Composer • Conductor
• 1899 — 1978
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Carlos Chávez was probably the most important Mexican composer of the twentieth century. Known for his seven symphonies, the ballets La hija de Colquide (The Dark Meadow), and Toxcatl -- which uses his popular 1947 Toccata for percussion -- his concertos for piano and violin (one each) and the four Soli (the third for orchestra and soloists and the others for winds), he was a composer who generally did not follow trends and fared better in purely orchestral or instrumental music. While Chávez's style is sometimes not recognizable as Latin, as it can often sound Stravinskyan and neo-Classical, folk elements of Aztec and Mexican music rarely stay dormant for long, with their colorful rhythms, exotic percussion and characterful themes. Chávez also wrote two books, one of which was the influential Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity, from 1932.
Chávez's father died when he was three, but he and his five other siblings were generally well cared for by their mother, who was a school teacher. He studied piano with Asuncion Parra, having already developed a measure of proficiency from lessons in his early childhood from an older brother. Young Carlos advanced rapidly and by the age of 11 began studies with Ponce. While he received instruction only on piano during his early years, Chávez began to study instrumentation on his own. Throughout his career, in fact, he continued this practice: his copies of Beethoven's and Brahms' symphonies, for instance, contained all sorts of notations in his hand.
At 15, Chávez became a pupil of Ogazon and a year later took some instruction from Fuentes in harmony. Among his first important works was the Piano Sextet (1919), whose piano part he performed at its 1921 premiere. That same year Chávez began work on his Aztec ballet El fuego Nuevo, on a government commission.
Chávez married Otilia Ortiz in September 1922, then traveled to Europe and the United States with his bride over the next several years, finding the culture of the latter much more to his liking. In fact, he made many subsequent trips there and even lived in New York City from 1926 to 1928, where he developed friendships with Copland, Varèse and other important figures of the day. His only opera, The Visitors, premiered in New York in May 1957.
In 1924, Chávez began writing music articles for El universal, a Mexico City newspaper, and he continued to do so for most of the rest of his life. He also had developed ties in politics by now and soon received important appointments: directorship of the National Conservatory came in 1928; and in 1933 he took up the reins at the Public Education's fine arts department. But he remained busy composing during these years, too, completing his ballet Caballos de vapor in 1932 and turning out his first (1933) and second (1935-1936) symphonies, as well as many other works.
In 1947, Chávez helped establish Mexico's National Institute of Fine Arts. He made a return trip to Europe two years later, but still found its culture of no great appeal to his sensibilities. Over the next two decades he composed more symphonies (his seventh coming in 1960 and his sixth in 1961), many songs, and chamber works. In 1958-1959, he served as Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetics at Harvard University. In the 1970s, Chávez's inspiration seemed to vanish, as he produced no significant new work.