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Few if any musicians in the 20th century have left as important and enduring a heritage for their native country as Carlos Chávez has in Mexico. Born in Mexico City in 1899, Chávez expended enormous energy in all aspects of his long career as composer, conductor, teacher, writer on music, and government official. As an ethnomusicologist, he researched extensively the harmonies, rhythms, melodies, and instruments of the Indian cultures of Mexico.

Chávez exerted a great influence on the cultural life of Mexico in many ways. In 1928, he founded the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, remaining as principal conductor until 1949. Not content simply to Europeanize, he commissioned works from many Mexican composers, includ- ing Silvestre Revueltas, and gave first performances of their compositions. He served as director of the Conservatorio Nacional de Música and was also general director of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, remaining in each post for several years.

In speaking about his exhaustive studies of Indian folk music (Chávez inherited Indian blood from his maternal grandfather), he said, “The most important result was that it gave the young composers of Mexico a living comprehension of the musical tradition of their own country. It will never be necessary for them now, from a lack of background of their own, to imitate European musical forms and formulae. The elements of this music, which finds response in their own feelings, will assist them in creating their own idiom, giving it color and vitality, rhythmic vigor, and harmonic variety.”

The Sinfonía India, composed in 1936, is scored for a large orchestra that includes a percussion section requiring several players. The work is in one movement divided into sections by frequent tempo changes. Irregular rhythms and cross-rhythms, syncopations, and stunning instrumental colors contribute to a driving, primitive energy. The work’s opening propulsiveness is immediately compelling, carrying one along on rhythmic and percussive momentum. Chávez’s use of individual instruments – trumpet, oboe, piccolo, etc. – is impressive throughout, adding distinctive color to the massed scoring. Sinfonía india is emphatically in the composer’s Mexican style, with actual Indian themes employed.

— Orrin Howard