Manuel Maria Ponce was born in Fresnillo, in the state of Zacatecas, on December 8, 1882, and raised in the town of Aguascalientes. He received his earliest musical training from his sister and sang in the children’s choir at the Templo de San Diego. At the age of five, while he was recovering from the measles, he wrote his first piece titled The Dance of the Measles. At age twelve, he was appointed organist at the Cathedral of Aguascalientes and, two years later, composed a famous Gavotte, which was used in programs all over the world by the acclaimed dancer La Argentina.
In 1901, Ponce entered the Conservatorio Nacional in Mexico City and, three years later, went to Europe to study composition with Enrico Bossi and Dall’Olio in Bologna. In 1906 he traveled to Berlin to study piano with Martin Krause, who was a disciple of Liszt. About Martin Krause, the great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau stated: “All his students were afraid of him.” Arrau relates that Krause’s students had to play the preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in different keys. “In front of all the pupils in the conservatory, he would test whether one could play in another key—usually one very far away, not just one tone or one half tone. He also insisted on having us memorize single voices. Bach in general was one of the basis of his teaching.”
Returning to Mexico in 1908, Ponce was appointed Professor at the Conservatorio Nacional and began to compose numerous songs and piano works in a distinctive Mexican style. On July 7, 1912, in the Teatro Arbeu in Mexico City, he presented a concert of his works, including his Piano Concerto and the Trio for piano, violin and cello. These works, according to the distinguished composer Carlos Chavez, were “the foundation stones of higher Mexican musical expression” and the concert was considered the beginnings of the nationalistic movement in music in Mexico. Until this concert, the efforts toward higher forms of Mexican musical expression could only be described as “salon music”.
In 1914, several of Ponce’s songs were published, including Estrellita, which was to become one of the world’s most-loved melodies. Jascha Heifetz helped make Estrellita widely known with his arrangement for violin and piano. Many years later, Ponce dedicated a guitar transcription of this beautiful song to his student, Jesus Silva. (According to Segovia, Ponce actually composed Estrellita around 1900, when he was eleven or twelve years old. Because of a copyright technicality, Ponce never received any royalties for this song.)
In order to escape the political turmoil of the Mexican revolution (which included threats not only to Ponce, but that of his students), Ponce resided in Havana from 1915 to 1917. Here he incorporated the sultry rhythms of the tropics in several of his compositions. He also became known to the Cuban people as a composer and pianist of distinction.
Ponce returned to Mexico City to teach and compose. In 1923, Ponce, who was also a music critic, wrote a review of the first concert given by Andres Segovia in Mexico City. The two great artists later met and a strong friendship developed— a friendship, which would last until Ponce’s death in 1948. At their first meeting, Segovia encouraged Ponce to write for the guitar. Ponce obliged with the Allegretto, quasi serenata, which was later to become the third movement of Sonata Mexicana.
In 1925, at the age of forty-three, Ponce decided to return to Europe to perfect his contrapuntal and orchestrational techniques. This stay was to last seven years. He joined the class of Paul Dukas, a close friend of Debussy, in 1926 at the Ecole Normale de Musique and absorbed this French master’s ideas of free thematic development and use of orchestral colors. In this same class was the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo.Ponce applied the knowledge he had gained to compose an important work, Chapultepec, a symphonic triptych which combines themes of Mexican inspiration with Impressionistic orchestration. Other important symphonic works from this period include Canto y Danza de los Antiguos Mexicanos, Poema Elegiaco, and Tres Cantos de Tagore, for voice and orchestra, dedicated to his wife, the French singer Clema Ponce. Dukas was so impressed with Ponce’s work that he gave him a “30” at his final exam; the highest grade one could get was a “10”.
While in Paris, Ponce wrote many important works for the guitar, including several sonatas, preludes, suites, and variations. Most of these works were dedicated to Segovia, who would champion his music. Ponce was the first important Mexican composer to write for the guitar, and he inspired other Mexican composers to follow in his steps, including Carlos Chavez, Bernal Jimenez, Jesus Estrada, Luis Sandi, and Jesus Silva. And although the Italian Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) was the first twentieth century composer to write a guitar concerto, Ponce was the first to conceive of the idea, his earliest sketches being made in 1926 in Paris. The Concierto del Sur was finally completed in 1941, the premiere taking place on October 4 in Montevideo with Segovia as soloist and Ponce conducting.
While in Paris, Ponce also edited an important magazine published in Spanish, the Musical Gazette (1927-28), that helped in promoting the music of Latin America.
Ponce returned to Mexico in 1933, teaching folklore at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma and harmony and aesthetics at the Nacional Conservatory. An important work from this period was Ferial (1940), a symphonic divertisement depicting a popular Mexican festival and using actual folk material and the imitation of the chirimia, a Mexican woodwind instrument. His Violin Concerto (1943) was dedicated to the Polish violinist Henryck Szeryng and is noted for its neo-classic traits, Impressionistic orchestration, and counterpoint. Of special interest is the use of fragments of the song Estrellita in the second movement.
Ponce also continued to write for the guitar. His Seis Preludios Cortos were composed for the daughter of Carlos Chavez, who was studying guitar at that time.. His Dos Vinetas for guitar, dedicated to Jesus Silva, are believed to be the last compositions before his death on April 24, 1948.
Ponce’s output and influence as a composer was enormous, and the many elements of his style are worth further discussion. In many of his early works, especially his songs and piano compositions, there is a strong Romantic influence. The Piano Concerto shows his admiration for the music of Chopin, while the Sonata Romantica for guitar honors the memory of Franz Schubert. Ponce took the European forms of the ballade, rhapsody, and waltz, and, with the use of Mexican-inspired themes, created a more nationalistic art.
The folk music of Mexico, especially the mestizo music, was an important element in many of Ponce’s works. Ponce was a folklorist who collected and arranged numerous folk songs. His use of these songs and original themes in the Mexican style helped free future Mexican composers from the excessive domination of European music. The nationalist feeling is obvious in several of his guitar works, including Tres canciones populares mexicanas and in the third movement of his beautiful Concierto del Sur.
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), who met Ponce in Paris in the 1920’s, wrote: “I remember that I asked him at that time if the composers of his country were as yet taking an interest in native music, as I had been doing since 1912, and he answered that he himself had been working in that direction. It gave me great joy to learn that in that distant part of my continent there was another artist who was arming himself with the resources of the folklore of his people in the struggle for the future musical independence of his country.”
The use of counterpoint is abundant in many of Ponce’s compositions, including several of his guitar works. In his Variations sur “Folia de Espana” et Fugue, there is not only a complete fugue with stretto, but also a pure canon (variation XIII). Ponce had the ability to improvise at the keyboard preludes and fugues in the style of Bach. The usage of polyphonic music in Mexico goes back to the Colonial times when sacred works of the Spanish and Italian masters were prevalent. Even to this day, the children’s choirs of the many cathedrals of Mexico have preserved the tradition of great Renaissance and Baroque sacred music.
Ponce embraced the sounds and ideas of the Impressionists, especially in his later works. Because of his studies with Paul Dukas in Paris, his compositions contained a more frequent use of dissonant harmonies, tonal instability, chromaticism, a more profuse use of counterpoint, a spontaneity in the development of themes, and, in his symphonic works, a mastery of orchestrational techniques. The Impressionistic influence can be heard in several of his guitar works, including Sonata III, the Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord, and the Preludes.
Did You Know?
It was Ponce who first introduced the music of Debussy to audiences in Mexico. Ponce's piano students were the first to give the first known complete recital of Debussy's music.
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