This Sunday at 4pm in Harrisburg's Whitaker Center, Cuarteto Latinoamericano will be performing a program of quartets by Latin American composers. Part 1 of this concert's post was about Heitor Villa-Lobos and his 5th String Quartet which opens the program. This one explores three shorter works by Manuel Ponce and Gabriela Ortiz from Mexico, and Astor Piazzolla from Argentina, along with the 1st String Quartet by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera.
Villa-Lobos met Ponce in Paris in the 1920s, and wrote “I remember asking him at that time if the composers of his country were as yet taking an interest in native music, as I had been doing [in Brazil] since 1912, and he answered he himself had been working in that direction. It gave me great joy to learn that in that distant part of my continent there was another artist who was arming himself with the resources of the folklore of his people in the struggle for the future musical independence of his country.”
Manuel Ponce was a year older than Villa-Lobos and, the twelfth child in the family, was considered a musical prodigy, sitting down at the piano after his sister's piano lesson and playing back the piece she had just been playing: he was 4 years old. At age 9, while recuperating from a common childhood disease, he wrote his first composition, called, appropriately, La Marcha del Sarampion or “The March of the Measles.”
|Manuel Ponce in his studio, 1920|
Though he composed three concertos and a handful of orchestral and chamber works, he was primarily a composer of pieces for solo piano, for guitar, and, his primary love it seems, songs. And if he wrote nothing else, he will remain world-famous for one little song he composed in 1912 at the age of 30. I suppose one could do worse than be famous for having written Estrellita (“Little Star”).
There are two schools of thought on this. One is that it was a song Ponce composed in the popular style and published it with a series of piano pieces, many of which were arrangements of actual folk or popular songs. The other is that Ponce merely arranged an already existing tune and therefore didn't really compose it, doing what a lot of composers in Europe were doing, transcribing folk songs from hearing them being sung by “the people.”
One thing is certain: Ponce sold the pieces outright so there was no copyright under his name, regardless. He didn't make a cent off the piece. He could have retired a very wealthy man on the royalties from Estrellita. But such is life...
When Jascha Heifetz was touring in Mexico in 1923 and realizing he had no music by a Mexican composer to put on his program, he heard someone sing Estrellita in a cafe that evening, jotted it down on a napkin, quickly wrote out an arrangement of it and played it at a concert the next night. It would become one of his favorite encores.
(This is cellist Álvaro Bitrán's arrangement of Heifetz's arrangement of what could well be Ponce's arrangement of the popular song, Estrellita...)
Ponce's Gavotte (or Gavota) was originally a piano piece published in 1913, a year after Estrellita. Rather than being inspired by Mexican popular music, it brings to mind the European salon music in an Italian style that was the preferred sound of classical music in Mexican social circles at the time.
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Gabriela Ortiz, one of the leading composers in Mexico today, was born in Mexico City in 1964. Her father was an architect and her mother was a psychoanalyst but they were also founders of one of Mexico's leading folk music ensembles. While folk music is "where it began" for her, her own musical style eventually incorporated traditional classical styles mixed with rock, African, and Afro-Cuban influences as well as the world of “electro-acoustics.”
As a teenager, her piano teacher introduced her to some of the Mikrokosmos of Bela Bartók. "For me, it was a window open to the 20th century music. That definitely changed my mind in a completely new way," Ortiz says. "And then I decided: I want to be a composer."
The composer writes this about this particular work which is the last movement of Altar de Muertos (“Altar of the Dead”) which was commissioned and premiered by the Kronos Quartet in 1997:
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“Altar de Muertos is divided into four parts, each of these describes diverse moods, traditions, and the spiritual worlds which shape the concept of death in Mexico, plus my own personal concept of death.”
Of the last movement specifically, she adds, “Syncretism and the concept of death in modern Mexico, chaos and the richness of multiple symbols, where the duality of life is always present: sacred and profane; good and evil; night and day; joy and sorrow.
This movement reflects a musical world full of joy, vitality and a great expressive force.
At the end of La Calaca I decided to quote a melody of Huichol origin, which attracted me when I first heard it. That melody was sung by Familia de la Cruz. The Huichol culture lives in the State of Nayarit, Mexico. Their musical art is always found in ceremonial and ritual life. (Optional: Each musician can put a Mexican mask on.)”
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(Given the Age of the Mask we're currently living in, I was wondering if the quartet will wear actual “Mexican Masks” for the Day of the Dead, or perhaps a Covid19 Mask with the grinning mouth of a traditionalMexican sugar skull?)
While her "sound" is full of color, in this string quartet she uses Aztec percussion instruments called huesos de fraile or "friars' bones" that the musicians attach to their ankles.
"Every time they see an accent on the score, they have to step," Ortiz says. "It's a very energetic movement, very rhythmic and it has a lot of influence from the 'Danza de Concheros' ... one of the oldest dances that we know [from] when the Spanish came."
Last year, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, spoke with NPR about the recent premiere of Gabriela Ortiz's new choral work, Yenga. "Gabriela is one of the most talented composers in the world, not only in Mexico, not only in our continent — in the world. She has an ability to bring colors, to bring rhythm [and] harmonies that connect with you. That is something beautiful, something unique."
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And now, to Argentina!
|Astor Piazzolla with Bandoneon|
There's probably no name in Latin American music better known around the world than Astor Piazzolla's. And while he went to Paris in 1954 to study with Nadia Boulanger in hopes of becoming a great composer of “concert music” – whatever one calls “serious” classical music – he was disappointed when he played some of his compositions (trying to hide his “tango past”) which failed to impress her. It wasn't until he played his tango “Triunfal” that she congratulated him because that, she said, was where his true talent was, where his most natural voice was to be found – in the musical past he was trying to hide.
And so he gave up his dreams of becoming a “classical composer” writing symphonies and instead incorporated a lot of what he was learning in his compositional studies – the ideas of structure, development, even such an old-fashioned scholastic exercise like counterpoint, not to mention the use of color in how you write for instruments – and applied them to the world of the popular dance, especially the tango. This new style of his became, suitably enough, known as Nuevo Tango.
You've heard the expression “it takes two to tango”? In this case, it takes four, and this was composed in 1987. Piazzolla was in New York at the time and went backstage after a concert by the Kronos Quartet to congratulate them when David Harrington, Kronos' first violinist, asked if he could call him in a few days. When Harrington called, Piazzolla had already written "Four for Tango" for them.
The road to fame is more complex than that famous anecdote about Boulanger: how did he become a good enough composer for Boulanger to accepted him as a student in the first place?
Meeting Artur Rubinstein (see previous post re:his meeting Villa-Lobos) in Buenos Aires in the 1940s, Piazzolla was inspired by his suggestions to study the music of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, and especially to study with Alberto Ginastera (see below). Both urged him to pursue studies in Paris, so when he won a scholarship following a performance of a symphonic work despite the fact a fight broke out in the audience between those for and against the presence of not one but two bandoneons, that traditional accordion-like instrument of the typical tango band, in a traditional orchestra!
Say what you want about Wikipedia, but I found this line very telling, wherever it came from: “In his musical professionalism and open-minded attitude to existing styles he held the mindset of an 18th-century composing performer such as Handel or Mozart, who were anxious to assimilate all national "flavors" of their day into their own compositions, and who always wrote with both first-hand performing experience and a sense of direct social relationship with their audiences.”
And I think that about sums up the divide between what classical music aficionados call “serious music” [sic – as if rock bands and jazz musicians are not “serious”!] and “music for entertainment” [as if Beethoven and Elliott Carter cannot entertain those who enjoy their most complex works!].
As Roger Sessions, himself usually regarded as a cerebral composer, once wrote, "Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart – as if the one could function without the other."
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This same sense of identity is at the heart of another Argentine composer's musical and spiritual identity, Alberto Ginastera, whose 1st String Quartet closes the program.
Before there was even the glimmer of a pandemic on the horizon, concerts have often had to weather the outrageous fortunes of, say, sudden snow storms like the one that canceled the appearance of the Enso Quartet in January, 2016, where they'd programmed Ginastera's String Quartet No. 1. However, for the time they were able to reschedule the concert, one player was unable to make it so a substitute was brought in (it happens) who had never played Ginastera's 1st but had played Ginastera's 2nd, and so they substituted one quartet for the other. It still fit in with 2016 being the year of the Ginastera Centennial.
This post, then, is merely a reworking of that 2016 introduction. Interestingly, the video I'd used for the performance was the one by Cuarteto Latinoamericano. And now – finally – we get to hear Ginastera's String Quartet No. 1 in Harrisburg and with Cuarteto Latinoamericano.
While the contrasts are between different types of violence and agitation in the first movement, mostly in the sense of rhythmic propulsion with a savage folkloric theme of limited scope over hammered, crunching chords, the second movement, beginning at 4:25, brings in an aspect of “magic” with its element of the supernatural (that old black magic), more than a Disney-style sense of fantasy, but with contrasts between the colors of playing close to the bridge (the glassy sounds at 4:35 and again at 7:00), the plucked strings against the hypnotically repeated perpetual motion on a single tone that expands at 6:00, which itself contrasts with the odd scurrying passages, not to forget the col legno passage at 7:18 where the players tap on the strings with the wooden backs of the bow rather than the bow-hairs! So much color and so much variety in just a few minutes.
The long slow movement, beginning at 8:00 – a contrast in length as well as tempo after two brief and concentrated fast movements (one violent, one eerily mysterious) – again brings Bartók to mind, his famous brand of “night music” where, rather than the romantic moonlit nocturnes of Chopin, we hear the sounds of nature complete with insects and other strange noises we're not sure of and, on occasion, even frogs (Bartók's son Peter, in his memoir, My Father, describes how the composer was fascinated by the sounds of the night at his uncle's farm, especially the frogs). The music slowly unfolds in simple intervals creating long sustained chords, full of silences and anticipation with fragments of melodies slow to evolve. These chords are based on (or comparable to) the tunings one might expect from a guitar. And the expansiveness is something one might experience alone under the stars of the great Pampas of rural Argentina.
The final movement – a dance – begins at 16:25 and is marked allegramente rustico or “cheerfully rustic,” the closest thing Ginastera has created to an overt folk-dance in this quartet, especially in its contrasting 5/8 sections. And while four string players might “kill” to be able to create the kind of “louder/faster” frenzy a huge orchestra can bring to, say, the conclusion of Estancia, there are ways of building to a sonorous and rhythmically exciting end.
|Alberto Ginastera's cat reacts to a particularly spicy chord|
How many Argentine composers other than Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla can you name? Surely, they didn't spring up, like Minerva, fully formed from the beginning of musical time in that Latin American nation? And as we saw with Piazzolla's influences, Ginastera was a major inspiration. So where did he come from?
Born to a Catalan father and an Italian mother, Ginastera was already studying piano, theory and composition at the age of 12 in the “Williams Conservatory,” founded by the Argentine-born composer Alberto Williams in 1893 (he had studied with Cesar Franck in Paris). While a senior in 1937, Ginastera composed a ballet, Panambí, (which one reviewer in 1998 described as “a seductive work that sounds like Ravel on growth hormones”) that, after a suite was premiered at Argentina's major concert hall, Teatro Colón, established his national reputation. When the full ballet was staged for the first time in 1940, Ginastera won several national and local prizes for music.
The next year, the young composer met Aaron Copland, then on a Latin American tour with the American Ballet Caravan (they'd produced Copland's ballet, Billy the Kid). On the strength of Panambí, the company's director, Lincoln Kirstein, commissioned Ginastera to compose a ballet for them which would become Estancia. A suite of four dances from the ballet – about the life of the gauchos on a ranch in the Pampas (basically) – remains one of his most frequently performed works, and the “Danza final” (a malambo) remains his greatest hit.
Unfortunately, the American dance company folded and was unable to produce Estancia, so a collection of four dances from the ballet was premiered in 1943 (the ballet itself wasn't staged at the Teatro Colón until ten years later) but the composer received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to study in America, a trip that had to be postponed because of the war. In 1941, he had already been appointed a professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires and also the “chair of music” at the General San Martín Military School, a post he was dismissed from when Juan Perón came to power. That December (1945), he and his family moved to the United States where he studied with Copland and heard some of his music performed by the League of American Composers in New York City and by the Pan-American Union in Washington, DC.
Returning to Argentina as his international reputation grew, he helped establish a local league of composers that became the Argentine division of the International Society for Contemporary Music (known as ISCM) in 1948. He also became the director of the Conservatory in La Plata (just outside Buenos Aires), and from this year on, he would make frequent trips to Europe as a representative of Argentine music.
I mention these events in detail because it was in 1948 that he composed the 1st String Quartet that concludes our program.
It's important to realize that, looking back on his career, Ginastera himself would later say this quartet marked the dividing line between his early style and his “second” period. He was now 32 – think of Beethoven who, at 30, was moving into what is universally called his “Middle Period” following his first set of quartets and the 1st Symphony – and what Ginastera called his “objective nationalism” with its strong influence of “creole music” like Estancia, with its overt use of gaucho folk-songs and dance rhythms.
This new 2nd Period he called his “subjective nationalism,” where, while elements of folk music are still in evidence, it's not nearly so explicit and often more like what other composers had been doing internationally – think “Bartók” – but with an Argentine accent.
Bela Bartók had started quoting elements of folk music in his own music, having moved on from mere transcriptions, and then began absorbing it into his more abstract style, what he often called “imaginary folksong.” The fingerprints of the folk style were present but the melodic and rhythmic materials were original, significant building-blocks of many of his major works, especially the 3rd, 4th, and 5th String Quartets.
Other aspects of the international style were absorbed into Ginastera's evolving language: he would use serialism (which most composers were using in one way or another in the 1950s) but not in any especially doctrinaire manner, influenced more by Berg and the expressionist atonality of Schoenberg than the rigorous approach of Webern and, particularly, Boulez (who even worked with serializing rhythms and dynamics as well as pitch). He would use polytonality – the presence of different layers of tonality but each strand in a different key – and “micro-tonality” (the use of quarter-tones) as well as elements of chance (the “aleatoric” music of John Cage, for instance). Above all, even though he was still disposed to “traditional forms” like the sonata or variations, he would “revitalize” them in his own, often different ways.
His music always had a rhythmic drive – often ferocious as you can hear in the Final Dance from Estancia – and he was above all fascinated by instrumental color, preferring to find new colors from combinations of standard instruments rather than using electronics. It was not unusual for his music to move along like a kaleidoscope of "sound-images" though with an underlying core of what constituted Ginastera's own “voice” so a casual listener might not notice the diversity. In other words, subjectivity aside, despite its technical variety, it would sound entirely consistent.
Keeping in mind that “dissonance” is technically a sound that implies the need for resolution – as a Dominant 7th Chord in Haydn is still technically a dissonance needing to resolve to a tonic chord – Ginastera's use of dissonance is often more a matter of color or rhythm (in a sense) than just the idea of creating harsh sounds. You can hear this in the aggressive opening of the 1st Quartet - which in the process generates a lot of the music's drive.
In the end, Ginastera has created a string quartet – something so associated with European culture and its history of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms (and Bartók) – that is at home on any world stage and brings with it echoes of his homeland, letting everyone else know that, yes, there is music in Argentina – and it sounds like this.
There is much more to Ginastera's music in the 35 years he continued to compose – interestingly, in the last years of his life, he talked about how his music was becoming less aggressive, returning not so much to the folk music of his past but to the folk music before his past.
“This change is taking the form of a kind of reversion, a going back to the primitive America of the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This influence in my music I feel as not folkloric, but – how to say it? – as a kind of metaphysical inspiration. In a way, what I have done is a reconstitution of the transcendental aspect of the ancient pre-Columbian world.”
So with his first quartet, we hear a composer, now in his 30s, reaching out to create a style that synthesizes the national and the personal – that will, by the time he is in his late-60s, return to find deeper roots to inspire him but to continue evolving an individual voice.
– Dick Strawser