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ClassicsOnline Home » PONCE, M.M.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Cendoya)
Manuel Ponce was the founder of Mexican musical nationalism, often incorporating the melodies of harmonised folk-songs into his music. Widely travelled—he studied in Europe, at first in Bologna and then, between 1925 and 1933, as a pupil of Dukas in Paris—Ponce assimilated a wide range of styles and influences, including European-influenced Romanticism, indigenous idioms and a more advanced harmonic language. This is the first of eight volumes devoted to Ponce’s complete piano music.
Manuel María Ponce (1882–1948)
Complete Piano Works • 1
Manuel María Ponce was the author of a substantial and significant body of work and, as one of Mexico’s most prolific and well-known composers, is still held in great esteem today. His catalogue takes in virtually all genres and forms of music. One fundamental characteristic of his work is the use he made throughout his career of different styles, reflecting his range of knowledge and mastery of different compositional techniques. Broadly speaking, his music ranges from the post-Romanticism of the previous generation of composers to a modernism which made sporadic appearances in his early works but really began to establish itself in the music he wrote during his time in Paris (1925–33) and thereafter.
It is also possible to distinguish the works that form part of a universal Romanticism (enhanced by his studies in Italy and Germany, between 1905 and 1907, with the heirs of the Lisztian school) from the nationalist Romanticism of those inspired by the traditional music of his own country. The founder of Mexican musical nationalism, Ponce harmonised folk songs and used their melodies in both smalland larger-scale works, as well as creating his own folk-inspired motifs.
In 1915 he travelled to Havana, remaining there until 1917. He assimilated the essence of Cuban music into his own, sometimes incorporating actual folk tunes into his compositions. Between 1925 and 1933 he lived, studied and worked in Paris, taking classes with Dukas and becoming part of the intense musical life of the French capital. It was during these years that he found his own modernist style and began introducing touches of indigenous nationalism into his writing, recreating something of the atmosphere of the native music of pre-Hispanic Mexico. He returned to his native country in 1933 and there wrote the music we would classify as his mature works, a key feature of many of which is the use of typically Hispanic elements.
Ponce received many awards throughout his career and was made an honorary member of numerous musical associations, both in Mexico and elsewhere. Two months before his death the Mexican government awarded him the country’s National Prize for Arts and Sciences. He was the first composer to be honoured in this way and it was the last tribute he was to be paid in his lifetime.
Even before Ponce wrote the bulk of the remarkable and influential guitar works that brought him worldwide recognition, his name was already known in many countries thanks to the widespread popularity of one particular piece, originally written for voice and piano: Estrellita (Little Star), composed in 1912 during his most intensely Romantic period. Years later Ponce himself created a solo piano version of the song, a work rich in invention which was performed and made famous by some of the world’s leading artists.¹ The attractive new harmonies he introduced transformed its original Romantic ambience and motivated him to subtitle it Metamorfosis de concierto (Concert Metamorphosis).
Although he had shown an interest in folk song from an early age, it was from 1911 onwards that he began working systematically to collect, anthologise and harmonise such pieces. Over the coming years he gave lectures and wrote articles about local folk music and absorbed its melodies and rhythms into his own work, marking the start of a methodical and consistent approach to musical nationalism in Mexico. The new nationalist aesthetic ran in parallel with the decade-long Mexican Revolution (approx 1910–20), a period of crucial importance in the country’s history, and shared certain of its ideological affinities, as regards a desire to safeguard the nation’s vernacular cultural roots.
Ponce was keen to categorise folk songs according to regional variations. He described the songs of the north, such as Valentina, which became popular during the Revolution, as echoing the courageous character of those who lived in frontier areas; the languid melodies of central Mexico, such as Ven, ¡Oh luna! (Come, Oh Moon!) or Serenata mexicana, were a faithful reflection of the melancholy of those provinces; while the songs of the coastal zones, such as A la orilla de un palmar (On the edge of a palm grove), revealed the voluptuousness of the tropics.
All the works that have the word “Mexican” fall into the category of nationalism. The two Preludios mexicanos are piano adaptations of the songs Cielito lindo (by Quirino Mendoza) and Cuiden su vida, published in 1914. Arrulladora mexicana (Mexican lullaby), meanwhile is based on the popular song La rancherita, while the Barcarola mexicana “Xochimilco” is a piano version (in the style of a “song without words”) of another popular song, La barca del marino.
Mañanitas is a traditional saint’s-day song and different Mexican regions have their own versions of it. The one heard here comes from the central-northern part of the country and is brilliantly arranged for solo piano. The Scherzino mexicano alternates and combines binary and ternary rhythms, in the same way as the Mexican folk style known as son (a genre embracing instrumental, vocal and danced forms). Similarly, the metre and character of the Scherzino maya are reminiscent of the jarana, a regional son from the Yucatán peninsula in the south-east of the country.
The Intermezzo is undoubtedly Ponce’s best-known Romantic piano piece. A short, three-part and perfectly balanced work, it is undated but was written towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, or the beginning of the second.
Of the 25 surviving mazurkas by Ponce, three belong to the salon music genre. The first of the three on this album is predominantly impassioned in character, while the second is nostalgic, with echoes of Chopin. Both are early works. The last mazurka he wrote, also known as Mazurka a la española, was initially conceived for guitar in 1933 (in response to a commission from Andrés Segovia); the piano version was published four years later. Ponce achieves an astonishing musical fusion in this work, creating an Andalusian atmosphere of foot-stamping, guitar and cante jondo within the framework of a Polish dance form!
The Preludio romántico was published in 1934, a year after Ponce’s return from Paris, and is a reworking of a shorter piece he had written some time earlier, before moving to France, entitled En un álbum romántico.
The Deux Études, dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, were composed in Paris. In the first of them Ponce uses a pentatonic melody, thereby evoking indigenous Mexican music. The second, meanwhile, is constructed on intervals of major seconds and thirds which alternate, producing some fascinating chromatic sonorities.
Ponce composed the Sonatina in 1932, his last year in Paris. The first movement is in sonata form and contains without doubt the composer’s harmonically most complex writing. A Romantic expressionism is discernible in the second and, by contrast, the third, with its use of indigenous rhythmic elements, belongs to his nationalist style.
His last significant work for piano was the set of Cuatro danzas mexicanas, inspired by the nineteenth-century danza mexicana genre, cultivated in particular by Felipe Villanueva (1862–93), as a homage to whom Ponce’s four were written. Following the same structure as their historic predecessors, they each have two sections: the first functions as an introduction (dazzling and virtuosic), while the dance proper unfolds in the second (slower, sensual and expressive in nature). This mature and beautifully constructed work brings our programme to a perfect end.
Overall, this album demonstrates the extensive range of styles embraced by the composer over a period of three decades or more, from around 1909 to 1941. We move from European-influenced Romanticism to nationalist Romanticism and indigenous nationalism, and on again to advanced modernism. This openness to all kinds of different ideas and inspiration resulted in a musical legacy characterised by a vast gamut of harmonic sonorities, stylistic variation and tonal riches.
English translation: Susannah Howe
¹ In 1928, Jascha Heifetz created an adaptation for violin and piano (pub. by C. Fischer) and gave its première at the Paris Opéra. Estrellita has been recorded by Henryk Szering, Itzhak Perlman, Tito Schipa, Toti Dal Monte and Renata Tebaldi, among others.
Note: The composer’s autograph scores and first editions of his works were consulted in the making of this recording. These sources are part of the Manuel M. Ponce Archive which is housed in the library of Mexico’s National Music School within the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
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