You’ve taken your seat, and the murmur of low-voiced conversation surrounds you. The velvet curtain is open, and the stage is set for an orchestra. Before long, the musicians emerge from the wings and take their places, shifting chairs, rustling sheet music, checking instruments. They don’t take long to settle, and everyone becomes quiet. Someone at the back coughs.
A man in formal black attire strides onto the stage, a shock of curly hair with a mind of its own atop his head. He moves directly to the small podium in front of the orchestra, then stops and faces the audience. Serious eyes draw us in from under dark, dramatic brows. Suddenly, the man gestures broadly, as if to introduce the musicians to us, and then he turns to face them.
It is 1937, and we are about to witness the great Carlos Chávez conducting the New York Philharmonic-Symphony orchestra.1
Chávez was born in Mexico City in 1899, and he died there in 1978. When he was growing up, his family often visited rural areas where he became deeply inspired by indigenous cultures. He studied piano and started composing when he was still very young. He completed his first symphony, Sinfonía, when he was 162 and went on to become a prolific composer, incorporating many indigenous elements into his works. He was a celebrated conductor, founding and leading the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico3 as well as conducting ensembles around the world. He also contributed significantly to the academic study of music, including serving as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University in 1958.4
Chávez’s body of work includes “five ballets, seven symphonies, four concertos, a cantata and opera, and innumerable pieces for voice, piano, and chamber ensemble; he wrote two books (of which Toward A New Music: Music and Electricity became a major contribution and fundamental document of new musical thought) and more than 200 articles on music.”5
Among his best-known creations are two early symphonies, Sinfonía de Antígona (1933) and Sinfonía India (1935), both of which incorporate indigenous themes. His Concerto No. 1 for piano and orchestra (1940) relies heavily on percussion, and the Toccata for percussion instruments (1942) is scored for 11 types of instruments, some of them indigenous. Chávez’s other works include the ballet Los cuatro soles (1925; “The Four Suns”), Xochipilli Macuilxóchitl for orchestra with indigenous instruments (1940), the Violin Concerto (1949–50), Discovery for orchestra (1969), and the Trombone Concerto (1975–76).6
Interestingly, Xochipilli Macuilxóchitl was created for “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art,” an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art featuring murals by Diego Rivera juxtaposed with pre-Columbian artifacts.7 Another project connected to art in the United States was Chávez’s composition of a ballet for Martha Graham called La Hija de Cólquide (“The Dark Meadow”) in 1946.8
Carlos Chávez was a powerful figure in the arts scene not only in Mexico but also in the United States and around the world. His knowledge and creativity touched multiple genres as he worked with musicians, composers, dancers, choreographers, painters, and academics. His ingenious incorporation of indigenous elements into Mexican and Spanish-influenced classical music created intense new worlds, transforming listeners into auditory explorers. Thank you, Señor Chávez, for leading us on all your elegant adventures.
Picture of Carlos Chávez from El repositorio digital de acceso abierto del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia de México