Manuel Ponce, Violin Concerto

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.