About this Recording
GP764 - PONCE, M.M.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 2 (Cendoya)
English  Spanish 



Manuel María Ponce (1882–1948) was the author of a substantial and significant body of work and, as one of Mexico’s most prolific and well-known composers, is still held in great esteem today. His catalogue takes in virtually all genres and forms of music.

One fundamental characteristic of his work is the use he made throughout his career of different styles, reflecting his range of knowledge and mastery of different compositional techniques. Broadly speaking, his music ranges from the Romanticism of the previous generation of composers to a modernism which made sporadic appearances in his early works but really began to establish itself in the music he wrote during his time in Paris and thereafter.

It is also possible to distinguish the works that form part of a universal Romanticism from the nationalist Romanticism of those inspired by the traditional music of his own country.

In 1915 he travelled to Havana, remaining there until 1917. He assimilated the essence of Cuban music into his own, sometimes incorporating traditional folk tunes into his compositions. On returning to Mexico he married French singer Clementine Maurel.

Between 1925 and 1933, he lived, studied and worked in Paris, taking classes with Dukas and becoming part of the intense musical life of the French capital. It was during these years that he found his own modernist style. He returned to his native country in 1933 and there wrote the music we would classify as his mature works, a key feature of many of which is the use of typically Hispanic elements.

Ponce received many awards throughout his career and was made an honorary member of numerous musical associations, both in Mexico and elsewhere. He was director of the National Conservatory and of the University Music School. Two months before his death the Mexican government awarded him the country’s National Prize for Arts and Sciences.

He was the first composer to be honoured in this way and it was the last tribute he was to be paid in his lifetime.

In Mexico, by the second decade of the twentieth century, years of discontent with a dictatorial régime had created a complex political and social situation that ultimately resulted in the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution (c. 1910–20). One consequence of this was that artists and intellectuals found their working lives increasingly constrained, whereupon some made the difficult decision to move away from their native country.

Manuel Ponce was among their number—in March 1915, he and his close friend Luis G. Urbina, a writer, along with violinist Pedro Valdés Fraga, set sail from Veracruz for a kind of self-imposed exile in Havana. There Ponce organised concerts and other literarymusical events, bringing Mexican art to a Cuban audience.

At the same time, as soon as he arrived in Cuba he became fascinated by the many and varied characteristics of the island’s folk music. He soon began incorporating typical Cuban rhythms and syncopation into some of his own works, and also wove local melodies into the scores he wrote during his time in Havana.

One of the resulting pieces is his Rapsodia cubana, which he performed in April 1915 in the Cuban capital, just one month after his arrival there. The structure of this highly representative work is provided by a grand introduction based on chords using the rhythmic cell known as the Cuban cinquillo, improvisatory passages (cadenzas), the danzón (a formal Cuban dance), and a quotation from El arrollo que murmura (The murmuring stream), a well-known guajira. The Rapsodia ends with a new, expressive motif accompanied by subtle arabesques.

The delicate sensuality typical of Caribbean music, including the danzón, also appears in the rondo-form Guateque. The rhythmic character of this piece varies between its two refrains, becoming flexible and expressive, with a more intimate melody.

The introduction and coda of Serenata marina, the opening movement of the Suite cubana, both evoke a guitarist tuning his instrument. The first part, repeated later on, features rhythmic-melodic elements borrowed from Spanish music, as if the composer were harking back to that particular element of Cuba’s cultural roots. Plenilunio—Full moon—has a habanera-like accompaniment, while its inspired melody has made this the best-known movement in the Suite (in the original manuscript it was evocatively entitled Noches cubanas—Cuban nights). The work ends with Paz de ocaso (en el Río Damují)—Peace at sunset (on the River Damují), which is built on two alternating sections. This movement is very different in style from the rest of the Suite, Ponce creating an ambience of impressionistic sonorities.

The Preludio cubano is based on a dazzling and seductive melody which is repeated throughout the piece, accompanied by the cinquillo and a syncopated rhythm suggesting the playing of the claves.

The composer’s nostalgia for his homeland can be heard in the Elegía de la ausencia (Elegy of absence). With a melancholy motif and, again, the constant underlying accompaniment of the cinquillo, Ponce succeeds in creating a bleak atmosphere, reflecting his own emotions. As well as being far from home, he was also feeling the pain of being separated from his beloved “Clema” (Clementine Maurel), whom he had met four years earlier and would marry in 1917. The Elegía is dedicated to her.

Cubana—“Danza de salón”, was published in 1922, but its style and subtitle indicate that it was written before Ponce moved to Cuba. In binary form, with a repeat in each of its two parts, it unfolds over a single, syncopated rhythmic pattern from start to finish.

Moderato malinconico is a brief, expressive work written by Ponce in Paris in 1928. The fourths in the introduction and the coda suggest that it may have originally been intended for guitar, which would not be surprising, given that the composer was primarily focused on writing for that instrument during this period.

Back in 1912, Ponce’s restless desire to explore new styles of composition had led him to present the first recital in Mexico devoted exclusively to the music of Debussy (given by his students). Shortly afterwards he wrote the Scherzino, whose first and third parts are built on the hexatonic scale, used extensively by Debussy, to whom he dedicated the work.

Ponce’s most well-known piano work is the Intermezzo No. 1 (included in Volume 1 of this series), which dates from his youth. While in Paris, he composed the Intermezzo No. 2, in a modernist and modal idiom that distances it stylistically from its predecessor.

The Preludios encadenados (Linked preludes) were written in 1927 and comprise a group of four preludes linked by a common sound quality, but varying in character and texture. The first is written in imitative counterpoint; the energetic and contrasting second prelude is built on a rhythmic ostinato; the third is a delicate piece, whose “floating” sonorities produce a subtle, impressionistic atmosphere. In the fourth we can hear an indigenous Mexican theme that alternates between binary and ternary rhythms and which Ponce also used, slightly modified, in the final movement of the Sonatine (included in Volume 1 of this series) and in the third movement of the orchestral work Chapultepec. This is an early use of indigenous music by the composer.

One of the new compositional techniques Ponce developed during his time in Paris was that of polytonality. The Quatre Pièces pour piano, better known as the Suite bitonal and composed in 1929, is one example of his use of this technique, although not the only one—the last of the Four Miniatures for string quartet is written in four different keys, one for each instrument. Ponce used the suite form, with its Baroque associations, as one of several ways of approaching the music of the past, writing works in the genre for guitar, string trio, and orchestra. The movement titles of the Suite bitonal (Prelude, Ariette, Sarabande and Gigue) are all traditionally associated with the suites of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The opening Preludio scherzoso twice quotes part of the theme of a well-known habanera by the Basque composer Sebastián Iradier, La paloma (The dove), and that of the litany of the posadas, part of Mexico’s pre-Christmas religious-musical tradition. Ponce incorporates a Gregorian motif into the Sarabande, with a pentatonic scale in the other hand. In the Gigue, he combines binary and ternary metre, reflecting a characteristic trait of Mexican folk music. The Suite as a whole occupies a very special place in Ponce’s modernist output on account of both its compositional technique and, above all, its original aesthetic and inspired lyricism.

Paolo Mello
English translation: Susanna Howe

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