El sálon México

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            Aaron Copland is a man who is hard to pin down.  Clearly America’s most well-known and respected “classical” composer, he was the creator of some of the country’s most beloved compositions that brought the “American” style to the concert hall.  Yet, for all that, he was a musician with a remarkably broad range of personal interests and musical styles.  His deep intellect and discerning tastes probed and were influenced by about all of the important composers and approaches to composition of the twentieth century.  He spent time in his early maturity in France, where he immersed himself in the European musical avant-garde; he was interested in and was influenced by jazz; he maintained a life-long interest in the music of Latin America; he participated fully in the burgeoning interest on the part of the arts community in American folk elements and nationalism during the 1930s and 40s; and later in his life explored the dissonant musical idioms of the European avant-garde, yet again.  But, he was not an artistic chameleon, rather a man who saw vitality, authenticity, and artistic possibilities in most of what his probing mind and “big” ears encountered. 

            In 1932 Copland, at the invitation of his friend and fellow composer, Carlos Chávez, visited Mexico City, where the two of them frequented a rather seedy, but evidently vital and stimulating nightclub with the name, “Sálon México.”  It was a bustling, popular venue, full of music, dancing, drinking—a sign on the wall revealed something of the atmosphere.  Apparently, it admonished patrons to not throw lit cigarette butts on the floor to avoid burning the feet of the ladies.  It was also at this time that Copland became increasingly interested and committed to socialist causes and found the opportunity to witness Mexico’s revolutionary government of great interest.  Trips to the Soviet Union were also in his mind during this period.  This growing bent for populism is familiar to American audiences from his works of the later thirties and forties, such as Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring.  In any case, he developed a deep creative affinity for the music of Mexico, and later, for that of Brazil and Cuba.  He returned to Mexico for subsequent visits, and during the years 1932 to 1936 worked on a musical response to the experience, “El sálon México.”  Chavez and the Mexico Symphony Orchestra give the world première in Mexico City in August of 1937.

            The single movement work is based upon more than a half dozen traditional Mexican folk tunes, but not necessarily ones that he had remembered from the nightclub.  Rather, back in New York, he procured two printed collections of them, and worked from them.  They’re relatively well known in the milieu, but probably unfamiliar to most of us.  While founding the composition on traditional folk tunes, what Copland definitely did not do was simply to string them along in an agreeable medley for the concert stage.  This work is a different beast, altogether.  While the materials were simple and common, the principles and technique stem from quite a different world.  Copland had studied in Paris during the 1920s, hobnobbed with the intellectuals there, and heard all of the most advanced and difficult music of the sophisticated of the world’s leading composers.  His own musical style during the late 1920s and early 1930s totally reflects this experience and orientation, and that style was distinctly not “your father’s Oldsmobile.”  So, with all that in mind, we should not be surprised by the nature of his desire to utilize these ethnic materials without disrespecting them on the one hand, and yet, on the other, create a thoroughly modern composition that reflected contemporary intellectual art.  

            In a somewhat similar approach to Picasso’s employment of non-European cultural artifacts as the pictorial vehicle of new ways of seeing, so with Copland and his Mexican folk tunes.  These ideas were popular characteristics of the world of art and music in France of the time.  In like fashion, the great French composer, Darius Milhaud, whose music Copland heard much of, had written some important music using Brazilian pop tunes as the basis for serious orchestral compositions, including the evergreen Le bœuf sur le toit  (The Ox on the Roof).  In Copland's hands, the result is a composition that stands as transitional between the really dissonant, modern “Piano Variations” of 1930 and the accessible, populist “Billy the Kid” of 1939.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan