Length: 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, güiro, snare drum, suspended cymbal, temple blocks, tambourine, wood block, and xylophone), piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 17, 1939, with Artur Rodzinski conducting
About this Piece
Although we think of Copland as particularly "American," it should be in the fullest geographical and cultural sense. He travelled widely, from Canada to Argentina, and wrote and lectured frequently about musical sources ranging from rural blues to Brazilian frevo.
Copland's first trip to Mexico was in 1932, at the urging of his friend Carlos Chávez, the composer and conductor then the dominant figure in Mexican art music, and national Director of Fine Arts. Much impressed with the people, the music, and the revolutionary government, Copland returned several times on extended working vacations.
The first product of that initial Mexican journey was the Short Symphony. The Symphony's finale incorporates traditional elements Copland had heard on his trip. Chávez conducted the premiere in Mexico City in 1934.
Though finished later, El Salón México was another souvenir of that trip, and a pivotal work in Copland's use of folk/popular music. The work records Copland's experiences in a popular dance hall of the same name, with bits of authentic Mexican songs that Copland found in published anthologies tossed about in a frothy orchestral mix.
Copland completed the orchestration in 1936, and Chávez conducted the premiere in Mexico City in 1937. El Salón México was first heard in the United States in a radio broadcast, with Adrian Boult leading the NBC Symphony in 1938.
Copland had no delusions about the depth of this musical translation. "All I could hope to do was to reflect the Mexico of the tourists, because in that hot spot [El Salón México] one felt, in a very natural and unaffected way, a close contact with the Mexican people. It wasn't the music that I heard, but the spirit I felt there which attracted me and what I hope I have put into my music."
"Copland has here synthesized what is most characteristic of Mexican folk melody without removing any freshness and beauty," critic Baqueiro Forster wrote of the premiere. "He has composed music embodying our folk song in purest and most perfect form."