A Mexican Mosaic

Carlos Chávez’s Indian Symphony

Carlos Chávez in New Mexico, 1932 (Paul Strand)
Carlos Chávez in New Mexico, 1932 (Paul Strand)

Aaron Copland met Carlos Chávez sometime in the 1920s—they would later disagree about exactly when—and over the course of half a century, they formed a close friendship that saw each vigorously champion the other’s music. That Copland was so taken with Chávez should come as no surprise. For Copland, any forward-thinking, 20th-century composer needed to exhibit certain characteristics, and Chávez ticked nearly every box. He made use of vernacular idioms in the service of a modern, yet accessible, aesthetic. He wrote highly pictorial music with rhythmic variety, generally eschewing sentimentality. And he had come to reject both 19th-century German Romanticism and the German conservatory tradition, which Copland believed to be stultifying, if not downright harmful. In his 1941 book Our New Music: Leading Composers in Europe and America, Copland described Chávez’s music as belonging

entirely to our own age. It propounds no problems, no metaphysics. [It] is extraordinarily healthy. It is music created not as a substitute for living but as a manifestation of life. It is clear and clean-sounding, without shadows or softness. Here is contemporary music if ever there was any.

Copland had his biases, to be sure, and many skillful, important composers (including just about every American who came before him) had no place in his worldview. But he was right about Chávez, a composer who came of age in Mexico, found his voice in Europe, and returned home to help augur a new, vibrant age in Mexican music, becoming one of the country’s cultural leaders, revered and beloved by many.

Although Chávez—born on this date in 1899—received his earliest musical training from his brother, and though he did study for a time with the composer Manuel Ponce, he largely taught himself how to write music by studying the scores of others. Early on, he became interested in furthering the cause of Mexican classical music, while reimagining its possibilities in the 20th century. Should it draw heavily from folk styles? How Mexican should it be? How avant-garde? Perhaps most crucial of all: How could a composer forge a style out of so many various elements: native Indian music, the plainsong brought by the conquistadores, the peasant dances of the countryside, the ballad-like corridos—to say nothing of the European symphonic and operatic literature? These questions must have been swimming in his head when, at the age of 21, Chávez traveled to Austria, Germany, and France. In Paris, he befriended Paul Dukas (composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), who instructed the young man to incorporate vernacular Mexican music into his pieces, pointing to the example of Manuel de Falla, who had been doing similar things in Spain with Spanish music.

Chávez also spent much time in the United States, which he deeply loved and considered a second home. In the early and mid-1920s, he lived in New York City, working with Copland, Henry Cowell, and Edgard Varèse, imbibing the modernist spirit. He would eventually befriend the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Colin McPhee, and Virgil Thomson, as well as the West Coast composers John Cage and Lou Harrison. These interactions nourished Chávez throughout his life. “In a sense he belongs with the composers of the United States,” Copland wrote, “because he is a product of our country, just as Thomson and [Walter] Piston owe something to France. The efficacy of the good-neighbor policy needs no better proof than the music of this Mexican.”

In the late 1920s, Chávez helped start the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, serving as its music director for two decades. He was also named director of the Conservatorio Nacional de Música in Mexico City, and from his perch atop these two institutions, Chávez evangelized on behalf of Mexican composers and culture. He presented children’s concerts and workers’ concerts, touring widely with his orchestra, taking symphonic music—and especially Mexican symphonic music—to the masses, all the while maintaining a traditional concert-hall routine. As a composer, he took Dukas’ advice, making use of popular idioms, and in this way he aligned himself with Heitor Villa-Lobos in Brazil, Amadeo Roldán in Cuba, and other composers of Latin and South America. Artistically speaking, he was not consciously a nationalist, and he did compose in several distinct styles. His most famous work was, however, Mexican to the core, drawing heavily from native Indian melodies: the Symphony No. 2, called Sinfonía india, which he completed in 1935.

The work reflects the extensive research Chávez conducted into the lives of the Huichol Indians of Nayarit state, and the Yaquis and Seris from Sonora, all based in the northern part of Mexico, along the Pacific coast. “The Indian music best preserving its purity,” Chávez wrote in 1940, “is not what remains of Aztec culture, but that of more or less primitive or nomad tribes which never, properly speaking, achieved a culture. Such are the Yaquis, the Seris, and the Huicholes.” In addition to using indigenous melodies, Chávez scored the work for several Indian percussion instruments—including the jicara de agua (a water gourd), the grijutian (made from the hooves of deer), the tenabari (butterfly cocoons strung together) and the cascabeles (which makes a rattling sound)—though in the score, he suggested appropriate substitutes that any symphony orchestra would have in its collection.

This one-movement piece (the second of Chávez’s six completed symphonies) begins in propulsive fashion, with an exuberant passage made up of rhythmic patterns of three and two, the pentatonic harmonies conjuring up an ancient, vital world. The percussion sounds are indeed intoxicating, and the symphony’s first theme—based on a Huichol melody—flings us into the center of some wild and manic dance. The work unfolds in episodic fashion, more in the style of an orchestral suite than a symphony, with each picture suggesting a different mood. What Diego Rivera and José Orozco did with paint—creating bold and colorful murals inspired by pre-Columbian Indian life— Chávez did in sound. The work’s second theme marks a drastic change in mood; songful and calm, it begins first with the clarinets before being taken up by the flute, bassoons, and the string section. It is a Yaqui melody, and if you didn’t know what you were hearing, you might swear you were listening to something by Copland, perhaps an outtake from Appalachian Spring. But Copland wrote his ballet nine years after the Sinfonía india, and though some critics have noted the influence of Copland in Chávez’s score, in this case, I think the opposite might be true.

When the French horns play a doleful Yaqui melody, the feeling of desolation is heightened by the accompanying figures in the harp and by the fugitive bassoon line. As Chávez develops the dirge, the music builds to a moment of great intensity, the phrases repeating like chants, the mallet percussion instruments and the muted brass instruments, with their soft metallic sheen, providing sonorous contrasts. When the earlier Yaqui melody returns, hymn-like, first in the woodwinds and then in the strings, it’s as if the listener were being swept along by some great oceanic tide. A third melody, this one attributed to the Seri, is vigorous and fast and splashed with bright tone colors, with the irregular rhythms and repeated patterns leading to a furious, relentless conclusion.

Watch Gustavo Dudamel lead the Berlin Philharmonic in this live performance of Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonía india:

And listen to Enrique Bátiz conduct the same work with the Orquesta Filarmonica de la ciudad de México:

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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