Carlos Chávez’s Piano Concerto

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Juan Martinez

The Composer
Carlos Chávez was a multifaceted composer who is considered a champion of Mexican nationalism in music. His compositional style has been compared to that of Stravinsky, Bartók, and Copland because of the complexity in rhythm and musical language; however, Chávez’s music is far from an imitation of the language of his contemporary European composers. His uniqueness lies in the inclusion of authentic Mexican sounds and Aztec musical themes from the indigenous culture that surrounded him since his early years. He wrote his first symphony at the age of 16. His ambitions to be relevant in the music world and break Mexican music free of folk barriers moved him to emigrate and experience modern music along with the most influential modernist composers. His unique style was not achieved through imitation, but rather by being aware of the new sonorities and current compositional developments.

The Work
Chávez’s Piano Concerto is a work of extreme complexity for the pianist as well as for the orchestra. The monumental first movement is an exhaustive sample of Chávez’s mature musical language, and a magnificent exhibition of the proficiency in composition and orchestration that Chávez had reached. It features abrupt changes from one block of sound to another, often without any transition or preparation; contrasting and sharp rhythms; the use of native scales; unique timbres; the intensive use of percussion; and the piercing sounds of the E-flat clarinet and piccolo. One notable feature found particularly throughout the first movement is a disassociation in terms of register, as well as a rhythmic independence between the different sections to create a musical disorder. The instruments of the orchestra, more than accompanying the piano, seem to be challenging or even fighting against the soloist. At other moments, the piano functions as a voice that is answered, commented on, or contradicted by the community of the orchestra, not unlike the tumultuous music of an indigenous Mexican ritual. Pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, who recorded the concerto with the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico and Carlos Miguel Prieto, who conducted TŌN this past October, described the remaining two movements as follows: “The Second movement starts almost in a void. Slowly, more sounds start coming, almost like the growing sounds of a volcano, with everything moving toward the eruption in the third movement,” and describes the piece as “the most dramatic Mexican concerto.”