Carlos Chávez

1899 1978

Carlos Chávez

Composer • Conductor


It was not long after the beginning of his piano lessons that Chávez tried his hand at composition. As a composer though, he was mostly self-taught through studying the classics, rather than as a student or a devotee of a more mature composer. He began with several simple pieces and at 15 began his first symphony.Sinfonía para orquestra was completed in 1918, before which the composer had heard a live symphony orchestra just one time.

1921 brought the first public performance of Chávez’ music. A well-received performance of hisSextet for Strings and Piano led to a commission from the revolutionary government. His ballet, at the government’s request, included Aztec themes, which would be a major factor in much of his composition throughout his life. El Fuego Nuevo was not accepted by the director of the Orquestra Sinfónica and would not be premiered until a performance by the Orquestra Sinfónica de México in 1928 with the composer conducting.

Chávez got married in 1922 to Otilia Ortiz, who had been a fellow student and a talented pianist. The couple traveled to Europe to promote Chávez’ music leading to his second piano sonata being published by Bote und Bock in Berlin. Chávez metPaul Dukas in Paris. Dukas encouraged him to be tap into his Mexican heritage’s music, asde Falla had in Spain and Bartók in Hungary.

Chávez returned to Mexico and worked to promote new (for Mexico) composers: Bartók,Milhaud, Stravinsky, and more, including himself. The performances at the National Preparatory School were not overly well-received and the composer left his wife and two children to travel to New York. In America he met and befriendedAaron Copland and Edgard Varèse. The two fellow composers helped get Chávez exposure in the States and he was able to return home in 1928 with several successes to his name.

Chavez’ Piano Concerto from 1940, was commissioned in 1938 by the Guggenheim Foundation and is a piece for a true virtuoso. It last over thirty minutes and is perhaps equally as challenging for the players of the orchestra. It is written in three movements, with the first taking up more than half the playing time. The music is driven by rhythm more than by melody, taking its inspiration from the native music of Mexico. This is perhaps less on the surface though, than in some of his other works. The concerto was premiered in 1942 by Eugene List and theNew York Philharmonic, Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting.

Chávez was invited in 1935 to conduct a piece of his own with the CBS Orchestra. Deciding on a new piece, he wrote his second symphony,Sinfonía India , for a debut on 23 January 1936. He included several melodies from Mexican Indian origin, as one may infer from the title. He used authentic percussion instruments made from materials such as cocoons, deer hooves, water gourd, and more, though more traditional instruments may be used. He used quotations of actual ethnic pieces, which is not his usual method. Chávez typically composed themes inspired by ethnic music. The piece is in one movement and lasts approximately fifteen minutes.

Composer, conductor, newspaper columnist, and educator Carlos Chávez was a major force of twentieth century music and Mexican cultural life. His music springs from various influences from within Mexico and around the world.

Born Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez in Mexico City, Chávez was the sixth and youngest child in his family. His father died when Chávez was a baby, but his mother, a teacher, was able to care well for her children. His family remained in the Mexican capital until the revolution forced all teachers out of the city. The family settled in Veracruz until the end of fighting when they were able to return to Mexico City.

He began his musical education with piano lessons from his brother, and when he was more advanced, he took lessons from Asunción Parra. In 1910 he started lessons with Manuel Ponce, Mexico’s leading composer, and later with Pedro Luis Ogazón. Ogazón was responsible for introducing the music ofClaude Debussy to Mexico in 1903.

La hija de Cólquide is Chávez’s fourth of five ballets. Commissioned and inspired by the dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, it was an opportunity for Chávez after Aaron Copland passed on it. It was composed in 1943 and scored for double quartet of strings and winds. The ballet is composed in eight sections, and almost simultaneously Chávez scored the work as a five-movement orchestra piece. It is less explosive than some of his other work, kept to a slower, more moderate tempo. There are passionate moments though, like the sections “Encantamiento” and “Peán”. The ballet premiered 23 January 1946, retitledDark Meadow, at the Plymouth Theater in New York with Graham choreographing and Isamu Noguchi designing.

Carlos Chávez is Mexico’s twentieth century giant of music. His lasting impact as a composer has faded in the broader musical world, but his impact cannot be denied. Beyond his work as a composer, his work as an educator and administrator strengthened and expanded Mexico’s musical heritage.

Header image courtesy of Art Music Mexico Guatemala Other images courtesy of The Rogovoy Report, On Music Dictionary and public domain

His homecoming in 1928 saw the beginning of several important director posts. He began as the director of the Orquestra Sinfónica Mexicana, renamed Orquestra Sinfónica de México. He would spend twenty-one successful years with the ensemble. He was appointed the director of the Conservatorio Nacional where he was also a teacher. This was also a time of great output in his composition, including some of his best-known works:Sinfonía de Antígona (1933), Sinfonía india (1935), 10 Preludes for Piano (1937), and Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1938).

Chávez was one of the thirteen original members of El Colegio Nacional in 1943. He founded a music publisher Ediciones Mexicanas de Música, which helped promote modern composers. He was appointed by the new president, Miguel Alemán, to head the new Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, another successful directorship for Chávez. Unfortunately this post led him to leave his orchestra and the ensemble folded soon after.

After a brief retirement in 1952 to focus on composing, including three new symphonies, Chávez returned to public service as Head of the Music Department of INBA and music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional, though a union dispute with the members of the orchestra would lead his resignation of both positions. Chávez moved to New York, a flat across from Lincoln Center where he would spend the rest of his life. He died on 2 August 1978 while visiting his daughter back in his native Mexico.

Carlos Chávez’ work spans the first half of the twentieth century. The dozens of pieces span the traditional range of compositions, with some standing out, such as his piano concerto, symphonies, and opera,The Visitors.