Music in Transition
Born in 1927, JOAQUIN GUTIERREZ 11 ion AS was educated at the National University and at the Conservatory of Mexico, lie came to New York on the exchange-visitor program sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, and studied at the Juiltiard School, and later at the Paris Conservatory, lie has lectured on music for Radio l niversidad and is now in charge of its musical programs.
To THE foreign visitor in Mexico our music seems to consist entirely of folk music. During the past decades Mexican painting and architecture have gained attention and admiration abroad, and lately some Mexican literary works have begun to cross the frontiers, but little is known about our non-popular music. Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas enjoy a certain prestige, and a few connoisseurs are familiar — more out of curiosity than from musical interest —with the experimental works of Julian Carrillo. But the spirit, of Mexican music that is carried abroad continues to be typified by mariachi airs and Veracruz tunes.
Why is it that along with such internationally noted painters as Rivera, Orozco. Siqueiros, and Tamayo, we can include only the names of Chavez and Revueltas? And worse, still, where is the musical counterpart of the new wave of Mexican painters who have shown their worth in international competitions? Today there is little to justify the statement made a century ago by Madame Calderon de la Barca: “Music in this country is a sixth sense.”
Notwithstanding, there were good beginnings. The attempts of Jose Rolon, Candelario Huizar, and Manuel M. Ponce to give an individuality to Mexican music; the nationalistic group around Chavez, along with Bias Galindo and Pablo Moncayo; and finally the beginnings of a movement to go beyond folklore influences when Silvestre Revueltas spoke of “music without tourism” and Chavez stepped along paths paralleling Bartok — these all gave promise of a good future. The nationalistic period, which reached its peak during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, brought about a flowering in Mexican music which has not been repeated. We can note certain dales: 1921, Chapultepee (Ponce); 1924. Los Cuatro Soles (Chavez); 1928, Imageries (Huizar); 1930, Cuauhndhuac (Revueltas); 1933, Sinfonia de Antigona (Chavez): 1936, Sinfonia India (Chavez); 1936, Homenaje a Garcia Lorca (Revueltas); 1938, Sensemayd (Revueltas). To these works, some of them admirable, can be added others which, because of their clever handling of folk material, have gained a certain popularity in our concert halls —for example, Sones Mariachi by Galindo (1940) or Huapango by Moncayo (1941).
In spite of everything, this period came to an end abruptly. It seems that in the year 1940 the creative spirit of Mexican nationalism was snuffed out. What followed has simply been a warming over of the old nationalism or a withdrawal from folk themes in order to search for a more personal style. It would have been interesting to see which path Silvestre Revueltas, who died in 1940 precisely, might have taken when the nationalistic phase came to an end.
The effect of European neoclassicism is apparent here. At its apogee this movement wras so sure of itself, so argumentative, that it made vassals of all who had no real cause to defend. Only those stubborn nationalists, and the sectarian and forgotten musicians who continued believing in the curious theory of dodecaphony, considered outmoded in the 1930s, were saved.
If neoclassicism in Europe failed to produce many works comparable with those ot the beginning of the century, it could hardly be expected that such secondhand inspiration would offer a fruitful impulse in Mexican music. It is true, for example, that in the works of Chavez and Galindo one notes a certain preoccupation with counterpoint, but these minutiae of composition scarcely indicate or even prove a “return to Bach.” And with this we touch upon an important point in our music: lo what past can the Mexican musician return?
The situation is easy for painters and sculptors, since archaeology provides them with a history and a prehistory. One cannot sav the same for preColumbian music. In spite of the advances made in research into the field of Indian music, as well as a growing enthusiasm for our musical past, it is not likely that it can be turned into a living source of musical inspiration. It will go on being as unknown as Greek music. Thus, the reconstruction of pre-Columbian music, usually based on traditional tunes, on historical documents, and on musical instruments found in excavations, will be no more than an archaeological game guided by the musical empathy of the composer. As an authentic expression of Mexicanism it is of little interest. We must accept the fact that native music, refined and grandiose as it might have been, could scarcely resist the impact of a tradition which already knew a Machaut or a Josquin des Pres; and that bowing before this tradition, it grew into those warm and vibrant rhythms which admirably and unconventionally embody our cultural mixture.
To the present-day Mexican, Indian music is as exotic as any other; the pentatonic scales sound like Chinese music to him, and the pre-Columbian instruments do not say much to him unless they strike some chord deep in his racial subconscious. The Mexican composer, whether he likes it or not, is enrolled in the European tradition, even though a native element, with its advantages and disadvantages, may place him in a peripheral spot. Awareness of this is precisely the reason for the Mexican artists’ ambiguous attitude toward European art. especially on the part of those who claim they express an authentic Mexican art cleansed of all European influences.
Furthermore, music is influenced by the same factors that affect the other arts which toy with folk material: it too is created with an eye to the foreign market. It was no accident that the nationalistic and archaic-style compositions of the group around Chavez enjoyed more success in the United States than with the Mexican public. In actuality, it is clear that the Mexican composer who writes for his countrymen does not need to add Mexican curios; instead, he will use a language that is more natural — that is to say, an idiom embodying the occidental and the mestizo tradition. The best allies of the cult of the indigenous continue to be foreign visitors and Mexicans with international tastes or those who are most removed from their native traditions.
THE nationalistic movement in Mexican music has lost both its vitality and sureness. Silvestre Revueltas is gone; Carlos Chavez has evolved a style which, though it occasionally shows ties with our ancient heritage, still cannot be called Mexican. It would be nice to say that we are in a period wherein Mexican music is producing works which are not imitations of anything from abroad and clo not draw attention solely by their exotic peculiarities; that our music has reached the point where it ceases to be a dialect and acquires a language of its own. But this has not happened. The lact is that in the past twenty years no new notable figures have come forward. On the one hand, we have the more or less sincere exponents of nationalism whose works cannot be compared with those ol the previous period; on the other hand, we have those docile followers of European fashions who cover their lack of substance with the motto, “It’s necessary to be up-to-date,” and who shift from neoclassicism to the twelve-tone system as easily as they once went from nationalism to neoclassicism. And it cannot be said that this ability to shift gears is their own, because they have copied it from Igor Stravinsky, the Dorian Gray of modern music, whose stylistic versatility and fear of being called passe have infected hosts of minor composers.
However that may be, young composers lind themselves in a situation where they are not required to follow one style or another. No official style exists, and their works will not be judged on the basis of their greater or lesser folklore content. But certain things operate against them. I he first and most serious is the low level of musical education. It is not surprising in a country still struggling against illiteracy that musical training is not fostered in the schools. The National Conservatory of Music, poor in resources and disorganized, barely accomplishes its tasks, even though it has some competent professors. Worse still is the situation at the School of Music of the National University, where they have not even bothered to put up a music building on this huge and highly publicized university campus. Wherever one looks, the music picture is the same: not enough teachers, shortage of material, lack of interest. As a result, the aspiring musician is left to his own resources, or he must depend on foreign scholarships, which often do little more than make him aware of his own educational shortcomings. One should not be surprised, then, at the fact that in a country of thirty million inhabitants, in whom music “is a sixth sense,” there is only one acceptable symphony orchestra.
Of course, there are sociological reasons for this cultural lag: musicians are usually drawn from the poorer classes because a musical career takes fewer years of preparation than any other, and even a badly trained performer can in a short time earn money in radio and in theater orchestras. Among the well-to-do, music offers no enticements as a serious career. It is looked upon instead as a way to spend occasional moments of leisure. As a profession it would signify a drop in social status. The picture has changed in recent years; it cannot be denied that music is beginning to be seen in another light. Hut the conditions described above have created a kind of vicious circle between the quality and training of the performer and his earning power, a situation from which it is difficult to escape. T hose who succeed either belong to the middle class, which has a musical tradition (usually foreign), or are individuals with extraordinary talent and intelligence.
Doubtless, these difficulties would not be so important if they were not linked to the lack of a firm tradition in serious music. Mexican popular music draw’s its vigor and naturalness from being backed by centuries of uninterrupted folk tradition. Serious Mexican music is a relatively recent arrival; until the nineteenth century the musical scene in Mexico was dominated by foreign performers, and whatever small tradition developed, if one can speak of a Mexican tradition in relation to music, failed to survive the violent periods of the Revolution.
The performance of music is really the most bourgeois art (as Russian soloists have shown); it demands a long peaceful tradition and stable material conditions. A musician may do without one of the two requisites, but not both at the same time, as was the case in preand post-revolutionary Mexico. Our musical tradition, at best, extends back no further than fifty years, and this explains many things. Nor can this tradition properly be called revolutionary. Although the Mexican Revolution, like the Russian Revolution, inspired artists in other fields, it did nothing for music, creating no new instrumental or compositional techniques. Unfortunately for us, we had no pre-revolutionary school of music that we could carry on. Our music had to begin at the beginning. But at least we can now begin to speak of a Mexican music, not merely of music in Mexico.
To what kind of public does the Mexican composer appeal? Sad to say, the public is just as poorly prepared for contemporary music as the professional musician. If radio programs are any indication, the music enjoyed by the bulk of the population is at the lowest possible level. There are exceptions: one radio station (one of the least powerful) specializes in “classical” music, and the radio transmitter of the National University remains a reassuring cultural oasis in a desert of commercial music, in which modern songs in the style of Augustin Lara compete with ranchero songs that are really parodies on folk music.
Naturally, the “educated” public keeps up with the musical celebrities and pays to see them. In a sense, music serves them just as any other institution does whose high prices generate an atmosphere of exclusiveness — a worldwide occurrence. Brilliant violinists and pianists will continue to pack audiences into the Palace of Fine Arts; the opera will glitter from time to time with a Maria Callas or a Mario del Monaco and studiously avoid such audacious undertakings as l.’Heure Espagnole, The Consul, Peter Grimes, 7 he Rake’s Progress, II Prigioniero, or M’ozzeck, for it is quite clear that the musical taste of the public is still hung up in the nineteenth century and on bel canto opera. Of course, modern operas are known through recordings, but unfortunately for our music the Mexican public has entered the electronic era without having cultivated the habit of music.
Thus, recorded music, which for the European is a complement to experiencing live music, has come to be the actual musical experience for us. The radio and record industry tends to turn into mere buyers and consumers of music those who might have been participants and performers. Since Mexico is intimately linked to the sociologicalindustrial development of the United States, the do-it-yourself slogan applies here even to music. People do not have to study or learn music; they need only build their own hi-fi sets. Naturally, it is easier to make money and buy a machine than to dedicate a good part of one’s time toward mastering an instrument. Certainly the electronic reproduction of music would not be objectionable if it turned us into real listeners. But as things go, the usual outcome (not only in Mexico) is that music has been reduced to being part of a modern comfort, a mere adjunct to daily living. Nowadays there is no place where music is not consumed, there is no public place in which we are safe from it, and tfie cretin with a transistor radio has finally invaded the last remaining corners of silence.
Despite this enormous consumption of music, there is a notable indifference toward contemporary music and a wide gap between composer and public. It is ironic that Mexico should suffer from this state of affairs to the extent that it enters into modern civilization. Recently born, serious Mexican music suffers the same incomprehension as its older sisters: the music of Chavez is not widely appreciated in Mexico; that of Revueltas, Moncayo, or Galindo is listened to principally for its folk elements.
Reflecting upon the differences between technical advances and the cultural lag, and if we believe in Western decadence, we might feel like the last passenger on a train heading for derailment. What other thoughts can be drawn from the picture of a healthy and smiling peasant with a transistor radio in his hand, or from a tiny, innocent village enveloped by the roar of a jukebox ‘
ow, after having looked at this picture sketched in solemn tones the reader may ask, with good reason, What are the positive aspects in our presentday music? In reality, the panorama seems more discouraging, perhaps, than it is. 1 hanks to the freedom our music lias won, and continues to win, in most cases Mexican musicians now occupy the posts that once would have been held by foreigners.
1 he National Symphony really deserves its title; there is now an opera company capable ol presenting dignilied opera and oflering a suitable frame for first-class singers. And we can even claim a school of Mexican composers.
For the rest, if in recent years it has been clear that government-sponsored music institutions have failed owing to the inability and selfishness of theirdirectors, one can also note an increase in musical activity among musicians and amateurs. C/roups ol young composers have sprouted; so also have fans of pre-Bach music or ol chamber music — all with the healthy conviction that it is ol no avail to wait for officially sponsored music. At the forefront of this movement to decentralize music is the National University, which lias admirably contributed to musical culture through its concerts, radio programs, and courses, and through the reconstitution of its symphony orchestra.
Even government-sponsored music institutions have tried to correct their ways. During the past three or four years a decision has been made to reorganize the National Conservatory; and Carlos Chavez, clearly disillusioned with his old disciples, lias organized a “composition workshop" lor young composers, in whose ranks one finds some musicians of obvious talent. We hope this workshop w ill not spawn a new generation ol bureaucrats and musical opportunists, but rather, masters who will reinvigorate our musical world.
And now. What sort of music is being composed in today’s Mexico? As we have already mentioned, the old nationalistic group continues nursing the style it developed during the 1930s, followed more or less faithfully by some disciples. These, in turn, are regarded with a certain commiseration by those who conform with the latest fashions and obediently follow everything the European avant-garde has declared to be the last word. There is no doubt that the majority of young and not-so-young Mexican musicians, whether nationalists or neoclassicists, are deserting the old ranks and arc entering the serial system. No one wants to be old-fashioned. Electronic music has as yet no representatives. Nor can there be anv without laboratories or experimental studios. There have been some examples of concrete music (for a ballet and a motion-picture short), but the majority attempt to write in the twelve-tone system. There has been some talk of creating a serial nationalism, but as yet no work has been executed which might confirm this rumor.
Whatever the situation may be, there is an atmosphere of expectation, a feeling that the time is ripe for the emergence of musicians who can inject life into faded music and bear comparison with the older generation. Times have changed. To be revolutionary today indicates conformism, while nationalism lias become a static and decorative habit. On the other hand, is it necessary to ask. To what point does the serial system correspond to the needs of Mexican composers? Our culture moves in leaps, but perhaps it is too great a jump to pass from pentatonic or diatonic modal music to the twelve-tone serial.
If we put aside idle speculation, one thing seems certain. The first stage of Mexican music has ended, leaving some notable works, ft is unlikely that our future masterworks will he huapangos or Indian symphonies: we already have too many recordings in the field of authentic folk music. The Mexican composer finds himself in the same situation as composers in other countries. His social function is debatable; the demand for his works (with eight centuries of music at the disposition ol die consumer) is practically nil. He is not needed and scarcely wanted. His role is like the modern poet’s. But even under such conditions, for better or for worse, it is now the young who have to give expression to Mexican reality.
Translated by James Norman.