Tradition says that on the night of September 15th, almost before midnight, the reverend Miguel Hidalgo went up into his church steeple and rang the bells to call everyone to rise up and send the Spaniard imperialist dogs back home. To mark this event, in every single plaza in all the towns in Mexico, at every single town hall, from the huge Zocalo in Mexico City, to tiny “Tanque de agua número 56” (Water tank number 56) in some remote corner of San Luis Potosi- that is an actual town, by the way- governors and mayors will ring the bells or shoot a gun, give a speech and yell “Viva México!” right at midnight. Lots of fireworks, drinking and food will follow and then everyone will gather, hung-over, on the 16th to watch the obnoxiously early military parade.
All over Mexico, orchestras annually present their “Mexican programme”. Most of these will include either the Huapango, by José Pablo Moncayo or Danzón no. 2 by Arturo Marquez. Other works usually included are Chavez’ Sinfonía India and Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemaya. The music of Silvestre Revueltas, is being rediscovered by the rest of the world and Sensemaya recently made a brief show in the pop culture scene when it was featured in the soundtrack of the movie Sin City.
There is some Mexican music out there that is immensely popular here in Mexico, but practically unknown in the rest of the world. The Huapango and Estrellita are probably as well known here as Beethoven’s fifth and Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Here are three works that are very popular here in Mexico that are really worth knowing. While popular doesn’t necessarily mean quality, the three composers behind these works are very good and these works are a good starting point to get to know the rest of what they wrote.
This is a bright symphonic piece that is usually included in pop concerts of Latin American music. It was written by José Pablo Moncayo, an extremely talented pianist, composer and conductor who studied with Carlos Chavez and in Tanglewood with Copland and Bernstein. Here is a short video of pretty Mexican landscapes and Moncayo’s Huapango:
The great tragedy of Moncayo’s life is that he is known best for one of his least accomplished works, made while he was a student while many of his masterpieces are completely unplayed, even in Mexico. His teacher, Carlos Chávez, sent Moncayo and Blas Galindo to Veracruz to study local folk music; much like Bartok and Kodaly did a few years earlier in the Balkans. The local music features the harp and constantly changing accentuation that is typical of Mexican music; a 6/8 measure that constantly turns into a 3/4 without changing speed, sometimes played one on top of the other. (You count ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six and also ONE-two-THREE-four-FIVE-six). This rhythmic phenomenon is called hemiola. Moncayo used three Huapanagos (the name of the local folk music genre) called El Siquisiri, El Balahu and El Gavilancito and made a symphonic work based on them, first exposing them as he originally heard them and then developing them and combining them according to his own taste.
In 1941, Chávez (who was directing the National Symphony Orchestra) replaced a potpourri of huapangos that was usually played every year with Moncayo’s Huapango. The Huapango became a tradition. It is full of solos and it is a lot of fun to play for horn and harp players. It is not difficult and is constantly played by youth orchestras, and the constant infectious 6/8-3/4 rhythm has any audience tapping their feet along to the music immediately.
Moncayo’s life has not been studied in-depth and his important role as a conductor is not currently given the importance it deserved. While he was conducting, the national symphony orchestra gained international renown, and due to World War II in Europe, many great soloists brought their art to Mexico for the first time. As he grew older, his work fell out of fashion; composers abandoned the nationalist style of composition that included epic scale works featuring Mexican elements. His death marked the end of the nationalist era in Mexican music. Towards the end of his life, he was struggling with a bad political situation in Mexico and a difficult cultural environment. He died prematurely at 46, with the new generation of composers moving on towards serialism and a completely different school of thought.
If you like Moncayo’s work, I highly recommend Amatzinac for flute and string quartet (1935); his Symphony (1944); Sinfonietta (1945); Tierra de Temporal (1949) and among his works for piano, Muros Verdes.
Along with the Huapango, Danzón no. 2 is practically the second national anthem of the Mexican people. It is based on a Cuban dance form that became very popular in a variant played mostly in the southern and south-eastern zones of Mexico since the end of the 19th century. Like the Huapango, rhythmic hemiola plays a big part in the danzón. In this case, the changes are in 8/8, changing from 4/4 to 3/8+3/8+2/8 constantly. The measure changes are complicated in this work, but the accentuation is much more important and remains constant throughout.
Arturo Márquez wrote a series of works based on the danzón, commissioned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In these works, he explores a variety of ideas, using the language of danzón as a basis; these works include a guitar concerto (Danzón no. 3), a piece reminiscent of Tchaikowski’s fifth symphony (Danzón no. 4), a saxophone quintet (Danzón no. 5) and a work modeled on Ravel’s Bolero (Danzón no. 8); of all these, Danzón no. 2 gained international fame.
Danzón no. 2 is a beautiful thing to watch in a concert hall; it has a lot of visual appeal. The violin and viola bows move hypnotically, reminding one of feathers swaying, of fish gliding through the water; whole sections of the orchestra jump in and out, dancing with every changing theme, built like a jigsaw puzzle out of danzón elements. The work has been played by many orchestras around the world, notably by the Berlin Philharmonic. I have yet to see a version I like by non-Mexican orchestras. Foreign versions I have heard tend to have too much piano and a percussion section that tends to be behind the beat
If you enjoy Danzón no. 2, Márquez has recently composed a series of works for solo piano that are beautiful and highly idiomatic to the instrument. My favorite in the danzon series is number eight, homage to Maurice. It is modeled after Ravel´s Bolero, featuring a conga line instead of the original snare drum and following the slow build-up of the Bolero. Here it is, played by the Silvestre Revueltas Youth Orchestra:
I personally played the piano in the world premiere of his Cantata de los sueños (Cantata of dreams) in its version for choir, soloists, narrator, piano and percussion. Here is the final number from this work that is part cantata, part opera and part musical theatre and protest song. I am the pianist on the left, and my wife is sitting beside me turning the pages:
It was a lot of fun to play. It treats the piano as a percussion instrument integrated to the rest of the percussion ensemble. The music was very nice, but the subject matter was not so much to my taste. I tend to dislike music that features political content (the cantata talks about world peace, the internationalization of global resources, the decline of ethnic cultures and racism, among other current themes).
I won’t bore you with a biography of Manuel M. Ponce. His Wikipedia page is pretty complete and includes most of what you need to know about this man, one of the first Mexican composers to gain international recognition. His song Estrellita became very popular in the first part of the twentieth century. Along with Estrellita, it is practically impossible to attend a school recital in a Mexican conservatory where someone isn’t playing Ponce’s Intermezzo or his Scherzino Mexicano either on piano or guitar. Estrellita was also transcribed by Jascha Heifetz, and his version of this work for the violin is played by young would-be virtuosos around the world. His work also jumped to the international scene when Andrés Segovia played and recorded many of his works transcribed for guitar. His Concierto del Sur for guitar and orchestra is played by guitarists everywhere.
Here is Alfredo Kraus singing Estrellita, to the general swooning of all old ladies in the audience:
Here is Joshua Bell playing Heifetz’ transcription of this work at the proms, to the general swooning of all teenage girl violinists in the audience. It is not easy to play at all, featuring very high positions, a constant vibrato and cantabile and lots and lots of accidentals.
You can also listen to his two other most popular works, Intermezzo for piano and Scherzino Mexicano in transcription for guitar. You can find a ton of Mexican pianists playing the Intermezzo on Youtube. Here is a version of the Scherzino Mexicano played by John Williams on guitar:
Even with its salon music writing and romantic turn of the century style, there is still a Mexican element to the writing. The hemiola is ever present even here and the bass line is very similar to mariachi playing. The endings of the phrases are also typically folksy.
Ponce’s most famous works were in his salon music, romantic style. He later evolved into a quasi-impressionistic style and later adopted a more avant guarde nationalistic composition style. I highly recommend going through his catalogue, which includes such gems as the violin concerto, different poems for the piano and music based on the baroque and neo-classical styles.