Friday, September 28, 2012

Manuel M. Ponce: Guitar Composer

Manuel M. Ponce (1882 - 1948) was a Mexican composer. He was a child prodigy, fascinated by the folk and popular music of his country, but also an accomplished composer of classical music who studied in Italy, Germany and France. Though he wrote extensively for all combinations of instruments, he is particularly noted for having made a huge contribution to the guitar repertoire. The great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia worked closely with him to try and fill in some of the gaps in the guitar repertoire. Ponce achieved popular success with his song "Estrellita" (Little Star) that he composed in 1912 while traveling on a train. Here it is:

There is also a famous arrangement by Jascha Heifetz for violin and piano:

But probably the most-performed of his music today is his music for guitar. One of the best is his Sonatina meridional in three movements capturing some of the flavor of Mexican popular music. Here are the three movements played by Segovia:

He sometimes wrote in the style of other composers. In his Sonata Romantica, he tries to fill in a big gap in the guitar repertoire by imagining what a sonata for guitar by Franz Schubert might have sounded like. Here is Ana Vidovic, playing the slow movement:

He also wrote a set of lovely, short preludes. Here are four, played by Jennifer Kim:

The two largest pieces for guitar by Ponce are his mammoth 20 Variations and Fugue on "Folias de España" and a very substantial guitar concerto. Here is a truncated version of the former recorded in 1932 by Segovia:

And finally, Ponce wrote a Concierto del Sur for Guitar and Orchestra in 1941 that does not get nearly enough performances. Here is the first movement, in two parts, performed by Narciso Yepes:

Ponce was a fine composer, capable of writing in larger as well as smaller forms. His music is never too far from its roots in popular and folk music. Perhaps the composer one could compare him with most closely would be the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, though I think Ponce's music is more fine-grained.

UPDATE: I just realized that I have played every one of the pieces I mentioned above--even Estrellita! And, with the exception of the concerto, I have also performed all of them in public. I could never talk a conductor into doing the Concierto del Sur -- they always wanted to hear the Aranjuez.


Bruno Madeira said...

Hi Bryan,

In this post you talk about the "flavor of Mexican popular music" in the Sonatina Meridional. Could you tell me more about it? How and where do you see this mexican influence? I'm asking this because the most proeminent aspect I see (in the first movement) is the quote from "En lo alto de aquella montaña", a spanish folksong.

Best regards,

Bryan Townsend said...

I have always thought that the flavor of Mexican popular music really showed itself, not in the first or second movements, but in the last movement, Fiesta, with its rhythmic sparkle. What measures in the first movement quote the song you mention?

Thanks for the comment, Bruno!

Bruno Madeira said...

I guess the third movement could be a mexican 'party', but maybe a spanish party too. The rasgueados sound very spanish to me (counting also the ones found in the manuscript, which Segovia has removed), and I wouldn't know which rythmic cell could be identified as a typical mexican rhythm. Would you?

The quote is found in the second theme of the exposition (in A major), and in its D major repetition in the recapitulation. I've uploaded a traditional recording here, the people sing the theme with its original lyrics -

Bryan Townsend said...

Bruno, you have convinced me! The sonatina is really Spanish in flavor, not Mexican at all.

Bruno Madeira said...

Oh, I was hoping you would bring some hidden mexican stuff to convince me! :)

Well, the mexican music (and the majority [maybe all] of south-american music) is based on musical elements from the native indians, the african slaves and the european colonizers. Maybe we can think that Ponce, albeit defender of the mexican musical nationalism, would assume in the Sonatina Meridional that they have a little bit of Spain that they can't deny. And maybe this is the mexican music, a big mixture.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ponce is certainly a fine example of Mexican nationalism, but he had a bit of a chameleon-like quality. In many of the pieces he wrote for Segovia he imitated the styles of other composers--not only the fake suite in the style of Sylvius Leopold Weiss, but also the Sonata romantica in the style of Schubert, the Sonata clasica in the style of Sor and so on. It is in his preludes that he perhaps reveals his own musical personality more: lyrical but with a rhythmic verve. Perhaps it is this quality that I also hear in the last movement of the Sonatina meridional, that caused me to fuse Ponce's own personality with a rather hypothetical Mexican style. Also, it is likely that writing a piece for guitar with no particular intent to hommage to the style of a particular composer, he defaulted to the most colorful guitar idioms, which are Spanish.

Even though I have lived in Mexico for some years, I don't have a good sense of the history of Mexican music. I am aware of the origins of the sarabande (zarabanda) in 16th century Latin America, perhaps Mexico in particular. But I have not run across a good recent history of Mexican music. There is one from 1952 that I might look at. Of course, Mexican music today is heavily influenced by American pop music, though it still retains some of its own character.