Saturday, 23 June 2012

A Tricolor of Composers

Let's journey on down Mexico way again and fill in three gaps before I get to one of Mexico's greatest composers (in the next of my Mexican posts)...

José Rolón
Two trips to Europe tell you probably all you need to know about my next Mexican composer, José Rolón (1876-1945). From 1904 he travelled to France to study with Moritz Moszkowski. In 1927 he returned to France and studied with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. Moszkowski wrote some large-scale concerto works, most notably the champagne-corks-flying Piano Concerto, but is best known for the many salon pieces he composed. Dukas taught Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Duruflé and Joaquín Rodrigo and - most importantly for this post - Rolón's countrymen Manuel Ponce and Carlos Chávez. Nadia Boulanger influenced large numbers of musicians through her teaching, including composers Copland, Piazzolla and Elliott Carter (among many other familiar names). She tended to promote Stravinsky-inspired neo-Classicism.  

So what do we find in the music of Rolón? Salon pieces, then pieces reflecting his Mexicanness and neo-Classical works. 

For a delightful example of a salon song you won't do better than his Ingrata and the Valse-Caprice sobre el tema "Sobre las Olas" de Juventino Rosas shows that he and Moszkowski were made for each other. Just before his studies with Dukas and Nadia Boulanger Rolón wrote a symphonic scherzo, El festín de los enanos ('The Feast of the Dwarves'), which suggests that he went to study with Dukas with a good deal of prior interest in that composer's music. I hear several points of contact with The Sorcerer's Apprentice though, despite being composed more that a quarter of a century earlier than Rolón's score, the Dukas sounds the more advanced. The orchestration is certainly successful, though the score as a whole is pleasant rather than inspired. There is a tune, though, in El festín de los enanos which sounds like a Mexican folksong (though as to whether it really is one or whether Rolón wrote it himself I'm unable to tell you). As another 'Before' and 'After', you can take the romantic treatment of that tune in the symphonic scherzo and compare it with the treatment of Mexican folksongs in the Danzas Indígena Mexicana (No.2 here). The cleansing effects of neo-Classicism plus the harmonic bite of Stravinsky are much in evidence in these piano pieces. Nadia had clearly taught Rolón well. The change to a Ravel/Stravinsky-style soundworld can also be heard in some of the composer's songs with ensemble, such as El Segador and El Sembrador. Intriguingly, all the influences seem to gather together in the colourful festive finale to his 1935 Piano Concerto. It has to said that José Rolón doesn't strike me as a major composer (on the evidence I've heard) but he's an interesting minor composer nonetheless.

Candelario Huízar
So far we've not yet met any composer, other than (by taking him out of order!) Carlos Chávez, who belonged to the 'Aztec Renaissance' - that determined attempt to draw on Indian and pre-Columbian culture to create an authentic Mexican music. With Candelario Huízar (c.1883–1970), however, we finally meet such a figure. The style of Chávez's thrilling and masterly Sinfonia India (1935-36) is not too far away in Huízar's Fourth Symphony, 'Cora' (1942). There's the same use of Indian melodies, plenty of percussion and dancing rhythms, albeit written on a larger scale. See also mvts. 23 & 4. (The Cora, if you don't already know, are an Indian tribe.) Even closer to Sinfonia India though is Huízar's Sinfonía Oxpaniztli, his second symphony (1936). You can hear the second movement, Danza de Pájaros y Mariposas - Dance of Birds and Butterflies - here and the festive third movement here. (Oxpaniztli, if you were wondering, is a month of the Aztec calender.) OK, neither symphony is as taut and spine-tinglingly powerful as Chávez's paragon (then again Sinfonia India is in a league of its own), but both are thoroughly enjoyable and Sinfonía Oxpaniztli is a cracking piece. (The First Symphony of 1930 seems flabby in comparison). If you want to hear what Huízar sounds like without all that orchestral colour, please try his String Quartet of 1937. Some of the thematic material has the flavour of indigenous melodies (and may well be native Mexican tunes for all I know) and the work has a rich rhythmic quality though the technique applied to treat the themes shows a composer, like his famous compatriots Chávez and Revueltas, closely attuned to the modern European mainstream and sounds closer to that style than you might expect from what you've heard previously. Another side to Candelario Huízar's art, very different to what we've encountered so far, is his ability to compose French mélodies such as J’ai trop chanté. I haven't been able to find the date for that song, which is (as you can hear) very much in the tradition of late 19th century French art songs, with touches of Duparc-style harmony. I'm guessing it's an early piece. 

Eduardo Hernández Moncada
We're in need of a composer (or at least I am!) who gives us some Coplandesque Mexican colour - the sort of colour that comes from using Mexican folk and popular song. For a composer who lived so long and seemingly prospered, the music of Eduardo Hernández Moncada (1899-1995), great friend of Chávez (with whom he also shared a birth-year, as they both did with Revueltas), seems quite hard to come by. Taking a listen to his Scherzino for flute and piano suggests that he must be a neo-Classical composer, as does the piano piece Costeña - though this also suggests that he hada a keen sense of his Mexicanness. The latter piece has folk-tune likes and energetic Latin rhythms but allies them to a wide range of tangy modern harmonies. So do the the delightful Estampas Maritimas. Switching to his overture Bajìo though we have exactly the sort of home-grown El salon Mexico-type orchestral piece that I've been pining for. The aim of this type of work was exactly the same as the aim of composers like Copland in the United States - to write music that would speak directly to their countrymen, music that would be popular and national in character. Bajìo is the sort of piece that brightens up a day. I would like to hear much more Hernández Moncada.

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