Thursday, 21 June 2012

Mexico - the End of an Era

Augustin Arrietta (1803-1874), La familia mexicana

Well, the answer to the question I left hanging at the end of the last post seems to be 'not much' - as least to begin with. The pace of Mexican classical composition seems to have fallen to a sluggish pace at much the same time as it did in Britain after the death of Handel. (The country's history, in contrast, was going through its next big upheaval - independence from Spain.) The two names that stand out from the early Romantic period are José María Bustamante (1777-1861) and José Mariano Elízaga (1786-1842). Somewhat late on parade (style-wise), Elízaga seems to be the Mexican Classical composer I was seeking - that's if his early-Beethoven-like Últimas Variaciones are representative. As for Bustamente, there's a Marcha Fúnebre for guitar written in memory of the Mexican military hero, Luis G. Osollo, so I can form no general judgement on his music.

The pace begins to quicken a little with the arrival of Melesio Morales (1838-1908). Morales was chiefly an opera composer; indeed, he is said (by some) to be the founder of Latin American opera. He wrote in an Italian and French-influenced romantic style. For a flavour of his operas, perhaps try the final scene from from Ildegonda (or this tenor recitative and aria with chorus from the same opera). Of his instrumental works, if you fancy hearing some bright, light, tuneful and colourful orchestral music then you might enjoy the suite El Baile de los Niños and I suspect you will find the waltz Nezahuacoyotl charming. His songs, such as Guarda esa florLa FarfallettaRecuerdos de Florencia, Il Sospiro d'Amore and L'ultimo mio sospir, are similarly light in character. This is the sort of music often dismissed as 'mere salon music' by those who choose not to let their hair down! For a different (modern and Mexican-sounding) side of Morales, he wrote a Sinfonía vapor ('Steam Symphony') to mark the opening of a railway station in the city of Puebla in the 1860s. I believe that the links I've provided (plus this one) take you to performances of that very work, which sounds a remarkable and wonderful piece of music. 

Of Cenobio Paniagua (1821-1882), the romantic opera composer and the man reputed to have composed Mexico's first ever string quartet, I have only one song to offer you, a romance Tengo celos de mi amor

Another big name in Mexican Romanticism is Ricardo Castro (1864-1907). Castro is best known for the Vals Capricho, Op.2 for piano and orchestra, which combines all the stardust of post-Chopin virtuoso piano writing with a genial main tune and an attractive Latin lilt. At the other end of his composing career Castro wrote the country's first ever piano concerto. His attractive Concierto para piano y orquesta (the polonaise finale here) may have been finished just three years before his death but it still speaks the heroic-lyrical language that is found in, say, the Chopin, Schumann and Grieg concertos. The widely-acclaimed series from Hyperion Records, 'The Romantic Piano Concerto', would do well to feature Castro's concerto at some stage. It would fit in well with all the Moszkowski, Scharwenka, Litolff (etc) concertos there. He's clearly that kind of composer. His music is certainly pleasant, as you will continue to hear if you listen to his Impromptu, Op.41, the Intermezzo from his opera Atzimba and his Aires nacionales mexicanos, Capricho brillante, Op.10. Apparently, Castro showed signs of taking on board Debussy's influence towards the end of his life. I haven't heard anything to substantiate that claim though.

His short-lived friend Felipe Villanueva (1862-1893) seems to have trodden a very similar Chopin-scented path, if the pretty Vals Poético, Mazurka No.2, Vals AmorMazurka No.3 and Amar Nocturno are  anything to go by. Again, you could call it 'salon music', but it's lovely, well-crafted music nonetheless.

What the Mexicans know as the Porfiriato era was drawing to a close and Mexican music was ripe... for what? A revolution? A renaissance?

P.S. Another composer from the Porfiriato era, the even-more-short-lived salon composer Juventino Rosas (1868–1894), penned a slow waltz that has become one of the best-known pieces of classical music in the world. I heard it many times in my childhood, but (until today) never thought about who wrote it. The piece is Sobre las Olas (Over the Waves). You'll have to click on the link to get the 'Wow!' effect of instant recognition!! (For more Rosas try a couple more waltzes Ilusiones Juveniles and Vals Carmen. The Carmen in question was not Bizet's heroine but the second wife of the man who the Porfiriato era is named after, President Porfirio Díaz. The lady outlived poor Juventino by fifty years.)

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