Music Monday: Carlos Chávez: Sinfonia india

Carlos Chávez (1899 - 1978, full name Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez) is one of those figures who makes you realize just how myopic the contemporary American musical education system can be. In all my years of study, I have never once heard any of my teachers mention his name; he is not mentioned (so far as I can tell) in Richard Taruskin's monumental, if highly dubious (link is a PDF) history; Alex Ross notes him in passing in The Rest is Noise, but barely mentions his music. I don't have any other histories of classical music in the 20th century on hand, but I would be surprised if they do much better. (If you know of one, let me know! I'd love to learn more about him!) And yet he was a seminal figure in the Mexican compositional scene, as well as having an impact on things north of the border as well.

He was, needless to say, an accomplished composer, but he also led the Orquestra Sinfónica de México for more than two decades, wrote prolifically on many topics, overhauled the curriculum at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música, lectured everywhere from Mexico City to England to Harvard, and ran the Cabrillo Music Festival for several years. After the Mexican Revolution, he was deeply involved with the new government's investment in the arts as a source for a new cultural/nationalistic identity, and many of his works from the 20s and 30s reflect this, drawing on musical sources from both before and after the Hispanic conquest. (He made many detailed studies of indigenous musical traditions, altho, as the subtitle "An Imagined Aztec Music" to his 1940 piece Xochipilli suggests, some of this work was speculative reconstruction.)

As a conductor, Chávez was a big supporter of new Mexican music, premièring dozens of works by his contemporaries, and also worked to make orchestral music more accessible to the masses, both by bringing the orchestra out of the city center and also by organizing concerts for workers and children in addition to the regular subscription offerings. Basically, he did an awful lot, wearing any number of different hats, and he deserves to be much more broadly known.

Very few of his works have anything like broad recognition by the concert-going public in this country, but if you've heard any of them, it's probably the one we're featuring today, the Sinfonia india from 1935 (his second symphony, of six total, heard here under the composer's own baton). As the title suggests, it's heavily inspired by the music of indigenous peoples, drawing many of its themes from the music of the Huichol, Yaqui, and Seri peoples*. It's on the short side for a symphony, just about 12 minutes long, and it condenses everything down into one movement, but it makes up for lost time by hitting the ground running and keeping the intensity up right to the end. It opens with a jaunty dance tune in lively mixed meters, which settle briefly into a more regular waltz-like figure before bursting out into the initial material again. This leads to a slower, more lyrical and haunted interlude, which expands out into an extended section of long, flowing lines supported by somber yet strangely inert harmonies. This builds in intensity, but never really climaxes, instead ebbing away while also accelerating until it launches back into a version of the opening dance. There's another brief lyrical interlude, but this time it slips back into the fast dance instead of developing into a longer section in its own right. The meter stabilizes into a regular 6/8 pattern (tho not without persistent cross-rhythms), and the whole thing goes out with a bang.

Everyone familiar with 20th-century American concert music will tell you that this music sounds a lot like Aaron Copland**. In truth, it's much more accurate to say that Aaron Copland sounds a lot like this. Chávez befriended Copland when the former visited New York City in the late 1920s, and it was at Chávez's invitation that Copland went to Mexico in the early 1930s. On this trip, Copland was inspired both by the rhythmic vitality of the music he heard there and by the socialist/communist ideals he saw at play in the project of bringing concert music to the masses. (Never forget that the quintessential sound of musical Americana, evoking the white, heterosexual couple settling down in their house on the prairie was largely invented by a gay Jewish communist living in New York City.) It was after returning from this trip that Copland wrote his first breakaway success, El Salon México. Copland moved away from writing explicitly "Mexican" works, but there are traces of this influence — both in terms of ideology and concrete musical elements — running thru the bulk of his subsequent musical output. Carlos Chávez was a formative influence on Aaron Copland, and, by extension, vast swaths of 20th-century concert music in the United States. He is well worth the listen.

*I am not familiar enough with race relations in Mexico, the general project of Mexican cultural (re)construction after the Revolution, and Chávez's own heritage to say with certainty whether the use of this material is appropriative, but I would not be at all surprised to learn that it is. This is an area I need to learn more about.

**I also hear a good bit of Frederick Rzewski, especially "Coming Together", but this, I think, is more of a coincidence than a direct influence.