1882 — 1948
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One of the major figures of Mexican culture in the 20th century, Manuel Ponce worked at the meeting point of the European classical tradition and the traditional music and complex culture of his land, with both being reevaluated before his eyes following the Mexican Revolution. His seemingly contradictory devotion to Mexican song and folklore alongside his interest in European modernism scandalised audiences on all sides, but provided a remarkable foundation upon which contemporary Mexican music rests.
Ponce was born in the small village of Fresnillo in the state of Zacatecas, and shortly after his family moved to Aguascalientes, the regional capital of the state in north-central Mexico. There, amidst the European culture popular in the circles of Mexico’s elite, he began his music studies, beginning with piano lessons from his sister Josefina and continuing with participation in a children’s choir. He composed his first piece at the age of five while sick with measles. At the age of twelve the prodigiously talented young musician was named the organist in the city’s cathedral.
Ponce went on to enter the National Conservatory in Mexico City in 1901. He had a number of influential early stays in Europe, traveling to Bologna to study composition with Enrico Bossi and Berlin to study piano with Martin Krouse. In 1908 Ponce returned to Mexico City and began teaching at the National Conservatory. He collected and arranged traditional folk songs from throughout the country, which were quickly published and proved popular. He also experimented with more adventurous chamber music, even composing an early piano concerto. 1914 saw the publication of his songEstrellita, a composition in the style of Mexican traditional song. Allegedly written around 1900, the melody has become legendary, with popular arrangements made for various instruments.
From 1915 to 1917 Ponce lived in Havana to escape the chaos of the central years of the Mexican Revolution, although in 1916 wrote a governmental official in Havana to offer himself for service to the government. After returning to Mexico during the years of halting social and political resolution, he began work on what would be perhaps his most nationalistic work, the three-movement symphonic suiteChapultepec. With the first version dating from 1922 and premiered in 1929, extensive revisions were made for a version dating from 1934. The premiere of the revised work was given in the same year by The Orquestra Sinfónica de México directed byCarlos Chávez. The name Chapultepec comes from the massive central park in Mexico City which dates back to the Aztec civilizations. The first movement of the composition is constructed upon a melody based on pitches found on pre-Hispanic flutes, framed by impressionistic atmospheres and soaring lines in the strings. The second and third movements feature well-known Mexican melodies.
In 1923 Ponce attended the first concert in Mexico of the great Spanish guitaristAndres Segovia. The two would go on to become lifelong friends, and, despite Segovia’s artistically dominating demands and revisions of Ponce’s works, they created one of the foundational oeuvres for the classical guitar, with attention recently being given to the manuscript editions.
Ponce returned again to Europe in 1925 for what would be a seven-year stay in Paris to study with Paul Dukas. HisSonata III (1927), written for Segovia, was one of a number of large-scale guitar works completed during his time in Paris, but clearly the one which most markedly shows the influence of his studies there. The first movement, with its impressionistic harmonies, ambitious structure, and incredible range of character, shows the absorption of the more contemporary musical language of Paris. The second movement is a beautiful setting of a simple, lamenting, melody, and the third movement is a more extroverted dance-type rondo, with hints in the episodes of the impressionistic harmonies from the opening.
Ponce finally returned to Mexico City in 1933, and took up teaching positions in the National University and Conservatory. Two monumental works from the final decade of Ponce’s life are theConcierto del sur (1941), for guitar, and hisConcierto para violín y orquesta (1943). Ponce was likely the first 20th century composer to begin work on a guitar concerto – sketches exist from early in his stay in Paris in the 1920’s, but the work was finally premiered in Montevideo, Uruguay, on 4 October, 1941, with Segovia as the soloist and Ponce himself conducting. The colorful composition ranges from impressionistic harmonies and late romantic expression to Spanish rasqueados and thrilling scales, and in the third movement, references to traditional Mexico songs.
The violin concerto was dedicated to the Polish (and soon to be Mexican) Henryck Szeryng and premiered with the Orquestra Sinfónica de México under the direction of Carlos Chávez. Critical controversy surrounded the premiere. Ponce had become an important symbol of the revival of Mexican folklore, and some critics found his interest in modernism to be at odds with the Nationalistic style. The concerto is very much tonal and melodic, based on traditional structures, but quite unstable harmonically. The work is at moments reminiscent ofStravinsky, both in the neoclassical melodies of the first movement, and the alternating charming and primitive characters of the third. The second movement bases its theme onEstrellita, the iconic melody composed by the young musician many years earlier. After a stinging critique of the work’s modernistic elements and lack of sincerity from the prominent critic Jesús Bal y Gay, Ponce replied in a letter “that if that work has merit, it is precisely in its eminently melodic character and the simplicity of its structure.”
In 1947 Ponce received the Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes. The following year he passed away in Mexico City. He is buried in the Rotonda de las Personas Ilustres (Rotunda of Illustrious Persons) in the Panteón Civil de Dolores, inside Chapultepec Park.
Manuel María Ponce was the defining musical voice of one of the most tumultuous periods of Mexico’s history. His work not only redefined traditional Mexican song, but also simultaneously carried its legacy into the modern era. His music, even as it continues to become more globally known, will remain a beloved source of direction in his home country, and a model for evolving musical language without losing connection with ancient, vibrant cultures.
Images courtesy of AllMusic and Magical Journey