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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Today we're hearing from José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958), one of the Mexican nationalist composers who emerged in the first half of the 20th century after the Mexican Revolution. One of the great tragedies of Mexican music is that Moncayo is known for one of his least accomplished works: his Huapango, composed as a student, is perhaps the single most frequently performed piece by any Mexican composer, yet his more substantial works are almost never heard.

Far from being a pure nationalist as his reputation might suggest, Moncayo drew from a diverse background of musical influences. To pay for his education at the National Conservatory of Mexico, he worked as a pianist in bars and cinemas, where he became familiar with the jazz and blues idioms. As a composer, he would always feel some spiritual connection to the similarly jazz-influenced French composers Ravel and Milhaud. But at the same time he had an intense interest in the folk music of his own country. His first breakthrough as a composer came in 1935 with Amatzinac, a quintet for flute and strings that melds French impressionism with folk melodies. Several years later, he won a position as percussionist in the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, which led to performance opportunities for his orchestral works. These included the 1941 premiere of Huapango, which incorporated several folk songs that Moncayo had heard on a trip to Veracruz and whose title refers to a dance popular in Veracruz and surrounding areas.

Moncayo's sole symphony was composed in 1942, after the success of Huapango. He began the piece early in the year, while still in the percussion section of the National Symphony Orchestra; that summer, an invitation to the Berkshire Music Institute (now known as Tanglewood) allowed him time to fully devote himself to composing and he completed the symphony there. The symphony received its premiere in 1944, under the baton of Moncayo's mentor Carlos Chávez, with Moncayo still playing percussion.

More than any other piece he had composed to that date, Moncayo's symphony synthesizes all his musical influences into a cohesive whole: jazz, French impressionism, and Mexican folk music all figure prominently. The second theme in the first movement loosely suggests a danzón, a dance from the Caribbean coast. The lyrical opening theme and the dance theme hardly have a chance to settle, though -- almost from the start they are punctuated by brass and percussion chords, and the movement even ends with a somewhat nervous dissonance. The second movement (8:27) is a scherzo, with horns playing a shifting huapango-like rhythm under the main scherzo theme, and featuring a contrasting trio section (9:55) inspired by pre-Columbian indigenous music. The slow third movement (12:20) begins with a contemplative horn solo and gives way to a pastorale that unfolds in cinematic style. Again, indigenous folk music makes an entry, beginning with pentatonic melodies and becoming most clear at the end of the movement in the form of a woodwind chorale accompanies by triangle and drums. The last movement (18:31) alternates between meditative and festive, infused with both jazz and traditional dance rhythms.

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Andrew

July 2017

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