A Brief Overview of Latin American Chamber Music for Winds

With the notable exception of a few early examples, the era of Latin American chamber music for wind instruments began with a smattering of compositions around the period of the First World War. One of the first of these, Villa-Lobos’s Sextuor mystique (1917), for flute, oboe, saxophone, celeste, harp and guitar, was followed with a number of other works for wind instruments, such as Quarteto simbólico (1921) and Chôro No. 7 (1924). During the mid to late 1920s and into the 1930s Villa-Lobos and other Brazilian composers continued writing chamber music for winds, but during this period the genre began to move outside of that country, such that by about the late 1940s and early 1950s this type of music had become internationalized to include much of the region. Today it is possible to find notable examples of wind chamber music by composers from virtually every Latin American country.


Audio: Villa-Lobos, Sextuor mystique

Broadly speaking, this music follows the stylistic developments that characterize other instrumental genres during this same period. The earliest works reveal an emerging nationalistic style, largely influenced by proximate factors, for example, the time that Villa-Lobos spent in Paris reveals itself in the Impressionistic nature of much of his music from the 1920s. By the 1930s the nationalist impulse had become more clearly defined. In Brazil, for example, Oscar Lorenzo Fernândez (1897-1948) incorporated folk elements, such as the children’s song “Sapo jururú,” into the post-Impressionistic framework of his 1926 suite for wind quintet (example 1).

Similarly, Francisco Mignone’s 1935 sextet for wind quintet and piano uses four themes that were supplied to him by the Brazilian popular music composer and flutist Pixinguinha. Mignone also makes abundant use of many of the rhythmic formulas that were common to Brazilian dance music at that time. In Cuba, with the music of composers such as Amadeo Roldán (1900-39) and Alejandro García Caturla (1906-40), one can sense a more deliberate inclusion of indigenous elements, ostensibly free from European influences. Indeed, Roldán once remarked that one of his objectives was to define a new type of “American” music capable of being accepted on its own terms.

On the other hand, certain composers, such as those who in 1929 founded Argentina’s “Renovation Group,” directly opposed what they identified as the anachronistic currents of nationalism. For example, one of the group’s members, Jacobo Ficher (1896-1978), composed a trio for trumpet, saxophone and piano completely devoid of any nationalist elements that features large dissonant leaps, cross relationships and considerable rhythmic drive (example 2).

At the same time, in other Latin American countries serialist and neoclassic tendencies were beginning to develop. Carlos Chávez’s Soli (1933) for three woodwinds and trumpet is a good example of the former; José Ardévol’s trio sonata-like Sonata a tres #1 (1937) for oboe, clarinet and cello illustrates the latter tendency. Nevertheless, during the 1940s composers continued to produce significant works influenced by local elements, for example, Brazilian José Siquiera’s Pregão (1945) for winds, strings and piano is probably based on a street vendor’s cry; however, by the end of that decade this type of musical nationalism was diminishing. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 1960s a more diverse period began, during which many Latin American composers adopted a more international perspective. Because of this, this post-war music reveals a variety of styles, from a more politicized approach to nationalism, as in Responso para José Miguel Carrera (1967), by Chilean Gustavo Becerra-Schmidt (1925-2010), to the utilization of multi-media or electronic devices in two works composed in 1974, Intervertige, by Brazilian composer Jorge Antunes (1942-) and Synchronisms No. 8, by Argentine Mario Davidovsky (1934-).


Audio: Carlos Chávez, Soli

By the 1980s and 1990s many examples of Latin American wind chamber music are scarcely distinguishable from the wind chamber music of any other country of the world. Indeed, with the exception of Spanish or Portuguese titles, there is oftentimes little that is recognizably Latin American in much of the music from this period. Many of its composers, who originally left their home countries to study in European or American conservatories, are now faculty members of these same institutions, the final step in a process that has been blurring national boundaries, musically speaking, for many years. Nevertheless, there are a number of compositions that reveal an interesting re interpretation of local or regional themes within a globalized context. For example, Cuban-American composer Tania León’s works from the 1980s integrate African and Cuban elements alongside universal techniques. Parajota delaté (1988) for mixed quintet is a good example of her music from that period. Born in Guadalajara in 1962, Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon has also composed works inspired by his national heritage. Páramo, for example, written in 1999 for a sextet of mixed winds and strings, percussion and piano, is based on Mexican writer Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novel, Pedro Páramo. Zohn-Muldoon musically depicts Páramo’s schizophrenic nature (he is both protagonist and antagonist in the novel) through frenzied ticks, tolls and cuckoos.

The music of three composers, Peruvian Nilo Velarde, Panamanian Samuel Robles and Chilean René Silva, provide interesting examples of some proximate, popular and political trends in composition for wind chamber ensembles.

Born in 1964, Velarde is currently the director of the National Conservatory of Peru. His work, Del mar y sus orillas (2009), for a mixtet septet consisting of winds, strings, piano and percussion, is inspired by his recordings of ambient sounds at a beach in northern Peru. Its formal structure develops around the idea of the interaction between a person and his surroundings, in a type of journey and farewell ritual.

Samuel Robles (1974-) is the executive director of the national system of orchestras in Panama. His saxophone quartet, Mesano (2005), is based on the rhythmic and harmonic pattern of that same name that is heard in his country as an accompaniment to the singing of décimas, which are based on typically Panamanian poetic forms. However, once past an initial statement each instrument takes on a fairly independent role.

¡Pido venganza por el valiente! (2010, I Demand Vengeance for the Brave One!), by René Silva (1984-), is an impassioned work for tenor, alto saxophone, bassoon, percussion, piano and contrabass that is inspired in the ill-fated 1907 attempt to extend the labor movement into Chile’s mining region but that ended in a massacre. Silva uses Francisco Pezoa’s poem, “Canto a la Huelga,” the first to immortalize the massacre, as the basis for a dramatic retelling of the fateful events surrounding that effort. As the tenor alternates between sung and recited text, as if in representation of the shouts of angry workers and the clashes with soldiers each instrument is largely independent from the rest; nevertheless, all join together for a clamorous and powerful ending (example 3).

Finally, there are also a number of notable works for more conventional ensembles, such as reed trios, wind quartets and wind quintets. Regarding the former, José Serebrier’s Suite canina (1957) for oboe, clarinet and bassoon is particularly satisfying. It is very witty, but not blatantly so, and is easy to introduce verbally to an audience because its extra-musical themes are ones to which most people can relate.

For groups of four performers, I recommend the José Vieira Brandão Chôro. Although its unique instrumentation (flute, clarinet, English horn and bass clarinet) might be a point in its disfavor, it is an intriguing blend of Baroque counterpoint, impressionistic color and a harmonic language reminiscent of a jazz idiom, all from a Brazilian point of view. The frequent ascending and descending flourishes emphatically contribute to the bittersweet nature of this work.

The list of recommended works for five players is somewhat more ample, and includes compositions by Marlos Nobre (1939-) and Adriana Verdié (1958-). For example, Verdié’s Tangoescente is an imaginative re interpretation for winds of some of the most characteristic features of the tango.

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