Mexico is a country with a rich history in classical music, with composers from Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas in the early 20th century to Arturo Márquez and Javier Álvarez today. However, a number of classical composers who made important contributions to the history of Mexican music during this time have been forgotten or overlooked. Today, I’ll be focusing on four oft-overlooked Mexican composers of the mid-1900s who not only produced great works inspired by traditional Mexican music, but also played an important role in introducing 20th-century compositional innovations to their country.
In 1928, Chávez, one of Mexico’s most prominent composers at the time, assumed the leadership of the Conservatorio Nacional de Música, the main institution for Western art music in the country. Three years later, as part of his efforts to reform the conservatory’s curriculum, Chavez introduced an open-ended course titled “Composition Workshop” to encourage composers to write in a greater variety of styles. When the course was dropped in 1934 after Chávez’s departure largely due to political circumstances, four young students who had taken the class – Daniel Ayala, Salvador Contreras, José Pablo Moncayo, and Blas Galindo – sought to demonstrate its value by organizing a concert of their own compositions.
After the success of their first concert in November 1935, a review in the newspaper El Universal (in reference to the Russian “Five” and French “Les Six”) referred to the composers as the “Grupo de los cuatro”; the name stuck, and the group’s members would become the leading lights of the new generation of Mexican composers.
Perhaps the best-known representative of this group was José Pablo Moncayo, who, according to conductor and musicologist Armando Torres Chibrás, “represents one of the most important legacies of the Mexican nationalism in art music, after Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez.” Born in Guadalajara in 1912, Moncayo was first introduced to music by his brother Francisco. In 1926, at the age of fourteen, he became a student of the well-known composer and pianist Eduardo Hernández Moncada; three years later, he was admitted to the Conservatorio Nacional, studying composition with Candelario Huízar. In 1932, around the same time as his enrollment in Chávez’s composition course, he was admitted to the percussion section of the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico (OSM).
During his time at the conservatory (much of which has been described above), Moncayo wrote a number of solo and chamber works which were performed either at private concerts or at those organized by the Grupo de los cuatro. His early style is exemplified by “Amatzinac,” written for the unusual instrumentation of flute and string quartet; this work combines impressionist sections with more dissonant ideas and, like other early chamber works by Moncayo and his contemporaries, helped establish modernist music in Mexico.
Over the next several years, outside of the activities of the Grupo de los cuatro, Moncayo worked on arrangements of traditional melodies for orchestral concerts of the newly formed National Symphony Orchestra (created by the National Conservatory’s new director Estanislao Mejía) and the OSM conducted by Chávez; he also made his conducting debut at the age of 24 in September 1936.
In 1941, Chávez asked Moncayo to write a piece based on popular music from Mexico’s southeast coast for an OSM concert; the result was what is now Moncayo’s best-known orchestral work, Huapango. Based on popular music of Veracruz, for which he and his friend Blas Galindo pursued detailed field research, Huapango is a colorful, lively, and evocative work that is still held in high regard in the Mexican orchestral repertoire today – the influential Mexican-American conductor Alondra de la Parra certainly does it justice!
Although Moncayo’s responsibilities as a conductor would increase over the succeeding decade – he was appointed conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in 1949 – he continued to compose both chamber and orchestral works. Written in the same year as his conducting appointment, Moncayo’s orchestral piece Tierra de temporal is a prime example of his nationalistic yet lyrical mature style; from the opening melodies played by the English horn and strings to the loud, forceful sounds of the brass section, the piece holds one’s attention from start to finish and conveys a feeling of passion and grandiosity throughout.
Alas, Moncayo’s conducting and composing careers were both ultimately cut short. On February 1954, he conducted his final concert with the National Symphony Orchestra; four years later, on June 16, 1958, he passed away at his home on Mexico City, at the age of just 46.
Although his works are well-remembered and often played in his homeland, Moncayo’s compositions are rarely performed in other countries, bar the occasional performance of Huapango in the United States and Europe. The boldness, lyricism, and nationalistic spirit of his music – and of his orchestral works in particular – merit a greater place in the repertoire.
Far less well-known than Moncayo, the works of Daniel Ayala also form an important part of the Mexican nationalist tradition. Ayala was born in Abalá, located in the state of Yucatán, on July 21, 1906. At the age of ten, against his father’s wishes, he began his musical studies with Alfonso Aguilar Reyes. As a teenager, he attended a music school in Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, working as a street vendor and shoe cleaner to support his education.
In 1927, Ayala entered the Conservatorio Nacional, studying violin with Revueltas and composition with Chávez, Manuel Ponce, Huízar and Julián Carrillo, among others. Four years later, he took up a position as second violinist in the OSM, before departing Mexico City in 1940 to conduct a police band in Mérida. During this period, Ayala was most prolific as a composer, although he produced relatively few works during his career. Perhaps the best-known of Ayala’s compositions is the 1934 symphonic poem Tribu, premiered by Chávez with the OSM the following year, which was inspired by images of Chichen Itza and his own Mayan roots.
Following his return to Yucatán, Ayala did much to advance music in his home state in the second half of the 20th century. In 1942, he founded the Orquesta Típica Yukalpetén, which performs works by Yucatecan composers; in 1944, he was appointed conductor of the Mérida Symphony Orchestra and director of the Yucatán Conservatory, which led to a significant decrease in his compositional output. In 1955, he became the director of the school of music in Veracruz, where he would spend the last twenty years of his life; he passed away in Xalapa, Veracruz, on June 20, 1975.
Despite writing relatively few compositions after leaving Mexico City, Ayala did produce one notable work in the years before his death, a 1974 concertino for piano and orchestra which displays much more of a “conventional” neoclassical style than his earlier compositional output.
Like that of Ayala, the music of Salvador Contreras changed significantly over the course of his several-decades-long career. Born in the town of Cuerámaro on November 10, 1910, he, like Ayala, studied violin with Revueltas and composition with Chávez, joining the OSM in 1932. In 1947, he gained his first notable success as a composer, winning the OSM composition prize for his Suite for orchestra. Over the next few decades, Contreras held several administrative positions and professorships at the National Institute for Fine Arts in Mexico city. He also continued to compose for most of his career – his last work, Simbolos, was completed in 1979.
Although his style, like that of all four composers of the “Grupo de los cuatro,” was initially impressionistic and nationalistic in nature – frequently incorporating folk tunes and syncopated rhythms – Contreras eventually turned to serialism in the 1960s and 1970s. Although I’m not able to find information on the later phases of Contreras’s career, this progression can be broadly seen through works like his 1936 second string quartet, his 1940 Música para orquesta sinfónica, and his 1971 collection Siete Preludios para Piano. (If you enjoyed the recordings and would like to hear more of Contreras, check out the channel that uploaded them, simply called “Salvador Contreras”.)
Blas Galindo, the final member of the “Grupo de los cuatro,” was another important contributor to the Mexican nationalist compositional movement. Galindo, who was born in San Gabriel in Jalisco on February 3, 1910, entered school at the age of nine; his family fled the town for several years after the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz, but he returned in 1928, completing his studies and organizing a municipal band. At the age of 21, he moved to Mexico City to enter the Conservatorio Nacional, studying with Carlos Chávez for composition and Manuel Rodriguez Vizcarra for piano; attending the conservatory intermittently, he did not formally graduate for over a decade. In 1941 and 1942, he studied with Aaron Copland at the Berkshire Music Center (now Tanglewood), where his orchestral suite Arroyos was performed. During this time, Galindo wrote perhaps his most famous work, the colorful orchestral suite Sones de Mariachi, which evokes the melodies played by Mexico’s famous mariachi ensembles.
Galindo returned to Mexico as a composition professor at the national conservatory in late 1942 and was named director of the conservatory five years later. By the end of the 1940s, his compositions and performances as a pianist had reached global ears, and in 1949 he was invited to judge the fourth Chopin piano competition in Warsaw.
In 1960, Galindo was finally given the opportunity to focus on composition thanks to a stipend from Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education, and he retired five years later to dedicate himself exclusively to his composing; he would continue to write through the late 1980s. One of Galindo’s most fascinating works for this period is a 1973 concerto for electric guitar and orchestra, the first ever concerto for the instrument by a classical composer.
Galindo continued composing through the late 1980s, writing over 150 works in total; he passed away on April 19, 1993, at the age of 83.
Overall, the “Grupo de los cuatro” are a fascinating set of composers, both in terms of the qualities of their works and their contributions to the trajectory of Mexican classical music. Although many of these works would likely be quite popular with concert-going audiences because of their fast-paced, colorful nature, only Moncayo’s Huapango is performed with any sort of regularity outside Mexico. I hope this will change in the next few decades!
If you enjoyed this article, please leave a like or a follow! I’ll be off to the Brevard Music Festival on Thursday, so I’m not sure when I’ll have time to write more posts, but I’m hoping to keep posting once every week or week and a half as I’m doing currently.
(For this article, I used both English and Spanish (Google translated) Wikipedia articles on each of the four composers profiled. I tried to look for other sources, but they seem to be few and far between – if anyone knows good places to find more information about Ayala and Contreras in particular, let me know!)