Jose Pablo Moncayo: A Classical Mexican Composer

Juan was one of the first Mexican composers to write pieces for concert halls since in those years only European classics were performed; his work allowed his contemporaries and later generations of Mexican composers to focus on the development of national music.

Jose Pablo Moncayo: A Classical Mexican Composer
The work of José Pablo Moncayo dabbled in Mexican nationalism and avant-garde tendencies.

Known throughout the world for his famous Huapango, a symphonic piece that years after its creation occupies a privileged place in the universal musical oeuvre, José Pablo Moncayo is the author of a wide repertoire that includes diverse genres: choral, ballet, opera, film music, symphonic pieces, and chamber music.

Born on June 29, 1912, Moncayo moved with his family to Mexico City in 1927 and two years later he entered the National Conservatory of Music. He studied piano with Eduardo Hernández Moncada, harmony with Candelario Huízar and composition with Carlos Chávez. At the same time, he worked as a pianist in cafés, parties, and radio stations accompanying fashionable singers to pay for his professional career.

Although last June 16 marked the 62nd anniversary of the death of the composer from Guadalajara, Jalisco, considered one of the representatives of Mexican musical nationalism in the 20th century, his vast musical legacy, created between 1931 and 1958, shows that he was also linked to avant-garde trends that allowed him to evolve towards a freer style.

In the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional, conducted by Carlos Chávez, he took his first steps as a percussionist in 1931. Soon after, he showed his talent for composition and produced his first works, among them the Sonata for viola and piano in 1934.

Jose Pablo Moncayo and The Grupo de los Cuatro

Together with Blas Galindo, Daniel Ayala and Salvador Contreras, disciples of Carlos Chávez, he formed the Grupo de los cuatro, whose purpose was to present his works in concerts and to promote Mexican music. Their first concert took place on November 25, 1935, at the Teatro Orientación, where Moncayo premiered Amatzinac, a work for flute and classical quartet that was later orchestrated for flute and string orchestra. Amatzinac, which in the Nahuatl language means "in the water of the venerated paper", was described as an impressionistic piece. The following year he composed the Sonata for violin and piano, work with modernist rhythmic characteristics.

On August 15, 1941, the Palacio de Bellas Artes was the stage where the public heard Huapango for the first time, performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica de México conducted by Carlos Chávez. In this piece he uses three traditional sounds from the port of Alvarado in Veracruz: El Ziqui-ziri, Balajú, and El Gavilán, the result of a trip he made to this town where he learned the rhythms that inspired him to create his masterpiece at the "fiesta del fandango".

The Huapango, which is distinguished by its brilliance, genius, contrasts, and rhythms, is his most representative piece and the most recognized in the country and abroad. Since its premiere, it has not stopped being played in Mexico and around the world, among them the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, one of the most important in Venezuela; the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra in Russia; the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the United Kingdom, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Holland, conducted by Eduardo Mata.

Although Huapango became Moncayo's most popular work and a symbol of Mexican music, written at the age of 29, it would also be a piece that eclipsed his later production. This is the case of works such as Sinfonía, which he completed during his stay at the Berkshire Festival in 1942, thanks to a scholarship he obtained from Serge Koussevitzky's Berkshire Institute, where he attended courses taught by Aaron Copland at Tanglewood and where Leonard Bernstein and Blas Galindo were his fellow students.

Moncayo's Sinfonietta (1945): An Opera

The work, awarded in August 1944 by José Rolón, Juan Tercero and Luis Sandi, in the contest organized by the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, was presented by Moncayo under the pseudonym Mundo and had its premiere on September 1, 1944, conducted by Carlos Chávez. Despite its excellent musical construction, the work was not performed again until March 27, 1992, by the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional conducted by Enrique Diemecke, who made its first recording.

Moncayo also composed works such as Sinfonietta (1945), premiered the same year by the Orquesta Sinfónica de México conducted by the composer himself, in his peculiar nationalist style; Tres piezas para orquesta (1947) and Homenaje a Cervantes, for two oboes and string orchestra (1947), as part of the fourth centenary of the birth of the writer Miguel de Cervantes (1546-1616).

Other relevant pieces are La mulata de Córdoba, a one-act opera that premiered on October 23 of the same year at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, conducted by the composer himself, and the symphonic poem Tierra de temporal (1949), written to commemorate the centennial of Chopin (1810-1849) and in which he abandons the classical form of the symphony to produce works of a rhapsodic type. This piece inspired choreographer Guillermo Arriaga, who turned it into the famous ballet, Zapata, which premiered on August 11, 1953, at the National Studio Theater in Bucharest.

Music of the Twenty-First Century: José Pablo Moncayo's Legacy

Already internationally recognized, José Pablo Moncayo was appointed assistant conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, today Sinfónica Nacional, in 1945, and from 1949 to 1954, artistic director of the same. He also conducted the Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatory. During this period his musical creativity continued to boil and he composed Muros verdes, a work for piano in which he anticipates the scales of modal jazz of the sixties and seventies; Cumbres (1953), a symphonic poem that he premiered in 1954, and Bosques (1954), a symphonic poem presented in 1957 by the Guadalajara Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Blas Galindo.

José Pablo Moncayo left a vast musical legacy, with works for piano, voice and piano, instrumental duets, trios, quintets, sextets, chamber and symphony orchestra, vocal, ballet suite, opera, and film music.

Two pieces are considered unpublished: the choral work La canción del mar (1948), which is one of the few examples of vocal music by the composer, and Cuento de la potranca (1954), created for the film Raíces.

Moncayo died on June 16, 1958, in Mexico City, bringing to an end the musical period known as Mexican nationalism. The score for the ballet Tierra (1956) was premiered in September 1958, but its choreographic representation was performed until 2012, the centennial year of his birth.