Carlos Chávez

For the football administrator, see Carlos Chavez (football administrator).
A black and white portrait of a middle aged man wearing a dark suit, glasses and looking down.
Portrait of Carlos Chávez by Carl van Vechten (1937)

Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez (13 June 1899 2 August 1978) was a Mexican composer, conductor, music theorist, educator, journalist, and founder and director of the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra. He was influenced by native Mexican cultures. Of his six symphonies, the second, or Sinfonía india, which uses native Yaqui percussion instruments, is probably the most popular.


The seventh child of a creole family, Chávez was born on Tacuba avenue in Mexico City, near the suburb of Popotla (García Morillo 1960, 11). His paternal grandfather, José María Chávez Alonso, served as governor of the state of Aguascalientes and was ordered executed by Emperor Maximilian in 1864. His father, Augustín Chávez, invented a plough that was produced and used in the United States, and died when Carlos was barely three years old (Parker 1998, 3).

Carlos had his first piano lessons from his brother Manuel, and later on he was taught by Asunción Parra, Manuel Ponce and Pedro Luis Ozagón, for piano, and later Juan Fuentes for harmony. His family often went on vacations to Tlaxcala, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Oaxaca and other places where the cultural influence of the Mexican indigenous peoples was still very strong (Parker 2001).

In 1916, Chávez and friends started a cultural journal, Gladios, and this led to Chávez joining the staff of the Mexico City newspaper El Universal in 1924. In the succeeding 36 years he wrote over 500 items for this paper (Parker 2001; García Morillo 1960, 230–36).

After the Mexican Revolution and the installation of a democratically elected president, Álvaro Obregón, Chávez became one of the first exponents of Mexican nationalist music with ballets on Aztec themes (Parker 2001).

In September 1922, Chávez married Otilia Ortiz and they went on honeymoon to Europe, from October 1922 until April 1923, spending two weeks in Vienna, five months in Berlin, and eight or ten days in Paris (García Morillo 1960, 25–26). During the latter visit he met Paul Dukas (Parker 2001). Some months later, in December 1923, Chávez visited the United States for the first time, returning in March 1924 (García Morillo 1960, 26). Chávez again went to New York City in September 1926 and stayed there until June 1928 (García Morillo 1960, 40). Upon his return to Mexico, Chávez became director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Mexicana (Mexican Symphonic Orchestra), later renamed Orquesta Sinfónica de México (Mexico's Symphonic Orchestra); the country's first permanent orchestra, started by a musicians' labor union. Chávez was instrumental in taking the orchestra on tour through Mexico's rural areas.

In 1928, Chávez was appointed director of Mexico's National Conservatory of Music—a position he held for six years. In that capacity, Chávez spearheaded projects to collect aboriginal folk music.

In 1937, Chávez published a book, Toward a New Music, which is one of the first books in which a composer speaks about electronic music. In 1938, he conducted a series of concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, during a period of absence by the orchestra's regular conductor, Arturo Toscanini. In 1940 he produced concerts at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and by 1945, Chávez had come to be regarded as the foremost Mexican composer and conductor (Slonimsky 1945, 230–31).

From January 1947 until 1952, Chávez served as director-general of the National Institute of Fine Arts. In his first year, he formed the National Symphony Orchestra, which supplanted the older OSM as Mexico's premier orchestra and led to the disbanding of the older ensemble. Throughout all this time, Chávez maintained a busy international touring schedule (Parker 2001).

In May 1953 he was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein, director of the New York City center of Music and Drama, for a three-act opera to a libretto by Chester Kallman based on a story by Boccaccio, to be titled The Tuscan Players. Intended to be finished in August 1954, it was first postponed to April 1955, but only finally completed in 1956, by which time the title had been changed twice, first to Pánfilo and Lauretta, then to El amor propiciado. The City Center waived its rights to the first performance, which was given under the title Panfilo and Lauretta in the Brander Matthews Theatre at Columbia University in New York on May 9, 1957, under the baton of Howard Shanet. Stage direction was by Bill Butler, scenic design by Herbert Senn and Helen Pond, and costumes by Sylvia Wintle. The principal singers were Sylvia Stahlman, Frank Porretta, Craig Timberlake, Mary McMurray, Michael Kermoyan, and Thomas Stewart (Taubman 1957). The opera would be revised twice more and the title changed again to Los visitantes (The Visitors), for productions in 1968 and 1973, in Mexico City and Aptos, California, respectively (Parker 2001; García Morillo 1960, 171). From 1958–1959 he was the Charles Eliot Norton professor at Harvard University, and the public lectures he gave there were published as a book, Musical Thought (Chávez 1961).

From 1970 to 1973, Carlos Chávez served as the music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. His orchestral composition Discovery (1969) had previously been commission by the Festival and was first performed there.

Carlos Chávez's tomb in the Panteón de Dolores, Mexico City

Failing health and financial setbacks forced Chávez to sell his house in the Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City and move in with his daughter Anita in Coyoacán, in the fringes of the Mexican capital, where he died quietly on 2 August 1978 (Parker 2001).

Carlos Chávez's manuscripts and papers are housed in the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and in the National Archive of Mexico, in Mexico City.

Musical style

Chávez's music does not fall into clear stylistic periods, but rather cumulates elements in a process of continual synthesis. The juvenilia, up to 1921 and consisting primarily of piano compositions, is essentially Romantic, with Schumann as the main influence. A period of nationalistic leanings was initiated in 1921 with the Aztec-themed ballet El fuego nuevo (The New Fire), followed by a second ballet, Los cuatro soles (The Four Suns), in 1925 (Parker 2001).

During his time in New York between 1924 and 1928, Chávez acquired a taste for the then-fashionable abstract and quasi-scientific music, as is reflected in the titles of many of his compositions written between 1923 and 1934: Polígonos for piano (Polygons, 1923), Exágonos for voice and piano (Hexagons, 1924), 36 for piano (1925), Energía for nine instruments (Energy, 1925), Espiral for violin and piano (Spiral, 1934), and an unfinished orchestral score titled Pirámides (Pyramids).

The culmination of this period was the ballet H. P. (i.e., Horse Power), also known by the Spanish title Caballos de vapor (1926–31) (Slonimsky 1945, 231). H. P. is a colorfully orchestrated score of ample dimensions and dense, compact atmosphere, notable for its dynamism and vitality, revealing the influence of Stravinsky and at the same time returning to folkloric and popular elements, with dances such as the sandunga, tango, huapango, and foxtrot (Garcia Morillo 1960, 49–51). Such nationalisms would appear through the 1930s, notably in the Second Symphony (the Sinfonía índia of 1935–36, one of the few works by Chávez to quote actual Native-American themes), but only sporadically in later compositions (Parker 2001).

Although this early period saw the creation of the Sonatina for violin and piano (1924), it was only in the 1930s that Chávez returned to another of the main musical interests of his maturity, prefigured in the juvenilia: the traditional genres of the sonata, quartet, symphony, and concerto (Parker 2001). He composed six numbered symphonies. The first, titled Sinfonía de Antígona (1933), was reworked from incidental music for Jean Cocteau's Antigone, an adaptation of Sophocles' tragedy. In it, Chávez sought to create an archaic ambiance through the use of modal polyphony, harmonies built on fourths and fifths, and a predominant use of wind instruments (Parker 2001).

In the fourth of his Norton lectures of 1958–59, titled "Repetition in Music" (Chávez 1961, 55–84), he described a mode of composition already observable in many of his compositions since the 1920s, in which "The idea of repetition and variation can be replaced by the notion of constant rebirth, of true derivation: a stream that never comes back to its source; a stream in eternal development, like a spiral …" (Chávez 1961, 84). A notable early example of this method is Soli I (1933), the first work acknowledged by the composer to have been consciously organized according to this principle. It only became a regular feature, however, beginning with Invención I for piano (1958), and subsequently in most of his instrumental compositions of the 1960s and 1970s: Invención II for string trio (1965), Invención III for harp (1967), Soli II for wind quintet (1961), Soli III for bassoon, trumpet, viola, timpani, and orchestra (1969), Soli IV for brass trio (1966), Cinco Caprichos for piano (1975), and the late orchestral works Resonancias (1964), Elatio (1967), Discovery (1969), Clio (1969), and Initium (1970–72) (Parker 1983, 41, 47, 98–103, 123–24).


Chávez made more than a handful of recordings, conducting his own music as well as that of other composers. One of the earliest was made in the 1930s for Victor, containing Chávez's Sinfonía de Antígona and Sinfonía india, together with his orchestration of Dietrich Buxtehude's Chaconne in E minor: 4-disc 78-rpm set, Victor Musical Masterpiece Series, Victor Red Seal M 503 (manual sequence) and DM 503 (automatic sequence). The best-known of his discs was the Everest Records stereophonic recording of his Sinfonía India, Sinfonía de Antígona, and Sinfonía Romántica, in which Chávez conducted the Stadium Symphony Orchestra, the name given to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for its summer performances in the Lewisohn Stadium. The album was originally issued in 1959 by Everest Records on LP SDBR 3029, and was reissued on CD in 1996 by Everest as EVC-9041, as well as at some point by Philips Records. In 1963 Chávez conducted the Vienna State Opera Orchestra in two recordings with pianist Eugene List for Westminster Records, both released on LP: one of his own Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Westminster WST 17030, reissued in 1976 as Westminster Gold WGS 8324) and one of the two piano concertos by Edward Macdowell (ABC Westminster Gold WGS 8156). In the 1950s he released two recordings on US Decca records, on which he conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica de México. In 1951 a 10-inch mono LP was issued (Decca Gold Label DL 7512, reissued 1978 by Varèse Sarabande on side 2 of 12-inch LP ), containing his Suite from La hija de Cólquide (originally recorded in 1947 for the Mexican label Anfión and issued as a 3-disc 78 rpm set Anfión AM 4), and in 1956 they released an anthology, Music of Mexico, on which he conducted three of his own works, plus José Pablo Moncayo's Huapango (Decca Gold Label LP, DL9527). He also made some recordings for Columbia Records which were issued on 78-rpm discs and on LP (Columbia 4-disc 78-rpm set M 414, reissued 1949 on Columbia 10-inch LP, Columbia ML 2080 and Mexican Columbia DCL 98, reissued on Columbia 12-inch LP, LL 1015; CBS Masterworks 3-LP set 32 31 0001 (mono)/ 32 31 002 (stereo); CBC Masterworks LP 32 11 0064; Columbia LP M32685; Odyssey LP Y 31534). In 1961 he recorded Sergey Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, with the Orquesta Sinfónica de México and Carlos Pellicer, narrator, released on Mexican CBS MC 1360.

List of works

Works composed by Carlos Chávez
Year Title Medium
1910 La danza de las brujas piano
1911 Serenata piano
1911 Canción piano
1911 Barcarola (1) piano
1911 Preludio violin and piano
1911 Nocturno piano
1912 Vals I and II piano
1912 Miniatura piano
1913 Serenata violin and piano
1913 Romanza violin and piano
1915 Segundo estudio de concerto piano
1915 À l'aube: image mexicaine piano
1915 Adelita & La cucaracha piano
1915 Anda buscando de rosa en rosa piano
1915/18 Symphony orchestra
1916 Himno en elogio de la espada chorus
1918 Berceuse piano
1918 Pensamiento feliz piano
1918 Carnaval piano
1918 Oda I piano
1918 Elegía I–II piano
1918 Extase voice and piano
1918 Gavota piano
1918 Esperanza ingenua piano
1918 Triste sonrisa piano
1918 Suavemente piano
1918 Meditación piano
1918 Meine lieber Flamen voice and piano
1918 Sonata fantasía (Sonata I) piano
1919 Sextet for piano and strings piano and strings
1919 Estrellas fijas (J.A. Silva) soprano or tenor and piano
1919 Barcarola (2) piano
1919 Du bist wie eine Blume (H. Heine) soprano and piano
1919 Adiós, adiós piano
1919/20 Valses íntimos I–IV piano
1919/20 Estudios I–IV piano
1920 Cuando empieza a caer la tarde piano
1920 Preludio piano
1920 Encanto sutil piano
1920 Noche: aguafuerte piano
1920 Hoja de álbum piano
1920 Benedición piano
1921 Vals Elegía piano
1921 Madrigal violoncello and piano
1921 Toxiumolpia: El fuego nuevo, Aztec ballet chorus (soprano, alto) and orchestra
1921 String Quartet No. 1 string quartet
1921/22 Madrigals I–VII piano
1922 [4] Nocturnos piano
1922 Jarabe piano
1923 Polígonos piano
1923 Inútil epigrama (R. de Carvalho) soprano or tenor and piano
1923 Aspectos I–II piano
1923 A l'aube: image mexicaine (Imagen mexicana), op. 17 chorus, unaccompanied
1923 [3] Piezas for guitarra guitar
1923 [3] Exágonos voice and piano
1924 Otros tres exágonos voice and piano
1924 Xochimilco Dance piano
1924 Sonatina for violoncello and piano violoncello and piano
1924 Sonatina for violin and piano violin and piano
1924 Sonatina for piano piano
1925 Foxtrot piano
1925 36 (initially called Horsepower, but later changed in order not to be confused with H.P.) piano
1925 Los cuatro soles, indigenous ballet soprano, chamber orchestra
1925 Energía piccolo, flute, bassoon, horn, trumpet, bass trombone, viola, violoncello, double bass)
1925 Cake Walk piano
1926 Solo piano
1926 Chapultepec: Three Famous Mexican Pieces band; arranged for orchestra in 1935
1926 [3] Etudes for piano … Chopin piano
1926–32 Caballos de vapor [H.P.] (sinfonía de baile, Chávez) (Philadelphia, Metropolitan Opera House, 31 Mar 1932, director L. Stokowski) orchestra
1927 H.P. Sinfonía de baile (also titled Caballos de vapor) (there is also a version for 2 pianos) orchestra
1928 Blues piano
1928 Piano Sonata No. 3 piano
1928 Fox piano
1929 Sonata for 4 horns 4 horns
1930 Unidad piano
1930 Paisaje piano
1932 Tierra mojada SATB chorus, oboe, and English horn; also arranged for unaccompanied chorus
1932 String Quartet No. 2 chamber music (violin, viola, cello, double bass)
1932 Antígona (incidental music for the play by Sophocles in Jean Cocteau's translation) Incidental music
1932 Todo (R. López Velarde, published together with North Carolina Blues as Dos canciones) mezzo-soprano or barítone and piano
1933 Sinfonía de Antígona (Symphony No. 1) orchestra
1933 Soli I oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet
1933 Cantos de México orchestra
1934 Llamadas: sinfonía proletaria chorus and orchestra
1934 El sol: corrido mexicano chorus and orchestra
1934 [3] Spirals violin and piano
1935 Chapultepec (Obertura republicana) [Marcha provinciana, Vals nostálgico, Canción de Adelita] orchestra or band
1935/36 Sinfonía india (Symphony No. 2) orchestra
1937 [10] Preludes for piano piano
1937 Chaconne in E Minor (orchestration of Buxtehude's organ work) orchestra
1937/38 Concerto for four horns and orchestra (adapted from the Sonata for four horns of 1929) four horns and orchestra
1938 [3] Poems: "Segador" (Pellicer), "Hoy no lució la estrella de tus ojos" (S. Novo), "Nocturna rosa" (Villaurrutia) soprano or tenor and piano
1938/40 Concerto for piano and orchestra piano, orchestra
1939 [4] Nocturnos, for voice and piano voice and piano
1939 La Paloma azul, coral chorus
1940 For Juanita piano
1940 Trio for flute, viola, and harp (arrangement of four pieces by Debussy and Falla flute, harp, and viola
1940 Xochipilli Macuilxóchitl (later retitled Xochipilli: An Imagined Aztec Music) piccolo, flute, E clarinet, trombone, and 6 percussionists
1941 La casada infiel (F. García Lorca) mezzo-soprano or baritone and piano
1941 Sonata IV, for piano piano
1941 Himno nacional (orchestration of work by Jaime Nunó) orchestra
1942 Arbolucu, te sequeste (Tree of Sorrow) chorus, unaccompanied
1942 Fugues for piano piano
1942 "A Woman Is a Worthy Thing" (a cappella) chorus, unaccompanied
1942 Toccata for percussion instruments instrumental music (percussion)
1942 Melodías tradicionales indias del Ecuador [4], for voice and piano vocal music (with piano)
1942 Miniatura: homenaje a Carl Deis piano
1942 Nocturnes [3] (a cappella) chorus, unaccompanied
1943 Danza de la pluma piano
1943 La llorona piano
1943 Concerto in G Minor, Op. 6 No. 1 (orchestration of Vivaldi) orchestra
1943 La zandunga piano
1943 Suite, for double quartet chamber music
1943–44 The Daughter of Colchis: ballet in nine sections for double quartet flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two violins, viola, and cello
1944 La hija de Cólquide: suite for double quartet (six movements from the ballet) flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two violins, viola, and cello
1944 Saraband, for string orchestra (movement 7 from La hija de Cólquide) string orchestra
1944 "A! Freedome" chorus, unaccompanied
1946 String Quartet No. 3 (movements 2, 3, and 4 from La hija de Cólquide) string quartet
1946 Canto a la tierra unison chorus, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, and tuba; also a version for unison chorus and orchestra; also a version for unison chorus and piano
1947 La hija de Cólquide, symphonic suite from the ballet orchestra
1947 Toccata for orchestra (incidental music for a scene in Don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes) orchestra (incidental music)
1947–50 Concerto for violin and orchestra violin, orchestra
1949 Estudio IV: homenaje a Chopin piano
1950 Left Hand Inversions of Five Chopin Etudes piano
1951 Symphony No. 3 orchestra
1951 Happy Birthday (a cappella) chorus, unaccompanied
1952 [4] Nuevos estudios for piano piano
1953 Symphony No. 5, for string orchestra (for the Koussevistky Foundation) orchestra
1953 Symphony No. 4 Sinfonía romántica (For the Louisville Orchestra) orchestra
1953 Baile: cuadro sinfónico (original final movement of the Symphony No. 4) orchestra
1953/56 Panfilo and Lauretta (opera in three acts, libreto by Chester Kallman, after G. Boccaccio) (rev. as Love Propitiated, 1959; rev. as El amor propiciado (trad. N. Lindsay, E. Hernández Moncada), 1963; rev. as Los visitantes, 1968; revised as The Visitors, 1973) opera
1956 Prometheus Bound cantata for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass soloists, SATB chorus, and orchestra
1957 Upingos oboe
1957 Hippolytus (incidental music for the play by Euripides): Upingos: melody for oboe solo) Incidental music
1958 Invención (I) piano
1958 North Carolina Blues (Villaurrutia), vocal Vocal music (piano)
1960 Sonata V for piano piano
1961 Symphony No. 6 (for the Lincoln Center of the Arts of New York) orchestra
1961 Sonata VI for piano piano
1961 Soli II for wind quintet flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn
1962 Lamentaciones voice and piano
1964 Tambuco 6 percussionists
1964 Resonancias orchestra
1964 Fuga H A G, C violin, viola, violoncello, double bass
1965 Soli III (bassoon, trumpet, viola, timpani and orchestra) bassoon, trumpet, viola, timpani, and orchestra
1965 Invention II violin, viola, violoncello
1966 Soli IV horn, trumpet, trombone
1967 Mañanas mexicanas piano; arranged for band (1974)
1967 Elatio, orchestra orchestra
1967 Invention III harp
1967 Vocalización aguda soprano and piano
1968 Pirámide, ballet in four acts ballet music for orchestra, SATB chorus, and magnetic tape
1968 Fragmento (a cappella speaking chorus, from Pirámide) speaking chorus, unaccompanied
1969 Discovery, orchestra orchestral music
1969 Variations, for violín and piano Instrumental chamber music (duo)
1969 Clio: Symphonic Ode orchestral music
1971 Initium, for orchestra orchestral music
1972 Tema equis, publicity theme for Mexican Television chorus and small instrumental ensemble
1972 Nonantzin (a cappella) chorus, unaccompanied
1973 Estudio a Rubinstein piano
1973 Partita, for timpani solo music
1973 Sonante, for orchestra orchestral music
1973 Paisajes mexicanos, for orchestra orchestral music
1973 Partita, for timpani chamber music
1974 A Pastoral chorus, unaccompanied
1974 NOKWIC chorus, unaccompanied
1974 Feuille d'album for guitar solo instrumental music (guitar)
1974 The Waning Moon chorus, unaccompanied
1974 Sonante, for string orchestra string orchestra
1974 Tzintzuntzan, symphonic variations for band band music
1974 "Rarely" (a cappella) chorus, unaccompanied
1974 Epistle (a cappella) chorus, unaccompanied
1975 Concerto for violoncello and orchestra (unfinished) orchestral music (concerto)
1975 Caprichos for piano [5] piano
1976 Zandunga Serenade, for band band
1976/77 Concerto for trombone and orchestra trombone, orchestra


Further reading

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