I wound up with today's symphony for the same predictable one-word reason I wind up with a lot of symphonies: Mahler. On the surface, there's very little that links Gustav Mahler and Carlos Chavez (1899-1978), the Mexican composer whose Symphony No. 4 — Sinfonía Romántica (1953) I explore here. But I'm just following in the footsteps of Leonard Bernstein, the great composer and conductor and even better expert at keeping a perfect crease.
In a concert during the New York Philharmonic's 1960 Mahler festival, Bernstein paired up this Chavez symphony with a selection of Mahler songs. Then, as today, conductors more often linked Mahler with other German-speaking composers than with Mexican modernists. In the 1950s, one of Bernstein's predecessors at the NY Phil, Bruno Walter, played a similar set of Mahler songs alongside works by Beethoven and Mozart.
But Bernstein was more likely than Walter to program Chavez during any concert, let alone during a Mahler festival. One of the many reasons for this was certainly Bernstein's interest in and awareness of new American music, broadly construed. Another may well have been the fact Bernstein and Chavez shared a close, influential friend in the outspoken American composer Aaron Copland. Copland wrote admiringly of Chavez's music; in 1941, Copland said that Chavez "succeeded in creating a music that not only is his own but is recognizably Mexican."1
I don't know if there's anything "recognizably Mexican" in the Sinfonía Romántica in particular. (It's worth noting, perhaps, that the piece was a Louisville Symphony Orchestra commission.) But we do know that Chavez was a key musical figure in Mexico — not just as a composer of seven symphonies, a number of ballets, chamber pieces, and other works, but also as a journalist and a leader of major Mexican musical institutions. And I've heard that Chavez was interested in Native American music; themes have been identified in Chavez's other works, including his Symphony No. 2, the Sinfonía India (1935-6). In a fascinating set of pre-concert lecture notes from 1960, Bernstein seemed to define Chavez's Mexicanness in the Romántica in terms of stereotypes — as a blend of Indian austerity (and here Bernstein mentioned Aztec idols) with Latin passion (and here Bernstein crossed out a passage about Spanish olive oil).
Chavez doesn't start his Sinfonía Romántica with anything Latin, Indian, Mexican, or American. Rather, the English horn presents a puzzling, tonally ambiguous melody that will resurface throughout the symphony. Across this clip (recording by Enrique Bátiz and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), but especially with the repeated short-long-long trumpet figure toward the end, I do sense the kind of starkness to which Bernstein may have been referring:
And perhaps this more flowing line is where the olive oil-like passion comes in:
But if there's anything really "romántica" about Chavez's fourth, it's probably the second movement. The first violins languidly offer the same melody the English horns started the whole symphony with, but they use it to kick off a luscious, polyphonic rhapsody for all the strings:
And this movement is all about soaring strings. For a few minutes I thought I was listening to Bruckner (thanks to the sequences and warm blankets of brass) or Mahler (because of the big leaps, high-register reaches and appoggiaturas):
But the return of woodwinds and of more complex textures jolts us back to reality at the beginning of the third movement. Our original English horn theme gets a new context, appearing here on the heels of the last movement's more playful main theme.
(And with that appearance, all you Méhul fans can credit yet another symphony to the cyclic tradition your favorite composer supposedly invented.)
Overall, the third movement brings the symphony an appropriately light, celebratory ending. It nicely contrasts with both the solemnity of the first movement and the emotional fervency of the second. But the mysterious concluding sonority creates a slightly unsettling final sensation after all the partying:
I don't know if that's a "romantic" ending to a "romantic" symphony, but it does make me crave olive oil. But I always crave olive oil, so you be the judge.
— Matthew Mugmon
1. Copland, Our New Music (1941) 205.