Sunday, 29 July 2012

Venezuela 2: The Nationalists

Continuing my journey through the history of Venezuelan classical music (and by-passing Reynaldo Hahn, who I've considered elsewhere), the country's early 20th century composers continued to write in a simple and popular style, winning themselves a following in the process.

Francisco de Paula Aguirre (1875–1939) was one such composer, penning songs, serenades and waltzes - including the catchy and colourful waltz Dama Antañona and the joropo Amalia. (A joropo is a particularly Venezuelan folk dance, with Creole roots). Another was Vicente Emilio Sojo (1887-1974), founder of the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra, arranger of large numbers of his nation's folksongs and, thus, the founder of the nationalist movement in Venezuelan music. He wrote such pleasing pieces as the 5 Venezuelan Pieces (so good as to be recorded by John Williams - 1,2,3,4,5). Carlos Bonnet (1892-1983), composer of the waltz La Partida, also falls into this category - as does Laudelino Mejías (1893-1963), composer of the nostalgic waltz ConticinioMoisés Moleiro (1904-1979), composer of the brilliant Joropo; and guitarist Antonio Lauro (1917-1986), composer of many a waltz named after women, such as Ana Cristina, Natalia and María Carolina, plus the Valses Venezolanos

A different kettle of fish is to follow. With Juan Bautista Plaza (1898–1965) and his Fuga Criolla for string orchestra (here arranged for percussion) we reach a composer who, with Villa Lobos-like relish, is able to fuse Bachian counterpoint with folk rhythms to create something delightful - and nationalistic. The nationalist impulse can also be heard in the Sonatina Venezolana, a piece the pianist Claudio Arrau brought to international attention. There are many excellent works by this composer. The companion to the Fuga Criolla, the Fuga Romantica, for example, is a fine contrapuntal take on a romantic-sounding theme and demonstrates that Plaza is a composer of real stature. I think you will also enjoy his symphonic poems El picacho abrupto ('The Sharp Peak', evoking a climb in the mountains'), Campanas de Pascua ('Easter Bells') and Vigilia ('Vigil'), plus the beautiful choral/orchestral tribute to Simón Bolívar, Las Horas. Plaza studied in Rome and his music shows the effects of a good European education. If any strand stands out it's the Neo-Classicism element found in several of his pieces, heard most clearly in his Piano Sonata - though it can also be heard in the Wedding March written for the his daughters' weddings in 1959. Other earlier, more traditional piano pieces you might care to sample are the impressive Romance in F, the Minué melancólico and the charming Tres piezas sobre temas de L.E.B. To end this introduction to this first-rate Venezuelan composer Juan Bautista Plaza, please try a work where the nationalist and the Neo-Classical come together most attractively - Cuatro Ritmos de Danza, folk-like pieces written on tunes of the composer's own invention. 

For colourful orchestral nationalism, a fine place to begin would be with the delightful symphonic suite Santa Cruz de Pacairigua by Evencio Castellanos (1915-1984) - a bright, busy orchestral picture-postcard comparable with those being written by composers like Moncayo in Mexico. The piece was written to honour the construction of a church and contains several folk-dance melodies, a lyrical Venezuelan waltz and plainchant. It's a treat of a piece. The symphonic poem El Río de las Siete Estrellas ('The River of the Seven Stars') is a sultry tale of love, an Indian maiden (representing by a theme heard straight away on the flute), mythology, stars (evoked by the celesta) volcanoes, battles (drums and fanfares) and Venezuelan patriotism (a snatch of the country's national anthem) and again shows Castellanos to be an accomplished, colourful and entertaining composer. From hearing it I would say that he knew his Ravel. 

Antonio Estévez (1916-1988) was another leading Venezuelan nationalist composer; indeed, he is considered the man who did for his country's music what Copland, Chávez and Ginastera did in their respective countries. His most famous work is the Cantata Criolla of 1954, a work for tenor and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra. The piece evokes the llanos (plains) of Venezuela and a singing competition between a folk singer and the devil. Another rewarding piece by Estévez is Mediodía en el Llano ('Noon on the Plain') - an atmospheric symphonic poem depicting dawn, noon and evening on the llanos.

Inocente Carreño (1919-) is best known for the patriotic symphonic poem Margariteña (Pt.2 here), a piece that opens rather like a Vaughan Williams rhapsody and is full of Venezuelan folksong and impressionistic orchestral colour. The main folk tune ('Margarita is a tear') is used rather in the manner of Kodály as a recurring device, heard in various guises and moods between appearances by other melodies. It is a high-quality piece of music. As orchestral songs are among the tastiest forms in classical music, I can safely also recommend the lovely Canciones Francesas for soprano and orchestra and for that other side of Venezuelan music - the one that loves guitars - please try the Suite para guitarra en tres movimientos, written around the time of Margariteña, a piece guitar-lovers across the world would take to. 

With the composers that follow Inocente Carreño we enter the world of contemporary music (in all its many shades), which will wait for another post. This post has taught me, again, that just because a country's classical tradition is not well known in the United Kingdom does not mean that it isn't full of fabulous music that should be known. There are some class acts among this set of Venezuelan composers. 

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