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8.223710 - MARTINEZ-SOBRAL: Acuarelas Chapinas / CASTILLO: Guatemala I and II

Manuel Martínez-Sobral (1879 -1946)

Manuel Martínez-Sobral (1879 – 1946)

Ricardo Castillo (1891 – 1966)


Manuel Martínez-Sobral was born in Guatemala City on 11th May, 1879 and died on 23rd March, 1946. Not much is known about how he grew into music. As a composer, Martinez-Sobral was a self-made musician, forced to learn French and Italian to be able to study books then used on musical techniques by Dubois and Cherubini. He composed all his music between 1895 and 1920, and after that period he worked as a lawyer. He was the Dean of the Law School and held other important public positions, and on I y travelled abroad twice, to Philadelphia in 1933 and to New York in 1934. The music scores of Martinez-Sobral, which were considered lost, were discovered or found in 1989 and from them and his notebooks, it was possible to make a definite catalogue of his music. His catalogue, considering the short time during which he composed, is wide and of great variety, with piano music, as well as symphonic, chamber, choral and religious music. A delicate circumspection, certainly takes the place of recklessness in his work, which, at the same time, gives his music a sense of conciseness, thus omitting any unnecessary ornamentation. As a composer, Martinez-Sobral knew that the behaviour of each element has a determinant repercussion in the style. His message is that of the Creole Guatemalan, as opposed to the Indigenous Guatemalan, of limited musical interest and extremely exploited during that time.


Acuarelas Chapinas, Four Symphonic Scenes, was Manuel Martinez-Sobral's masterpiece. Its personal symphonic style is evident because of its dimensions and grandiose orchestration, suggesting that its title should be Frescos instead of the diluted one of Acuarelas (water-colours)... Through its four movements Acuarelas Chapinas attempts to evoke and perpetuate the way in which a Sunday passed in Guatemala City at the turn of the century, the archetype of every Sunday in that period. The symphonic version was composed in 1907, but Martinez-Sobral did not make the two-piano version unti11922, music which for a long time was the only work written for two pianos by a Central American composer.


Acuarelas Chapinas is structured as a symphony. Each movement corresponds to a definite musical character, related to a place in the city and, therefore, to a scene of Sunday life; each scene also corresponds to a determined time of the day thus a determined colour is assigned to each hour. The suggestive and visual title chosen by the composer must undoubtedly have its origin in these characteristics.


The movements and their relation to Acuarelas Chapinas are explained in the following table:





La Parada

Central Park

10:30 (mid morning)


High Mass


13:00 (mid day)


Cocktail Hour

Restaurant (Less centralized Place)

14:00 (afternoon)


At the window

(Most peripheral place)

17:00 (Dusk)



Acuarelas Chapinas is also a journey from the most collective and contingent environment of the Central Plaza, to the window, the most individual and necessary. In other words. the music temporarily transports to a world of colour and an itinerary of space.


The first movement, La Parada, starts with a trill, resembling a noisy and feverish sunny Sunday morning. Over the trill, the first theme, full of movement, is introduced by three trumpets. This exposition is followed by the repetition of the theme with the orchestra, transposed and reduced to emphasize the feverish environment. The second theme is presented in a low register by the cellos, the first trombone and the second trumpet. This theme will progressively occupy the other registers until it turns into the recapitulation of the initial theme, this time combined with the second theme in a bright environment, which is an original simultaneous re-exposition concluding with a brilliant coda composed by an accelerating chord succession, somehow suggesting the call of the Cathedral bells.


High mass, a religious Andante, starts with a chorale in which the clarinets, horns and bassoons, imitate the sonority of an organ. From the second phrase, the density of the chorale gradually increases owing to the proliferation of its counterpoint lines. The initial chorale is repeated, leading to the coda.


The third movement, La Hora dei Cocktail, is a scherzo with two different trios where the composer tries to recreate the fluid and relaxed environment of a social place of those days. Through this movement, Martinez-Sobral brings out the noise, sentimental commotion and humour, using all kinds of popular music artifices and procedures. The constant character variations, indecision in the tone functions, the voluntary execution failures such as repetition of theme phrases and false notes, superimposition imitating apparently off-key instruments, imitation of instruments being tuned... It should be noted that in this movement, language is voluntarily reduced to its most simple formula to avoid any opposition to its musical intention.


The final movement, at La Ventana, is composed of a series of waltzes inter- related by a rondo structure. The movement starts with a discreet E fiat, which recalls the introduction of the first movement. After this section, a Tempo de Waltz lento is presented, constituting Section A, which is immediately followed by an Allegro phrase. A third phrase-repetition of the Waltz lento, and a fourth phrase, as a repetition of the Allegro, but this time accompanied by a vigorous counterpoint of semiquavers form the first rondo section. The second section, Allegro vivace (couplet), is at the same time a recapitulation of the introduction theme combined with a new exposition of the first theme of the first movement. It is followed by a new version of refrain A, this time decorated with counterpoint in the sharp register as a neutral and not so dramatic transition leading the music into section C. In this section and regarding the elements described that function as cantus firmus, all forms of inserted counterpoint progressively transform the movement into a paroxysm of great sound density. Finally, after a dramatic bar rest where all movement is stopped, section A appears again accompanied by new glittering counterpoint that gives the movement an implacable impulse and final brightness.


(Extract from an Essay on Manuel Martinez-Sobral. All reproduction rights reserved. Rodrigo Asturias. Guatemala, 1990).


Ricardo Castillo was born in Quetzaltenango on 1st October, 1891 and died in Guatemala City on 25th May, 1966. His childhood interest in music persuaded his mother, fulfilling one of his father's great wishes, to send him to Paris to study the subject.


From 1906 to 1922 he lived in Europe, studying violin with A. Lafort and harmony with Paul Vidal. Gradually, he focused on composition, abandoning his violin studies. During his stay in Paris he composed his first piano works, published in that city and in 1918 married Georgette Contoux Quante, a French pianist who had obtained the Prize for Excellence as a pupil of Alfred Cortot at the Conservatoire. They moved to Guatemala in 1922 and a few years later Castillo was appointed harmony, composition and music history professor at the National Conservatory of Music. In 1948, using three different pseudonyms, Castillo won the three prizes at the Science, Literature and Arts National Contest in Guatemala and in 1951 the same prize in that contest with his Eight piano Preludes.


Castillo never showed special interest in opera, the Lied or choral music and for this reason his personality reflects the autochthonous musical culture of Guatemala rather than the use of limited melodic contours or rhythmical formulae of folklore music. Musical culture in the pre-Columbian civilization in this region was merely instrumental; expression through the human voice was not as appreciated or developed as in other civilizations.


The orchestral work of Castillo is symphonic (Sinfonieta, Xibalba) or dramatic (ballets La Doncella Ixquic and Paal Kaba). His piano works are mainly descriptive (Escenas Infantiles, EI Agua que Corre, Guatemala: impresiones, Poema Pastoral, San Andres Xecul), with the series of Nocturnes, Preludes and the Seven Piano Pieces his only abstract musical compositions.


Ricardo Castillo was largely a composer of short pieces, and the attraction of his music derives from a certain quality and freshness of ideas, as well as his candour, bordering on ingenuousness.

Castillo's Sinfonieta para Orquesta is with the Suite in D for piano and a Duo for violin and piano in homage to Ravel, the centre of a group of works of his neoclassic style. The Sinfonieta has three movements, a concise work in its dimensions and orchestration, where the first four notes of the initial theme are used as a unifying element in the whole work, in which neoclassicism relates mainly, to Mozart's style in his final works.


Xibalba, a symphonic poem of 1944, is one of Castillo's best works. Apparently he had two great projects which were on I y partially carried out. The first one, to write a series of cycles for different instrumental combinations entitled Guatemala, and the second, a series of works illustrating passages or situations described in the Popol Vuh, the cosmological book of the Maya- Quiche people.


The first project: Guatemala I for orchestra (1934) and Guatemala: serie de impresiones (1936) for piano, was later transcribed by the present writer for orchestra in 1969.


Xibalba and la Doncella Ixquic are the result of his second project. These two works can have the same brief introduction "Once upon a time..." thus creating an environment of legend, of myth. The stories of Xibalba and the Doncella Ixquic are intimately related. Xibalba is a world lower than the ones of the Quiches, the dark place governed by Bolontiku, the Nine Masters of the Night, each of them governing at a different level and responsible for death and disease in mankind. Xibalba is the night ambit for the sun. The legends of Popol Vuh refer to the encounters between the masters and heroes of the superior world with the ones of Xibalba. Those clashes are antagonistic, described as a descent to hell.


In one of these legends, two of the upper world gods, Hunhunahpu and Vucub-Ixbalanque, die at the hands of Xibalba. From their decapitated heads, grows a magic tree. When Doncella Ixquic, intrigued, wanders near the tree, the skulls of Hunhunahpu and Vucub-lxbalalnque deposit their saliva in her hand and fertilize her. Persecuted for her pregnancy, she seeks shelter with Hunhunahpu and Vucub-Ixbalanque's mother, who recognizes the signs of her maternity. From Doncella Ixquic two twin heroes of the Popol Vuh will be born, Hunahpu and Ixbalanque, who in time, will take revenge against the god of Xibalba.


Rodrigo Asturias


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