Ok, I thought I'd make a contribution.. Here's a little something I wrote for a class this semester.
One of the most eclectic, interesting and influential eras in the history of our world was the 20th Century.
New technological advances, scientific discoveries and cultural acheivements marked these years. Humankind rose to heights unimagined beforehand.
A renewed preoccupation with peace, equity and human rights demonstrated that man was getting to understand, to some extent, the concept of living in harmony.
Not withstanding, there were a series of conflicts we all know about that led thousands upon thousands of people to suffering and oppression. This led to a growing feeling of national identity in many countries, which was, of course, reflected in the arts.
We’re all familiar with Russian nationalism, Czech nationalism, Polish, American, etc. However, people seem to forget one of the more important conflicts in the American continent. It brought a unified voice and identity to the people of its nation: the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Mexico at the beginning of the 20th Century was immersed in a world of growing social and political changes, and in a feeling of uncertainty.
The Mexican Revolution brought with it a total re-organization of the country, in aspects both social and political. This, of course, caused a complete renewal of thought and a total change in the lifestyles of the mexican people.
Thus, Mexican artists and composers made it a priority to find and preserve the rich traditions of Mexican culture and of the indigenous music of the past.
Mexican nationalism can be divided into two strong movements. The first of these, which could be called traditional nationalism, has its foundation on the idea of using traditional folk melodies of the mexican people in the classical music of the time. The foremost exponent of this movement is perhaps Manuel M. Ponce (1882-1948), who wrote a large number of songs, both popular and academic. Maestro Ponce incorporated into his music a strong sense of Mexican identity. He was highly influential in passing along this idea to other composers like José Rolón (1876-1945), Arnulfo Miramontes (1882-1960) and Candelario Huízar (1883-1970). Huízar, in particular, was the first of these composers who utilized melodies of indigenous origin, thus beginning the second movement of Mexican nationalism.
The so called “Indigenist” Nationalism, was more preoccupied with the nation’s most primal origins, turning for their inspiration to the Mexico of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Toltecs, etc. They were unlike the traditional nationalists in that they consciously made an effort to distantiate themselves from romantic influences and methods. They searched for new methods that would allow them to incorporate indigenous music, not as a mere element, but as the foundation of a whole new musical language.
One of the composers who were at the forefront of this movement was Carlos Chávez (1899-1978), who is perhaps the mexican composer with the most influence on today’s cultural environment in Mexico.
Chávez’s influence was exercised not only as a composer, but as a teacher and activist. Maesto Chávez had most of his musical formation abroad. He had the opportunity to meet many renowned composers, such as Paul Dukas, Edgar Varèse and Aaron Copland. Upon returning to Mexico, Chávez had brought with him the musical ideas of Stravinsky and Schönberg, previously unknown to the Mexican people. He put his effort into creating and organizing concert series in Mexico that brought to the attention of the Mexican people names such as Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schönberg and Claude Debussy.
Thanks to his efforts, Mexico now has the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, a government agency dedicated to the advancement of the arts in Mexico. He was also one of the most important composition teachers of his time.
He was highly interested in new forms of music, including electronic music, on which he wrote one of the first treatises. In his writing, Chávez emphasized the creation of what he called “useful art”. He emphasized the need for an art that would be useful for the masses without any discrimination of social classes. He maintained that art is not a luxury or a privilege.
Chávez set a precedent for other Mexican composers in that he distantiated himself from traditional tonality, rejecting the romantic rhetoric.
One of his most representative pieces, and of the indigenist nationalism, is the “Sinfonía India”, which utilizes various indigenous instruments and elements to create a pastiche of Mexican culture. Other noteworthy compositions include his ballets “Caballos de Vapor”, “El Fuego Nuevo” and orchestral pieces like the Republican Overture and the Piano Concerto.
Other composers who, along Chávez, stressed the importance of indigenous music, were Blas Galindo (1910-1993) whose “Sones de Mariachi” is already a classic of Mexican music; José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958) whose “Huapango” is one of the most beloved pieces in the Mexican repertoire; and Miguel Bernal Jiménez, most remembered for his carol “Por el Valle de las Rosas”. Other important composers of this generation include Eduardo Hernández Moncada, Luis Sandi, Daniel Ayala and Salvador Contreras.
Even though he wasn’t a clear part of the indigenist nationalists, Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) is considered to be the most important Mexican composer of the 20th Century. He never utilized indigenous music as his direct source, yet he managed to compose pieces clearly infused with a strong sense of Mexican folklore.
In his own wors:
“In most of my works I’ve looked to express the indifferent, maybe sentimental, always energic, content, and very definitely sarcastic, character of the people of my country. I don’t use popular or folkloric themes, but most of the motifs I use have a popular character.”
Even with his great nationalistic influence, Revueltas was at the forefront of modernist innovation in Mexico, a fact that can be proved by pieces such as “Sensemayá”, “Planos”, “Ocho x Radio”, and “La Noche de los Mayas”.
Another one of the most singular personalities in Mexican music was Julián Carrillo (1875-1965), who developed his own theories regarding the division of the twelve-tone scale in intervals smaller than the half-step. He named his theory “The 13th Sound”. With this theory, Carrillo placed himself as the direct precursor to the proponents of “microtonality” that would come later.
Towards the mid-20th Century, nationalist ideology started to lose its prominence in Mexico. Technologic growth, together with opening of foreign exchange and faster means of communication facilitated the arrival of many European schools of thought into Mexican art.
Important teachers of the time, such as Rodolfo Halffter and Carlos Chávez, who formed a whole generation of new Mexican composers, made the teaching of European serialist ideas, aleatoric experimenting and sound exploration through electronic means, an important part of the curriculum.
Out of Maestro Chávez’s composition course came composers like Mario Lavista, Francisco Núñez, Héctor Quintanar and Julio Estrada, who are at the forefront of innovation in Mexican music. Quintanar has devoted his efforts to the advancement of electronic music, while Lavista and Estrada have ascribed to the movements of “Instrumental Renaissance” and the “New Complexity”, respectively.
Perhaps the most influential composer of the second half of the 20th Century was Manuel Enríquez (1926-1994), who was one of the pioneers of electronic music in Mexico. He left behind a vast repertoire of music for string and percussion instruments, as well as orchestral music, which shows his interesting and unique way of dealing with orchestral texture and timbre.
Other important composers in recent time include Carlos Jiménez Mabarak, Joaquín Gutérrez Heras, Alicia Urreta, Mario Kuri Aldana, Leonardo Velázquez, Manuel de Elías, Arturo Márquez, Antonio Russek, Javier Álvarez, Roberto Morales, Manuel Rocha Iturbide, Graciela Agudelo, Federico Ibarra, Daniel Catán, Marcela Rodríguez, Ernesto García de León, Roberto Medina, Eduardo Soto Millán, Victor Rasgado, Hilda Paredes, Ana Lara, Gabriela Ortiz y Juan Trigos.
Perhaps Mexican music history is not as rich as some of the European countries can boast of having, but it is sadly neglected in today’s musical environment. It is time people open their eyes and see that Mexico is not about the sombreros, the donkeys and the swine flu. There’s important music being created in our country that is waiting to be discovered.
Some nice songs to listen to:
Manuel M. Ponce - Intermezzo
Manuel M. Ponce - Estrellita
Carlos Chávez - Sinfonia India pt. 1
Carlos Chávez - Sinfonia India pt. 2
José Pablo Moncayo - Huapango
Blas Galindo - Sones del Mariachi
Silvestre Revueltas - Sensemayá
Arturo Márquez - Danzón No. 2
(Sorry about all the Dudamel videos, Dudamel haters, but he's the only conductor right now who seems interested in bringing Mexican music to a wider audience..)