Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Carlos Chávez: Complete Symphonies

Carlos Chávez in 1937, photographed by Carl von Vechten
Carlos Chávez in 1937, photographed by Carl von Vechten

Chávez’s emergence as a composer in 1920 – at the age of 21 – could not have been better timed. You see, 1920 saw the end of the Mexican Revolution and the inauguration of Álvaro Obregón as a constitutional president. According to musicologist J. Carlos Estenssoro:

“A new cultural nationalism began to take shape. The government became the chief patron of the arts, with a view to bringing culture to the masses, and great emphasis was placed on the indigenous Indian cultures, particularly those of the pre-Conquest era. In 1921 Chávez met Jose Vasconcelos, the dynamic minister of education and patron of the arts who commissioned him to write a ballet on an Aztec subject. [In composing] El feugo nuevo, Chávez established himself as the first composer to enunciate this new nationalism.” 

Yes, it is true: as a composer, especially early in his career, Chávez had “nationalist leanings,” meaning that the pre-Columbian and post-Columbian folk music of his native Mexico informed – to varying degrees (though sometimes not at all) – his concert music. But Carlos Chávez was much, much more than merely a “nationalist” composer, and the constant references to him and his music as being so doesn’t tell a tenth of the story. He was, in fact, an eclectic: a composer who drew on and synthesized a tremendous variety of different sorts of music in his compositions, from the music of ancient Greece (Symphony No. 1, “Antígona”) to full-blown twentieth century chromaticism. 

Chávez has been called “the Mexican Shostakovich,” but in my opinion, he was – if we have to make such facile comparisons – “the Mexican Bartók.” Like Bartók, Chávez’s music showed, one, a predilection for traditional musical genres (like sonata, quartet, and concerto); two, nationalist musical leanings; three, a willingness to employ whatever musical materials fit the expressive bill, be it the use of pentatonic (5-note) scales, diatonic (7-note) scales, or fully chromatic (12-note) scales; and four, a Beethoven-like predisposition towards intense motivic development, something Chávez referred to as “anatomic” musical growth. Finally and most importantly, both Chávez and Bartók were synthesists who shunned dogma and instead brought together in their music an extraordinary variety of different influences. Something for everyone, or so I’d like to think!

More than any other single body of Chávez’s work, it is his six symphonies – composed between 1933 and 1962 – that capture and encapsulate his musical interests and compositional techniques. In their character, they are remarkably different from one another, yet they are still clearly the work of the same composer. 

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