in the Romantic style of Western art music. Needless to say, it is these Mexicanist, stylistically conservative pieces that earned him a reputation as a melodist, and the admiration of his early audiences. But already in the late 1910s, as attested by the articles that he wrote and published as editor of the Revista Musical de México, Ponce developed a restless interest in the modernist movement that developed in Europe after the First World War. Ponce tried his hand at these new styles already in pieces like his Sonata for Cello and Piano of 1922. And when in 1925 Ponce moved to Paris for a sojourn of seven years, he developed a style greatly influenced by the compositional techniques and aesthetic principles of neoclassicism.

As Ponce firmly stated in his reply to Bal y Gay, the Concerto is thus nothing more than the logical outcome of his interests and evolution as a composer. Moreover, it is a wonderful example of the synthetic eclecticism to be found in all Ponce’s music. The Concerto is written in the standard three movements, each structured in modified versions of traditional forms such as sonata allegro (first movement) and rondo (last). The music is clearly tonal, especially for 1943, but the key centers and the structural functions of chords are obscured by chromatic alterations to the harmony. Melodically, the lines are tonally ambiguous and seem to change key constantly.

The first movement, the longest and most ambitious of the three, shares with Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto a certain neoclassical spirit, a classical articulation in the violin, and the importance of the woodwinds. But it also looks back to the tradition of the Romantic concerto, virtuosic and lyrical. For the second movement’s main theme, Ponce chose the melody of Estrellita, the best known of his songs. The movement is in fact a constantly varied elaboration of this melody: its arch form, its wide intervals, its initial bold ascent, and the parallel thirds that accompany its climatic moments. The presence of these traits, in fact, allows Ponce to subject the melody to a modernist treatment. Finally, in the third movement, we find a humorous introduction followed by a syncopated melody that is primitivist in its small range and rhythmic insistence. After a moment, we discover that this is but an anticipation of a more broadly defined melody that exhibits the characteristic traits of a traditional Mexican song: the melodic contours (including the descending cadential thirds), the syncopated rhythms (with a hemiola at the end of the main phrases), and the harmonization in parallel thirds. Thus, through its primitivist rhythms, rural songs of the 19th century, Romantic lyricism, and neoclassical modernism, Ponce’s Concerto shows the variety of the composer’s interests, and the multilayered nature of Mexican culture.

Carlos Chávez, Symphony No. 1, Sinfonía de Antígona

By Leonora Saavedra, University of California Riverside

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

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.