Thursday, 21 June 2012

Twinkle, Twinkle, Estrellita

As an Englishman it's quite a interesting parallel to draw between the fate of my own country's music and that of Mexico, flourishing in the late Renaissance and Baroque (Byrd=Padilla, Purcell=Zumaya), sinking into the doldrums around the mid 18th Century, giving rise to a smattering of talented yet essentially minor composers in the course of the 19th Century then, as the 20th century begins, bursting into new life again and throwing up legions of wonderful composers. That would make Manuel Ponce the Mexican equivalent of Edward Elgar - which all goes to show that you shouldn't push such parallels too far!!

Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) is in some ways an unlikely figure to cast as the founding father of modern Mexican classical music, given that some of his best-known works are conventional and as sweetly, romantically salonish as anything by the preceding generation. One of his best-loved works is Estrellita ('Little Star'), a song whose frequent arrangement for violin and piano (among many other things) shows it to be comparable to Elgar's Salon d'amour (to force my earlier analogy even further). Moreover, Ponce could be almost as old-fashioned a composer as Ricardo Castro. His passionate Piano Concerto of 1912, for example, though rather more harmonically advanced than Castro's, is firmly in the tradition of Lisztian lyrical heroics. In its three fine movements you won't find a trace of Mexican-sounding music. 

However, it's not the modernity - or lack of it - that matters here. As with Elgar, it's the quality that counts and Ponce is a quality composer. His standards rarely seem to slip. His quality shone and the lights from it spreads within and beyond Mexico's borders. He became the country's first internationally successful composer and fought hard to advance classical music within Mexico itself, hoping to see a Mexican sensibility express itself through European techniques. 

The modernity soon came anyhow. He went to study with Dukas in Paris and came back with a taste for impressionism, which may be heard to good effect in the first movement Primavera of the orchestral suite Chapultepec, evoking a suburb of Mexico City in spring time. (The second movement Nocturne is also a beauty). For the sake of comparison, Ponce's early, rather conventionally rhapsodic Balada Mexicana (written around the time of the Piano Concerto) can be classed a the Lizstian 'Before' with the Concierto del Sur ('Concerto from the South') for guitar and orchestra as the impressionist-inspired 'After'. The Concierto del Sur is at least as good as its better-known Spanish third cousin, Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. It is constructed along traditional lines but has an abundance of colour, Latin rhythms, and Mexican folk tunes.The work was dedicated to the legendary Andrés Segovia and is a fantastic piece that should be performed at the BBC Proms at least once every ten years! Ponce's style included more modern-sounding elements as time passed, incorporating other newfangled European trends, especially neo-Classicism. Sticking with concertos, if you now give his Violin Concerto a listen (Mts. 2 & 3) you might well hear the influence of Hindemith at times. As with the finale of the Concierto del Sur, the closing Giocoso of the Violin Concerto has moments of Mexican festive colour that are are an absolute delight. The slow movement, incidentally, rather wistfully quotes EstrellitaFor a tiny extra snippet of festive local orchestral colour I suspect you'll also enjoy the Baile del Bajìo from Ponce's Instantaneas mexicanas and, at greater length, the imaginative divertimento Ferial. 

Manuel Ponce, however, remained a romantic at heart and cleaved to the ideals of classical grace. Compared to Chávez, Revueltas et al he can appear (and was) old-fashioned, throughout his life. Examples of this are the the Sonata Romantica (Homage to Schubert), the Prelude and fugue on a theme of Handel, the Variations and Fugue on 'La Folia' and the Variations on a Theme of CabezónAlso, as his pieces incorporating Mexican folk elements (in other than some of the orchestral works) tend to be in either his graceful, salonish style or in his elegantly neo-Classical style, they have not got the sheer fire and brilliant colour of some of the most popular (and populist) expressions of Mexican nationalism in music, as you can hear from his beautiful Scherzino Mexicano and the Canciones populares mexicanas

Hopefully Ponce's quiet voice will re-find its place in the ears of audiences beyond Mexico.

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