Charting the Compositional Changes Throughout Carlos Chávez’s String Quartets

Born in 1899, Chávez was a dominant force as a composer, conductor, educator, and administrator, both in Mexico and the United States

By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings

Born in 1899, Carlos Chávez was a dominant force as a composer, conductor, educator, and administrator, both in Mexico and the United States. A New York Times article drawing attention to a 2015 festival celebrating his work went so far as to say, “Along with building an impressive oeuvre couched in an acerbic modernist idiom, Mr. Chávez almost single-handedly remolded Mexican culture through his official roles in national arts institutions after the Mexican Revolution.” He directed the National Conservatory and was the first head of the Mexican National Institute of Fine Arts. He wrote five ballets, seven symphonies, four concertos, a cantata and opera, and many pieces for voice, piano, and chamber ensemble. His Toward a New Music was widely read, and he wrote more than 200 articles on music.

The artist should belong to his time, and has but one means of doing so: by steeping himself in history in order to extract from it the experience of past generations, and by knowing his own world with all its developments and resources, so that he may be able to interpret its own fundamental necessities.

—Carlos Chávez, Toward a New Music

Sony’s new box set of the recordings conducted by Chávez in the late ’30s and then from 1964 to 1975 includes the symphonies, the violin concerto performed by Henryk Szeryng, and a generous selection of theatrical music, colorful set pieces, and arrangements of traditional tunes. They are vivid reminders of what turned on music lovers and audiophiles at the time. They also underline his work as a conductor, which, as early as 1941 at Ravinia, included the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos with Yehudi Menuhin and Chávez’s adventurous programming.

In order to understand Chávez’s writing for strings more deeply, I turned to Saúl Bitrán at the New York England Conservatory. Together with his brothers, Arón and Álvaro, and first violinist Javier Montiel, Saúl formed the Cuarteto Latinoamericano in 1982, and the ensemble has since become known as the leading proponent of contemporary Latin American music for string quartet, a Kronos Quartet in a parallel universe. Their many recordings include a complete Villa-Lobos cycle, nominated for a Grammy in 2002, and their complete 2009 recording of the string quartets of Chávez.


Advertisement


Bitrán was happy that the Sony release provided an opportunity for listeners to get to know more of Chávez’s music other than his more overtly colorful “hits” like Sinfonia India. “The stage has been taken over largely by the younger generation, like Gabriela Ortiz, Arturo Márquez, and many others—which I’m very happy about. But Chávez was one of the largest figures and most accomplished composers we had in Latin America in the middle of the 20th century. He metamorphosed during his compositional career, and this is reflected perfectly in his quartets.” The Cuarteto came to the quartets through the conductor Eduardo Mata, who championed Chávez’s orchestral music and made spectacular recordings of the symphonies and piano concerto with the London Symphony. “He asked us, why don’t you record his quartets?”

The first quartet, Bitrán, says, “is essentially European. He wrote it before he had studied formal composition and was very influenced by Impressionism and Debussy. Chávez scored his Second Quartet for the unusual combination of violin, viola, cello, and double bass, and turned to Latin America for inspiration. But he didn’t last too long in his nationalist period, and it’s still a very abstract piece. In fact,” Bitrán adds, “Chávez did not draw inspiration from folklore easily. He wanted to be perceived as a universal, international composer. He was very much in touch with the avant-garde in Europe and in the US, very close to Copland, Varèse, and Stravinsky. He didn’t want to sound Mexican. He had a problem with that, and he really only does that occasionally, most famously of course in Sinfonia India.”

Chavez’s String Quartet No. 1: I. Allegro

Bitrán describes Chávez’s Third Quartet, a commission for Martha Graham, “as constantly evolving. He was against repetition. He took ideas from the previous motive and developed them. You don’t get any structure; you just get a spiral of music that goes and goes. There’s a lot of variety and novelty. And then all of a sudden, the music ends. It’s a very great piece.”


Advertisement


Bitrán described Chávez’s writing in the quartets as “very awkward, very uncompromising. There are some passages in the third quartet that are, I wouldn’t say impossible to play, but all the gray hair you see probably comes a lot from trying to play some very, very difficult music. Even in the first quartet, at the end of the slow movement, there is a passage in double harmonics, which is slow, fortunately, but still very difficult. All his technical demands are very, very complicated. 

“And this is a case also with the violin concerto,” he says. The first New York performance of Chávez’s Violin Concerto took place in 1965 with Henryk Szeryng as the soloist and Leonard Bernstein conducting the Philharmonic. “My brother Arón would say it is a masterpiece. I’m not so crazy about it. I do agree that it’s one of the pieces that has to be heard. It’s a collection of difficult music that goes nowhere, like a Jackson Pollack painting. You can see beautiful texture, but you don’t see the whole thing.”


Advertisement


Bitrán’s hope, that by now the vast body of music the Cuarteto has championed would have been more present in the repertoire of all professional quartets, has not materialized. “There is the Villa-Lobos cycle—many of them masterpieces—not to mention Chávez and so many others. We have played this music all around the world. Audiences get crazy about it. The reviewers love it. And yet we don’t see this body of music growing in popularity.”

Bitrán points out that the Chávez quartets themselves were written mostly for American quartets who premiered them at the Library of Congress or the Cabrillo Festival. However, although they were published by Peer Southern, they “languished in music libraries—and were never played again until we took them up. They were not played in Latin America. Very few of the Villa-Lobos quartets were premiered in Brazil, or even played in Brazil,” Bitrán laments. “But the US has been a wonderful, wonderful source of grants and support for many of these Latin American composers, and we’re very grateful.”

As a sign that perhaps Chávez’s music has reached the younger generation after all, during the semifinals of the Dutch Violin Competition in 2022, the participants were required to perform, among other things, a 12-minute multimedia performance in collaboration with other art disciplines. The most striking featured an actress dressed as Frida Kahlo reciting while the violinist played a theme and variations by Carlos Chávez.