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Timeline: Manuel Ponce (1882-1948)

Manuel Ponce believed that Mexico should find an individual musical language that reflects its folk music and folklore.
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Manuel Ponce believed that Mexico should find an individual musical language that reflects its folk music and folklore.

Manuel Ponce was the first internationally recognized Mexican classical composer. Ponce’s music bridged the gaps between categories like popular, classical, folk and orchestral. He was called the “creator of the modern Mexican song.”

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Manuel Ponce was born in Fresnillo, Zacatecas in 1882. He was the classic child prodigy, with an incredible ear and an innate ability on the piano. At the age of four, Ponce sat in on one of his older sister’s piano lessons. After it was over, he planted himself at the instrument and immediately began playing the piece she had just been working on. His parents reacted by enrolling him in piano lessons. He started composing and wrote his first piece La Marcha del Sarampion the March of the Measles after he contracted the illness at the age of nine.

By the time Manuel Ponce enrolled in the National Conservatory of Music at age of 18, he was already a well-known pianist and composer. He wasn’t pleased with the instruction he received at conservatory so he traveled overseas to study in Italy and Germany. While there, he was encouraged to incorporate Mexican folk elements in his original compositions; much in the same way that European composers were incorporating the native music from their cultures.

He returned to Mexico in 1909 and took a position at the National Conservatory. It was here that Ponce put on concerts of Mexican popular music. Ponce’s Canciones Mexicanas featured arrangements of existing folk tunes, with the exception of his original song Estrellita (Little Star) which has found a place on the concert stage.

The works of Manuel Ponce helped to raise the guitar to the level of other solo concert instruments.

Between 1915 and 1917, a civil war raged in Mexico. Ponce lived in Cuba for those years, working as a music critic and professor. He became an outspoken advocate for musical nationalism. He believed that Mexico should find an individual musical language that reflects its folk music and folklore. Ponce stated, “…everywhere the idea gained impetus that the republic should have its own musical art faithfully mirroring its own soul."

Back in Mexico, Ponce met guitarist Andres Segovia. He was greatly impressed and Segovia commissioned some original pieces from Ponce. Thus began a wonderful collaboration between the composer and the virtuoso. Ponce is an important name in guitar repertoire. His works helped to raise the guitar to the level of other solo concert instruments.

In 1925, Manuel Ponce traveled to Paris to study composition with Paul Dukas. There he met fellow students and composers Joaquin Rodrigo and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos encouraged Ponce’s interest in native-folk music.

When Ponce return to Mexico in 1933, he focused on orchestral genres, writing the work Chapultepec. He taught music and folklore, and was awarded the National Science and Arts Prize in 1947. Ponce’s Variations on a Theme of Cabezón was completed just months before his death in 1948. Ponce passed away in Mexico City and is buried in the Roundhouse of the Illustrious Men in the Pantheon of Dolores.

Find out more and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.

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