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Timeline: Carlos Chavez (1899-1978)

Carlos Chavez grew up surrounded by the culture of indigenous Mexican people and this greatly influenced his music, his intellectual pursuits and his politics.
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Carlos Chavez grew up surrounded by the culture of indigenous Mexican people and this greatly influenced his music, his intellectual pursuits and his politics.

You’re hearing the opening movement of Mexican composer Carlos Chavez’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. This performance features the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, an ensemble that Chavez founded and championed. Besides being a composer/conductor, Carlos Chavez was also a journalist, historian and educator, guiding the course of Mexican orchestral music in the 20th century.

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Carlos Antonio de Padua Chavez y Ramirez was born to a large, well-to-do, Creole family in 1899, just outside of Mexico City. His father was an inventor who tragically died when Carlos was only three years old. His older brother, Manuel, became his first piano teacher. He later became a student of composer Manuel Ponce.

Carlos Chavez grew up surrounded by the culture of indigenous Mexican people and this greatly influenced his music, his intellectual pursuits and his politics. He was an outspoken champion of Mexican nationalism in music, incorporating Aztec musical themes and rhythms in his own compositions. He wrote his first symphony, Sinfonia, at the age of 16.

At 17, Chavez and a group of friends stared writing their own cultural journal. This love for writing continued throughout Chavez’s life. He wrote over 500 articles, essays, columns and the like for the Mexico City newspaper El Universal.

<em>Carlos Chavez's music was Mexican; that's really the best way to put it. </em>

In the 1920s Carlos Chavez and his wife traveled across Europe and the United States, making many connections and forging friendships with other composers such as Paul Dukas and Aaron Copland. In 1928, Chavez became the director of the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra; the first permanent orchestra in the country. Later that year he was also appointed the head of Mexico’s National Conservatory of Music. All of this before he was 30 years old.

Carlos Chavez’s music was Mexican; that’s really the best way to put it. During his time as director of the conservatory he led extensive efforts in collecting, cataloguing and preserving traditional folk music, lore and culture. These rhythms, melodies, tales and subjects all found their way into his pieces while also maintaining the lens of Western 20th century musical techniques. Chavez’s style has hints of Stravinsky, Schumann and even Schoenberg.

In the 1930s, Chavez served as a guest conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. He later became the director of the National Institute of Fine Arts and founded the National Symphonic Orchestra in Mexico. He toured the world extensively, receiving many commissions and conducting opportunities.

By the 1970s these opportunities waned. Struggling with his finances and health, Chavez was forced to sell his house and move in with his daughter. He passed away in 1978. His manuscripts are kept both in New York City and Mexico City.

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

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