Thursday, 31 May 2012

Carlos Chávez: Cantos de México

A couple of my favourite pieces of music are by Mexican composers - one is the Sinfonia India by Carlos Chávez, the other Huapango by José Pablo Moncayo. As I'm touring the world  at the moment via the internet, it seems a good time to investigate what else Mexico has to offer lovers of classical music.

Quite a lot.

Let's start today with Carlos Chávez (1899-1978). Chávez is a fascinating composer, tied into the international modernist mainstream but sometimes consciously Mexican. For a while he was part of what was known as the 'Aztec Renaissance' - an attempt to draw on Indian, pre-Columbian culture to create a truly authentic Mexican music.

His most famous work is the Sinfonia India (1935-36). This rhythmically-infectious, melodious masterpiece uses indigenous instruments as well as those of the modern symphony orchestra to captivating effect. It has one of the best tunes I've ever heard - the lyrical tune, based on an old Indian tune, which sits where the second subject would sit in a sonata form movement. The beauty of that tune, the 'primitive'-sounding bustle of the opening themes (also Indian melodies), the increasingly scary-sounding development (the climax of which always sends a chill down my spine) and the eruption of joyful vivacity at the end makes his single-movement symphony a pleasure from start to finish. Usually, however, Chávez chose to imagine his Aztec music rather that draw on actual Indian tunes.

Another masterpiece, Xochipilli (1940) has the subtitle "An Imagined Aztec Music" - helpfully proving my point! Scored for four winds and percussion sextet (some ancient, some modern), this deploys a series of short melodic patterns (born within the brain of our composer) and builds them into an energetic ritual.

Moving back in time (and this post will be wont to do!), Cantos de México (1933) is fascinating anticipation of the Sinfonia India in three short movements - the second a flute solo (with percussion).

Chávez was a friend of Aaron Copland and, from what I've read, the influences ran in both directions. Copland's own El Salon Mexico was premièred in 1936 by Chávez and will, perhaps, be heard in a fresh light after hearing the Sinfonia India and Cantos de México - both of which pre-dated it. As did the delightful Republican Overture (1935, later re-named Chapultepec) which - far from being a stuffy overture - takes three pieces of popular Mexican music (by other composers) and re-casts them in a light-hearted, neo-Classical style.

The percussion writing and patterning of Xochipilli  was put to abstract use in the masterly Toccata of 1942 - a piece written purely for percussion. The opening Allegro foregrounds the drums, the central Largo highlights the metal instruments and xylophone, while the finale unites them both. There's nothing particularly Mexican-sounding about the piece which, if anything, seems to draw on the modernist influence of Varèse.

Rather like Copland, Chávez could be quite the modernist, as the Toccata proves. Take also Energia for Nine Instruments from 1925, which is a rather fierce fusion of Stravinsky with the sort of futurist (machine) music we find in Honegger, Antheil, Mosolov and Varèse.

The futurist spirit was also found in the 1926 ballet Horse Power, whose final section was called 'Machines'.  However, it's a pair of Mexican dance forms - the huapango and the zandunga - that drive the El Trópico ('The Tropic'), the third movement of the suite Chávez extracted from it - and here we see that many of the elements we associate with Copland and imagine to have been invented by him in El salon Mexico have their origins in his Mexican friend's music. This movement is quite eye-opening in that regard.

The complex picture of Chávez that I hope this post is helping convey can be further complicated by introducing his other symphonies. Preceding the Sinfonia India was the Sinfonía de Antigona (1933), which sounds strikingly different from it. This is a dark, tragic single-movement work where the composer uses ancient modes to create fiercely modern music. When we enter the 1950s,  Chávez's symphonies become close in sound and spirit to those being written by composers north of the Mexican border at the time. The Sinfonia No.3 (1951) is a big, serious symphonic statement in four movements - serious and closely-argued in the way that reminds me of composers like William Schuman more than Copland. It's a far more traditional work than those we've encountered so far. There are some Mexican-style rhythms in the second movement but the orchestral colours are more restrained and the movement, beginning where the flute figure that closed the first movement left off, largely keeps to the first movement's rigorous spirit. Similarly, the syncopations of the scherzo (my favourite movement) are feed into a contrapuntal argument that is well-sustained and the finale begins in a spirit of melancholy but also puts this at the service of wiry counterpoint before the movement erupts into violent activity. What a fine piece this is. Also more conventionally symphonic is the Sinfonía romántica (1953) with its relaxed opening movement, its austerely lyrical Lento and its good-natured finale. This - especially the two later movements - is also well worth exploring. (There are two other numbered symphonies).

This like for polyphony is also found in the Piano Concerto of 1938. This, though, is a big-boned, virtuosic piano concerto that sprawls exotically all over the carpet and that polyphony is far in spirit from the kind found in, say, the Sinfonia No.3. Here it's at the service of Mexican exuberance. The massive first movement is full of busy toccata-like writing and is a white-water-rapids-ride of a piece. The slow movement is a lovely contrast, being elegant and wistful. The finale is fun. What a likeable discovery!

As for what else Carlos Chávez was capable of, please also give these pieces a try:

Toccata for Orchestra (1947)
Baile (1953)
Tambuco (1964)
Trombone Concerto (1977)
Sinfonia No.5 (1953)
Sinfonia No.6 (1960)

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