INTENSITY and passion slightly greater than Copland’s are to be found in the music of Carlos Chavez. And while Chavez is a native of Mexico and a simple visitor in New York, his work is so manifestly not European, so deeply rooted in western soil and kin to the developments in the United States proper, that for the present at least, it necessarily figures in a canvass of the American field.
Its individuality is striking. Idiom, technique and feeling are equally personal, equally special. Chavez’s idiom is decidedly, originally primitive; dissimilar to that of Moussorgsky, the early Strawinsky, and the rest of the eminent modern primitivists. Moussorgsky’s rudeness, bareness and humility, for example, is directly related to that of the Russian folksong, upon which he modelled his style; and we find it characteristically slavic, warm and melancholy, submissive and abulic. The idiom of Strawinsky, too, more voluntary than Moussorgsky’s though it is, springs as directly from the Russian soil, and remains folksong like; though elements abstracted from the music of the urban masses, little organ-grinder waltzes and side show flourishes, and rhythms influenced by and directly imitative of the play of machinery, have given it a special raciness, hardness, and cosmopolitanism. That of Bartok, another modern primitivist, stems from the Magyar folksong much as Moussorgsky’s from the Russian; exhibiting its unique pep and half-oriental mournfulness. Chavez’s connection, on the other hand, is with the American soil and the savage chants of the Indians. Himself part amerindian, the atonal sing-song of his lyrical themes strongly recalls the crowing and cackling of the redman in his dusty pueblos; while the buzz and rattle of his fast music has much the effect of the dry, rasping tones to be produced on Aztec instruments. His idiom is poor, abrutie, rigid and terrifically held in; his ideas, little ascensions and regressions up and down a short ladder of notes. The graceful Slavonic echo-like interjection of notes a fourth above, never comes to ornament his melodic line. Chavez’s is the least expressive, most stoical and monotonous of all modern primitive idioms.
The primitivism extends to the very mimetic ideas to which Chavez has married the music of his ballet The Four Suns. The four suns are the four geological periods of the Aztec codices, worlds of water, wind, fire and lava, and earth, and the dances portray them in the terms of an Aztec rite. It also pervades the style and form of compositions. Chavez’s writing is bare, brusque, unvoluptuous. The attacks, transitions and rhythmic sequences are excessively abrupt; the periods and movements compressed; squat as Toltec divinities; the manner hard and relentless. Teasing suspensions, arrests and hollow octaves, and tattoo-like themes and dry staccato volumes, are prevalent.
The very productions of his probationary years, the little experimental sonatinas for piano, for piano and violin, and piano and cello, the racy little improvisations called 36 and the symphonic fragment Horse Power, are filled with intimations of this dry, laconic style. Reminiscent of Ravel as it is, the short, compact, forceful piano sonatina has a savage sing-song, amerindian in its rigidity and peculiar earthly coarseness. The third bar supplies a beautiful instance of Chavez’s abrupt suspensions, so accessory to the plasticity of his music, in the arrest of a bit of three-part counterpoint in quavers, on a sudden crotchet. The sere off-hand little 36 is full of the drum-like effects, brittle pizzicati, and racy unceremonious rhythms distinguishing the sturdy young Latin’s later scherzo-music. During a few bars (meno mosso) the strangely, almost insensitively articulate violin and piano sonatina recalls the pentatonic stateliness of Moussorgsky. Then, suddenly, an idiosyncrasy intervenes. As the song of the two contrapuntally opposed instruments swells, and the full reiteration of the theme threatens a climax, the violin suddenly adds a polytonic opposition to its persistent counterpoint. At the moment of largest sound and broadest intensity of expression, it precipitously drops into a new key while the piano continues in the old; and utters its cry a semitone below the expected tone, continuing flat through the succeeding bars of cramp-like vehemence. The effect is simultaneously brutal and powerful, strangely miserable and immensely gratifying; like the exaltation of some rudimentary type, some Piltdown man.
As for Chavez’s recent works, the piano-sonata, The Four Suns, and the new Mexican Pieces, first acquaintance with them reveals them rude and almost unlyrical. Extreme examples of his style, their rhythmic patterns seem almost incoherent. Only gradually do they begin to speak; huskily, remotely at first, then more persuasively, till, finally, the bony structure, the uncomfortably compressed themes and periods, the illogical rhythmic flow, become logical, coherent, authentically expressive. The music of The Four Suns is full of iterative amerindian rhythms, shrill and piping tones, ferocious and remote. While the score might not have found its present shape had not the ballet-movements of Petrushka and Sacre gone before, its mixed rudeness and shyness and austerity have the novelty that distinguishes Chavez’s music. It seems artistocratically remote by the side of the Russian work; bare of Strawinsky’s sumptuosity and headiness, extravagance and booze. The Four Suns has an almost distemper-like quality, as if it, too, were inscribed upon a temple-wall in ChitchenItza; and even when it comes closer through familiarity, and admits us to a strange kind of childlike, and ferocious joy, it remains reserved, underspoken, never unbuttoning feeling. As for the piano-sonata, it is as dry as a plant lost in sands. The leanness, relentlessness and architecturality, and the strictness of its beat, are almost intolerable. The themes are at once innocent and precise, drum-like and decisively rhythmic; the treatment of the piano is essentially percussive. The four compact, boldly opposed little movements are predominantly staccato and martellato, moving in vigorous abrupt rhythms, and with jerky accents and flinty sounds that appear to strike sparks from the anvil the keyboard has become. Hollow octaves and single unsupported voices are frequent; likewise Chavez’s favorite suspensions, brutal deceptions and interminations; while the impressionistic pedal is completely junked. There is no voluptuousness, no machine-like thunder in this music. At moments, while the composer himself plays it, one seems to be listening to modal, polytonic music executed as if the music were Bach and the performer a pupil of the French conservatory. Everything from the precise finger-tips! The fugue is bald, excessively compressed and wry. The scherzo-movement is a savage dusty bit, another one of those flighty rhapsodic passages in which Chavez lets us hear an echo of the atrocious rattlings and scratchings of Aztec instruments. Yet, gradually, some softness, colour and flow, become sensible. Feeling begins to move through the austere and cryptic stimulants, a little surprised at them, and grateful. We are like trees that have gained foothold on mountain slides.
This primitive turn of Chavez’s may be a form of traditionalism. The composer is a devoted student of Peruvian and Aztec music; indeed of all the relics of primordial American culture. And, no doubt, this new music is as much the flower of an heredity as that of Harris, for example. What, nonetheless, advances Chavez’s work beyond the Oklahoman’s is the agency of an objective attitude and approach entirely personal to the composer; as largely his invention as the hard, primitive idiom and style. Chavez writes an actual classic music; a music that is original and American and still related to the naïve, undescriptive, external forms of eighteenth-century European music. This classicism does not parallel the return toward the past of that of several eminent Europeans. It is not the product of a sudden “conversion.” Chavez has joined no church, of England, France, or Mexico. We do not find him genuflecting before the works of Lancelot Andrewes or John Sebastian Bach; and his art coquettes neither with academies nor other agencies of “order.” Classicism with him is an in-voluntary footing; not a snobbish pose; and his earlier works show its development and growth in consciousness. From the very first, each piece of his has developed from the intention of solving a problem with purely musical means. The completeness with which the score of his ballet The New Fire, a very early, still very dainty and Debussian forerunner of The Four Suns, eschews pictoriality, is significant. The three little sonatinas are architectural, two and three voice polyphonies. Much of their interest lies in the balance of sections, the disposition of the tabloid movement considered as weight and mass. Though disabused in feeling, they are neither cynical or burlesque. 36 indeed furnishes some of the slack, debonaire and crude-colored music, the vaudeville, “from Missouri” art which the Parisian Six in their little heyday thought they were creating. And while Chavez’s symphonic fragment Horse Power is anything but unprecedented
symphonic works woven of favourite Spanish and Spanish-American rhythms and tunes being common products of the musical ferment in Spain and Latin- . Americathis piece of frankly popular inspiration is distinguished by a poly-phony, extended even to the contrapuntally treated orchestral timbres, no less than by its prodigious snap, loud good humour, the brilliance of its elevenths and thirteenths, the shrilling of the reedy clarinets, the brittle, percussion-like pizzicati.
Where the works of the pseudo-classical Europeans chill and disaffect, those of Chavez persuade. The sonata, the great ballet, are strictly and satisfactorily on the plane of “things.” The Blues and the Foxtrot are little polyrhythmical, poly tonic inventions; good modern successors to Bach’s immortal ones. This is not to say that Chavez variations of the classic forms are necessarily as good as those of the masters. There would be no sense in pretending that Chavez is an entirely expert technician, or that his forms are not fairly rudimentarysimple two and three voice polyphoniesor that there was not a marked narrowness and fixity of feeling, even in his best and latest work. His range is decidedly a limited one; he is anything but an exuberant creator. Still, smallness of scope and straightness of feeling notwithstanding, Chavez’s method of composition is sufficiently involuntary and virginal in its classicism to make us recognize the form of commencing cultures in it, and incipient Adam de la Halle, Josquin des Prés or Haydn of the fresh American world, in himself. There is the corroborative feeling and spirit of the music. Classicism is, of course, the principle of all first-expressions; since, like all youths, all incipient culture-worlds are “naïve” (in Schiller’s sense) ; little sentimental; hence objective, external, distemper-like; architectural and re-served in their expression. And it is precisely the feeling of such a world that clings humus-like to Chavez’s music! Only listen to the “content” of the expression! What if his earlier pieces are still a little “emotional,” Brahmsianly solemn, Schumannesquely langourous? The Four Suns, the piano sonata and the Mexican Pieces bristle with epical, “objective” feeling of beginnings, virginal circumstances, green fruits. The ballet speaks of thin spring suns, sprouting sparse vegetation,-stiff motion of colts, and things not long out of wintry cerements. Life is barewhere it points stripped of things, and of hysteria, too. Matters are down to essentials, the level of life that of survival; and it is beautiful, so, with a real, simple satisfactoriness. And the sonata seems to affirm some power of endurance, some capacity of life’s to adjust to a raw, unbroken soil. It is the song of breath that persists in coming hard, and of hands where there is no abundance of objects able to gratify touch. And still, the grim sense of power, extracting serenity from sensations of durity and iciness and angularity; meeting and controlling sadistic elements, natural and human; drawing water from the derisive rocks! The joy of the new, inaccessible, difficult place; held at last!
A Pan-American renaissance is in progress: a rebirth of an integral new world on the one wrecked with the Aztecs. An absurd conclusion? Not at all. For if you say “original classical music,” you imply a nativity. And even the most rabid “little Mexican” would hesitate to claim Chavez’s music for his own land alone. What Chavez finally embraces is generally American; and the quality of the embrace is germane to us, too. Besides, there is the corroboration of Chavez’s rampant Pan-Americanism which led him to make connections not with Paris or Vienna or Berlin, all of which bore him, but with New York. Possibly were his enthusiasm unaccompanied by the music, we might be at liberty to disregard it. But the music forbids. We must accept Chavez’s rampant Americanism for the conscious aspect of that fusion between what is unconscious in the artist himself and what lies beyond him in the form of objective nature, in this case the base of a new culture-world.
Perhaps we are a trifle late in our discovery, and ungrateful toward a number of deserving North-Americans? Harmonizations like Chavez’s, of within and without, have not been entirely uncommon of late in our own republic. The soil has spoken through painters as well as through poets. Still, there is a justification for our sudden jubilee. First of all, Chavez is a genuine classicist, a new phenomenon; and secondly he is a Latin-American; assuring us of our direction by proving it unsophistical; not confined to a single American political state; the work of general forces, which know so little of Rio Grandes.
Indeed, Chavez’s music makes one consider the possibility whether leadership in the harmonization of our western life with the spirit of the American soil, may not devolve upon the artists of the southern republic? Conditions certainly favour such an event. There was a culture in Mexico before the Conquest, providing the little plant of a new civilization with an espalier. We, on the contrary, possess no ladder; our predecessors having found little save barbarism before them. Nonetheless, we don’t despair of our own republic; particularly since we have Chavez’s laconic assurance that a Pan-American revival is indeed in progress; and that work from the rest of the hemisphere will shortly be coming to us, in ever greater quantity, as his own, now; rendering us indifferent to anything except the problem in hand and life as we feel it; touching us again with the spirit of an immense latency.