JULIAN CROATTO

Concierto del sur

Introduction

Manuel María Ponce was born in Fresnillo, Mexico in 1882 and died in the Mexican capital in 1948. He is part of the Latin American generation of nationalist composers to which the Uruguayan Eduardo Fabini and the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos also belong. The same years saw the birth of the European composers Bartok, Stravinsky, Webern and Varese, the painters Braque and Picasso, and the writers Joyce, Zweig, Kafka and Woolf, who would make innovative contributions to their respective disciplines.


Ponce, along with Malipiero, Turina, Hindemith and others, is situated in a neoclassical position, which the musicologist Coriún Aharonián describes critically:


(…) some composers wishing to copy faithfully the stylistic criteria of their European colleagues, (…) the copying will be chronologically late in relation to their model.


After his first musical studies in his native country, Ponce travelled to Europe to study first in Bologna and Leipzig, and then in Paris with Paul Dukas. When he returned to Mexico, he worked extensively as a teacher, with his disciple Carlos Chávez (Mexico 1899-1978) standing out in the mexican musical scene.


Ponce is identified with the birth of Mexican nationalism, although he did not delve into the indigenous music of his country, and he did move into conservative European aesthetics. The author of much piano music and songs (such as his most famous work, “Estrellita”), he also wrote for orchestra and chamber ensembles. He wrote three concertos for solo instrument with orchestra, in chronological order: piano, guitar and violin.


The works for guitar stand out in his catalogue, written in close collaboration with his friend, the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia (Linares,1893-Madrid, 1987), to whom they were dedicated. In a period of 25 years (between 1923 and his death) Ponce wrote more than 50 works for this instrument: preludes, variations, studies, sonatinas and sonatas (one with harpsichord accompaniment) and the concerto with orchestra. Most of them replicate European styles of the past, whether baroque, classical or romantic, and many are part of the traditional repertoire of the classical guitar.

The concert

2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the premiere, by Andrés Segovia, of this Guitar Concerto. From the same period is the famous Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquín Rodrigo, premiered by Regino Saenz de la Maza in Barcelona in 1940. In the same year, Heitor Villa-Lobos composed his iconic Five Preludes for guitar in Paris. For other instruments, Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps and the Concierto argentino by a young Alberto Ginastera stand out in 1941. The Argentinian musicologist Carlos Vega writes in the same year his most important book, La Fraseología, in which he states:

Four hundred years ago the musical schools came to us from Europe, which we imitated, the theoretical norms we follow, and the working methods we accept without discussion.
we move according to the arrow of their weather vanes.

In the programme for the premiere of the Concierto del Sur on 4 October 1941 in Montevideo, Uruguay, its written:

The title of this work alludes to the folkloric atmosphere of the Andalusian region, land of Andrés Segovia and homeland of the guitar. Without any specific theme, it’s fine musical inspiration is developed according to the suggestions of the following headings: I. Allegro. Tú eres alma que dice su armonía solitaria a las almas pasajeras (“Guitarra”, Antonio Machado) II. Andante. Back to Granada the eyes And the soul to its Felisarda… (“Romance de Abenumeya”) III. Finale. Rumours of a distant fiesta

In his review of the concert, the critic Roberto Lagarmilla writes:

The “Concierto del Sur” is, first and foremost, a commendable effort for cleanliness and clarity, demonstrated in the very accurate handling of the reduced orchestra, always subordinated to the expressive virtues of the soloist instrument. (…) treated, moreover, with the utmost mastery in his writing, and in the achievement of his natural expressive resources.  (…) Nor does Manuel Ponce dispense with the classical “Cadenza” of the solo instrument.The temporal location of this cadenza within the first movement has placed it in a true “strong point” of the composition; a marvellous aesthetic effect, never again destroyed by any other appearance of virtuosic passages. It should not be understood, therefore, that Ponce’s guitar writing is situated on a plane of simplicity. On the contrary: its numerous effects, sometimes alternating with a certain violence, require from the performer, in addition to an exact understanding of the work, a solid and well-exercised technique, if a truly effective version is to be obtained. (…)

He also talks about the interpreters. About Segovia he notes: 

“His “legati”, the articulation of the phrases, the absolute clarity of his technique, as well as his mastery of the volume of sound, undoubtedly contributed to the veracity of the expression achieved. Lamberto Baldi, at the head of the orchestra, had a very accurate understanding of the artistic fact. It should also be noted the admirable cleanliness and adjustment achieved by the Ossodre, whose intonation and ductility were factors in the artistic hierarchy achieved.

The concerto has a neoclassical structure in three contrasting movements, the first movement of which adopts the sonata-form with two themes. The first blends neo-baroque in the orchestra with an Andalusian touch in the guitar, and the second is more lyrical. The dialogue between soloist and orchestra is fluid. In the cadenza there are 7 parts, of varied texture and character.

Composition process

Segovia played a key role in encouraging the composer to dedicate himself to this work. Because of his sympathy with Franco’s regime, the guitarist fled the Spanish Civil War and lived in Montevideo, Uruguay between 1937 and 1946, where he also premiered the Concerto in D by the Italian Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, in 1939. In a letter to Ponce, Segovia pleads: “I wish with all my soul that you were much more successful than Castelnuovo in capturing the audience’s aural sympathy”. This statement, Escande notes, could be founded on dissent with the Italian composer’s anti-fascist stance. It is another demonstration of Segovia’s authoritarian influence over Ponce’s works, imposing his anti-avant-garde Romantic taste.

Ponce begins the composition with the second movement, in 1932. When Segovia travelled to Mexico in 1940, he stayed at the composer’s house, and there both musicians gave a definitive push to the decision to compose the concerto for guitar and orchestra that the Mexican had been postponing, and they planned the composer’s trip to Montevideo. It was not until then that Ponce sent the beginning of the first movement.

Segovia was the dedicatee of works by numerous composers (among many others Tansman, Torroba, as well as the aforementioned Turina, Rodrigo, Villa-Lobos), many of whom were not so familiar with the possibilities and limitations of the guitar. The works dedicated to him by composers who did not concede to his demands and aesthetic preferences were usually ignored by the guitarist. With Ponce, on the other hand, he corresponded extensively, and modified many of his scores according to his own musical taste.

Segovia recalls:

With that admirable patience which ennobled equally all his occupations, both mechanical and spiritual, he wrote the Concerto on very fine aeroplane paper and sent it to me for its definitive adaptation to the untamed guitar. Whenever the postman arrived home with the bulky envelope, it was a day of celebration for my wife and me. We would suspend our daily study and dedicate ourselves to reading and rereading with all our souls what had just come from the Maestro’s fortunate pen.

Ponce had written, at the foot of the five systems covered by that sheet:

My dear Andrés: I beg you to send me corrections or changes in the guitar part, so that the orchestral score will be corrected. You will receive the rest of the Concerto in batches. I think that in this way we will gain time and you will be able to work on it of course. Mille amitiès pour Paquita et les enfants. Clema with grippe. A big hug from your old Manuel.

In his letters, Segovia is very complimentary about this work, which he studied together with his wife Paquita Madriguera at the piano. In the letters, we can also read some of his modifications: he suppresses harmonic notes present in the accompaniment, changes the octave of several passages, includes strumming and suggests changes in the cadenza.

In his letter of 20 January 1941, Segovia regrets not being able to premiere the concerto in Europe, where it would be restricted by “Futurist Jews, Dadaists, Expressionists and other bad artists”, making his political and aesthetic stance clear. His first recording of it, for the Decca label, dates from 1959. Later, the concerto was published by Peer in 1970, with the title “del Sur”, which Alcazar suggests was proposed by the guitarist, as it does not appear in the manuscript.

Conclusion

This concert, together with those of Tedesco and Rodrigo, inaugurate a genre previously unheard in the modern guitar repertoire. It is a classic example of the Segovian style and although aesthetically it has an anachronistic language, out of place temporally and regionally, it contributed to the diffusion and status of the instrument, which until then was not considered on a par with the piano or the instruments of the orchestra in the field of classical music, as to deserve, for example, to appear in symphonic seasons as a soloist with symphonic orchestra.

Julián Croatto

© Julián Croatto, 2016

Aharonián, C.(2002) Introducción a la música.(2nd ed.) Ed. Tacuabé.
Alcázar, M. (2000) Manuel M. Ponce – Obra completa para guitarra de Manuel M.
Ponce : de acuerdo a los manuscritos originales. Conaculta.
Alcázar, M. (Ed.) The Segovia-Ponce Letters (1989) Editions Orphée.
Barrón Corvera, J. (2012). Manuel M. Ponce en Sudamérica (1941). Revista Musical
Chilena, 66(218), 66 – 76. https://revistamusicalchilena.uchile.cl/index.php/RMCH/article/view/26542/27973
Escande, A. (2009) Don Andrés y Paquita (3rd ed.)
Paraskevaídis, G.(1996) Los espacios líricos en la música de Silvestre Revueltas.
http://www.gp-magma.net/pdf/txt_e/sitio-Revueltas.pdf
Ponce, Manuel M. (1970) Concierto del Sur. Peermusic.

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