A Musical History of México – PART 1

Music of the Americas_ Paul H. ApelHello again.  Today, I thought I’d take a discursive journey around the interrelationships between the so-called ‘Aztec Renaissance’ of the post-revolutionary period in México: the attempted return to pre-conquest Indian musical practices: a somewhat non-authentic subjective evocation of the remote past (i.e., there aren’t any records to establish authenticity of Aztec musical culture), in relation to the rise of patriotic fervour in nationalist music in this period which drew on real or imagined impressions of Indian and mestizo cultures.

I begin with a disclaimer.  As you probably know, these posts are predominantly about annotating the creative compositional journey in adapting Béa Gonzalez’s wonderfully evocative novel, ‘The Mapmaker’s Opera’ (Thomas Dunne Books, 2005) into a musical stage version.

The musical composition journey started out with a detailed investigation into Flamenco (especially the Siguiriya) – a lengthy and quite humbling investigation into learning to adapt my classical guitar training and technique (see the early posts) – then followed by my current immersion in unraveling the idioms of ‘Mariachi’ music and, finally, in the not too distant future, we’ll look into those aspects of Aztec and Mayan musical cultures that we can glean from the very limited sources available.

This is not an academic exercise in research  per se, but a recognition that composing within different musical styles necessitates some effort in understanding the milieu being appropriated for such dramatic purpose and intent as required in each scene.  Consequently, I am not trying to be ethnomusicologically precise (at least not to the detriment of the lyrics and/or book) but merely attempting to provide an appropriate evocation of the period and setting of the novel’s stage adaptation.

Most of the information in this series of posts come from the following sources:

Apel. Paul. H. (1958). Music of the Americas, North and South.  N.Y.: Vantage Press, Inc.

Pan American Union. (n.d.). Music of Latin Americas.  Division of Musical Arts. (originally published In Literature, Arts and Music of the Club and Study Series. 1942, III. No. 3.)

http://www.mariachieducationresources.com/ (The web site of Laura Sobrino in Los Angeles) – an invaluable resource on all things ‘mariachi’.

It is also worth noting that in the last few days, UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list has added both Mariachi Music and the doleful Fado songs of Portugal to it.  I mention this because, akin to the loss of natural species underlying the narrative of Béa’s novel, promulgating the future of indigenous musical forms; their artists and creators, is so very important in this world in which we live.

The characteristic dance of the Yucatán is the Jarana (merry patter) and the words sung are often in the Mayan language.  It comes close to the melodic-rhythmic foundation of ancient Mexican songs.  Ancient tunes of the Mayas, Toltecs and Aztecs; existing before the Conquest, were based on the 5-tone scale, something like this: A C D E G.  This is important, because the Musical will open with music derived from this scale.

Interestingly enough, Cue 3 (‘Sunday in the Square’) which I have just finished composing for the Musical, actually makes extensive use of the ‘Son Jaliscience’ form which alternates between 6/8 and 3/4 time and has a really amazing bass line structure to it.

From the academic perspective, the composer, Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) is considered the pioneer of nationalism in México, having systematically investigated and used all types of mestizo folk music (corrido, jarabe, huapango son etc.).  He also, by and by, wrote a very fine Concerto for  Guitar (‘Concerto del sur’ from 1941).  See the video excerpt below.

Andrés Segovia performing the first movement of ‘Concerto de sur’

Carlos Chávez (1899-1978) the most influential early 20th-Century Mexican composer, has been particularly successful in assimilating elements of music based on ancient indigenous music.  In his works of Ámerindian character, such as ‘Los cuatro soles’, ‘Sinfonía India, or in his most abstract compositions, such as his last three symphonies (great pieces not nearly enough performed by the way) his highly personal style and Mexican identity appear so intimately connected that his music has been described as ‘profoundly non-European’.  Chavez also had a career as a conductor, founding the Orquesta Sinfónica de México in 1928.

Next in the series will be an overview of other Mexican composers of note from throughout the 20th-Century.

Muchos saludos,


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