About this Recording
8.554199 - PONCE, M.M.: Guitar Music, Vol. 2 - Suite in D Major / Suite in A Minor (Holzman)
English 

Manuel Maria Ponce (1882-1948)
Guitar Works Vol. 2

Manuel Maria Ponce was born into a middle-­class family in the Mexican provincial town of Fresnillo, Zacatecas, and received his first piano lessons from his sister Josefina in Aguascalientes when he was only six years of age. Ponce's prodigious talents took him to Mexico City, to advanced studies in Bologna and Berlin, a position at the Mexico City Conservatory, and an extended sojourn from 1925 to 1933 in Paris, where he worked with Paul Dukas. After 1933, Ponce returned to Mexico City where he taught piano at the Conservatory and folklore at the University. He also had a busy career as a music critic and journalist, from youthful articles in the Aguascalientes newspaper and a period from 1915 to 1917 in Havana, to editing major music periodicals in Mexico City and Paris. As a composer, Ponce merged the influences of his youth, salon music for the piano, sentimental art-­songs and folk-tunes, with sophisticated counterpoint, impressionistic harmonies and the new Latin American nationalism. Although he was not alone in forging a Mexican national musical tradition, his works, with their often breath-taking melodies, still have broader appeal than those of his few rivals, such as Chávez, and it would not be unreasonable to proclaim him Mexico's greatest composer.

It was in 1935 that Fritz Kreisler finally admitted what many had already come to suspect: that some of the little violin pieces by half-forgotten masters that he performed were in fact his own compositions. Was this an innocent joke or a despicable fraud, as some critics irately claimed? The verdict of history has favoured Kreisler, and hearing some of these pieces today, with the advantage of hindsight, it seems obvious that the critics had no-one but themselves to blame for being fooled in the first place. Kreisler, however, was not the only touring virtuoso to do such a thing.

A few years earlier, the Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia had plotted a similar joke with his friend the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce. Segovia was a pioneer of the inclusion of what we today call early music in the concert repertoire. The texture of Renaissance and Baroque lute music particularly suited the guitar, and the music itself had a quaint and exotic flavour which his post-Romantic audiences loved. Furthermore, the music itself was becoming fashionable in the 1920s, when Respighi's orchestral settings of old Italian lute music created a sensation. It put Segovia at the cutting edge of the latest musicological trends while lending to the guitar a certain legitimacy as the heir to the immense lute and Vihuela repertoire, much as the piano was heir to the harpsichord repertoire. The principal problem was the availability of fresh and suitable examples of such music. The study of the Spanish vihuelists, still in its early stages, provided Segovia with selections from the Renaissance period, but Baroque music was a greater problem. The late Francisco Tárrega had transcribed for the guitar a few pieces from Bach's lute music, and Segovia himself would transcribe a few Scarlatti sonatas and more Bach. Segovia, though, was never a scholar in the usual sense and, in the decades before the photocopying machine, the prospect of sitting in dusty libraries and transcribing lute tablature had little appeal to the popular virtuoso.

It is not clear exactly when or where the idea was born to persuade Ponce to compose his modern counterfeits of Baroque music. The surviving correspondence indicates, intriguingly, that in the 1920s Segovia and Kreisler had become friends, sharing advice and even impresarios. One tradition, related by Corazón Otero, has it that Segovia asked Ponce to compose the Suite in A minor as a joke on Kreisler, with whom he was to share a concert. It is possible, although unlikely, that Kreisler had impulsively announced to his new friend his greatest secret, or perhaps they had commiserated with each other on a mutual problem: Kreisler's worry that too much of his programmes consisted of his own compositions, and Segovia's concern that too much of his were, increasingly, music by his favourite composer Ponce. It is also clear that Segovia, in encouraging Ponce to write for the guitar, had discovered that the composer had an aptitude for composing "in the style of' others.

The Suite in A minor, originally attributed to the lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss, was probably composed before 1929, while Ponce was living in Paris. The Prelude in E major for Guitar and Harpsichord and the little Balletto for guitar date from the same time and place, and were assigned to the same composer. The Suite in D major, ultimately attributed to Alessandro Scarlatti, was completed a year or two later. Both suites have the movements of the "traditional" Baroque partita: Prelude, Allemande, Sarabande, Gavottes I and II, and Gigue. The sparkling little Prelude in E major for harpsichord and guitar (Paris, 1926) was also attributed to Weiss; the guitar part was probably conceived as a solo, and is frequently performed as such. Ponce's Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord was also composed by 1926. Both of these works were probably inspired by Falla's recent rehabilitation of the harpsichord and by Joaquín Nin's revival of early Spanish keyboard music in the 1920s. The Homenaje a Tárrega is the last movement of a sonatina for guitar; the unedited manuscript, found among Ponce's papers, dated January, 1932. The first two movements of this work had already been presented to Segovia, but they were among the pieces lost or destroyed when Segovia's home in Barcelona was looted during the Spanish Civil War.

Sylvius Leopold Weiss was a perfect choice for a pastiche. He was, by reputation, a lutenist admired by Bach himself, but little was actually known of his music, which survived in a tablature notation only few scholars of the day could read. The evolution of the hoax can be traced in correspondence between Segovia and the composer. In December 1929, Segovia wrote to Ponce, referring to a Julius (sic.) Weiss Suite and dance-movements that he had used as encore pieces. He also urged Ponce to work on his variations on the theme Folías de España, suggesting that such a work might be attributed to Giuliani, many of whose works remained at the time unknown. In October 1930, Segovia was able to report the success of the works attributed to Weiss and the favourable critical reaction. The following year, urging Ponce to finish the Suite in D, Segovia cautioned that the new work should not be too like Bach, which would arouse undue interest, and a few weeks later, he inquired about the possible attribution of the Preambulo of the Suite in D major. They settled upon assigning the suite to Alessandro Scarlatti, whose instrumental music was less known than that of his son Domenico. In 1933, Segovia invited Ponce to provide some sonatinas in the style of Domenico Scarlatti, but by this time, Ponce may have been tiring of the charade; he had, after all, profited little from these efforts. When Segovia proposed the Weiss Suite to his publisher Schott, he demanded better terms than he had received for the Bach editions because, he said, he possessed the only manuscript. Perhaps for this reason, Schott never published the work. Furthermore, Segovia's motivation for the "joke" was no longer his desperation for new material. A world traveller with admirers everywhere, Segovia would have had little difficulty obtaining a few authentic sonatas by Weiss or early editions of Giuliani had he tried. Segovia himself had arranged several of Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas for guitar and must have known that dozens more were suitable for such treatment and that this could be accomplished as easily as Ponce could compose counterfeits. Still, in 1937 Segovia continued to request more pastiches, asking for a new suite that might be attributed to Alessandro Scarlatti, Weiss, Kellner or any other composer of that period. It would appear that Segovia simply preferred Ponce's works to the originals.

In 1938, Segovia issued his first recording of the Weiss suite. Within a short time, there appeared several published transcriptions of the piece, copied from the recording without Segovia's authorisation. The music had, after all, been described as composed by Weiss and was therefore presumably in the public domain. Litigation was out of the question. Miguel Ablóniz, one of these transcribers, later told of visiting Segovia in his hotel in Edinburgh in 1948. Segovia introduced him to another visitor, the concert pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995), who had also copied the piece from Segovia's recording and was performing it on the piano. Ponce's authorship was not revealed until well after the composer's death in 1948. Segovia had confided the true authorship to few people, and not until the 1970s did Ponce's heir, Carlos Vasquez, officially confirm what many had come to expect. As with Kreisler, the biggest mystery which now remains is how any "experts" were fooled in the first place.

Richard Long


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