John Noel Plays Ponce
Mexican Rhapsody No.1 (1911)
Capriccio No.2 (1907)
Cuban Suite (1915)
Paz de ocaso
All compositions by Manuel M. Ponce (1882-1948)
Manuel María Ponce Cuéllar was born in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, MEXICO, in December 1882; he died in Mexico City in April 1948. Ponce spent many years in Europe, first from 1904 to 1906, and later from 1925 to 1933. This program contains pieces written right after Ponce’s first stay in Europe (Capriccio No. 2), his first return to Mexico, (Mexican Rhapsody No. 1), and his years in exile in Cuba (Cuban Suite) during the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910.
Mexican Rhapsody No. 1 (1911):
The Mexican Rhapsody No. 1 was composed in 1911. Ponce had returned to Mexico after spending three years studying piano and composition in Europe. He initially returned to Aguascalientes to teach piano lessons but eventually moved to Mexico City to teach piano at the Conservatorio Nacional.
The word “rhapsody” originated as a poetic genre. The Classical Greek “rhapsōdos” referred to “a reciter of epic (usually Homeric) poetry, performed without accompaniment” (meaning without instrumental accompaniment).
Ponce’s Mexican Rhapsody No. 1 is an epic Romantic piece, like the Hungarian Rhapodies of Franz Liszt (1811-1886). The work opens with a grand introduction, marked “Maestoso” (majestic). The opening three octaves played by the left hand constitute the main theme (or motive) heard throughout the composition. The technique of subjecting the opening theme of a musical work to various speeds and moods is called “thematic transformation” (the opening four notes of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven comes to mind, as well as many of the works of Liszt).
The lengthy and often contrapuntal first section of the Mexican Rhapsody No. 1 is followed by a brief, slow middle section, composed in the style of a song. Among his many talents as a composer, Ponce is known in Mexico as a champion of the Mexican song or “canción.”
The third and final section of the work is composed in the grand virtuosic style reminiscent of Liszt, where the theme appears in many brief and constantly changing settings.
Capriccio No. 2 (1907):
The Italian word “capriccio” means “whim, or fancy.” The word also appears in the French “caprice,” or the English “capricious.”
The first music titled “Capriccio” appears in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century in a set of madrigals by Jacquet de Berchem (1505-1567), and in late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century keyboard literature.
Two well-known nineteenth-century examples of the capriccio are the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), and capriccios for piano found in the solo piano works of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).
Brahms’s friend and mentor, the pianist and composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), wrote that the capriccio is “a genre of music which is different from the ‘low-comedy’ burlesque in that it blends the sentimental with the witty. Often there is something étude-like about it.” The word étude means “study,” which in instrumental composition refers to a piece devoted to exploiting a difficult technical pattern, often at fast speeds. The more modern use of the word étude can refer to a composer’s study in how to organize musical material, regardless of its difficulty for the performer (the term étude can also be found in modern art).
What is striking about Ponce’s Capriccio No. 2 is its modern use of harmonies, especially in the slower section which follows the brief and initial opening of the work (the listener will notice that this slower section also draws the work to an unexpected and delightful close). The slower section features the rhythmic interplay between a funeral march and a waltz!
Ponce’s modern use of harmony is again apparent in the middle section of the work, which is an étude for the left hand. Music enthusiasts may detect the influence of the composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) in the enharmonic writing in the score, as well as the melodic and harmonic language found in early to mid twentieth-century French composers like Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and other members of Les Six.
It is interesting to note the clear difference in the modern sound of the Capriccio No. 2, composed four years before the purely romantic, and more traditional, Mexican Rhapsody No. 1. Ponce was clearly able to compose in different styles, even in his early years.
Ponce was a brilliant pianist. He dedicated the Capriccio No. 2 to his piano teacher, Martin Krause (1853-1918), who was a student of Liszt. The work was composed in Mexico right after Ponce’s piano study with Krause in Berlin, in early 1907.
Cuban Suite (1915):
Ponce and other Mexican artists and intellectuals lived in exile in Cuba during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Ponce arrived in Cuba in 1915 and returned to Mexico City in 1917.
While in Havana, Ponce gave concerts, lectures, classes, and wrote reviews for El heraldo de Cuba and La Reforma social. In 1916, he performed a recital of his works at the Aeolian Hall in New York City, ignored due to an attack on the frontier town of Columbus at the same time.
The first two pieces, “Serenata marina” (Serenade by the Water) and “Plenilunio” (Full Moon) are traditional melodically, harmonically, and in formal structure, and feature well-established Cuban rhythms. “Plenilunio” is an example of “a guajira, a Spanish Cuban dance” in 6/8 meter, with frequent use of hemiola.
The third and final piece, “Paz de ocaso” (Peaceful Sunset), is an example of Ponce’s contribution to late nineteenth-century French Impressionism. The modern-sounding harmonies and the absence of a clearly discernible melody (there actually is a melody in the thumb of the right hand, on beats one and three) gives the piece an abstract feel, like an Impressionistic painting where the focus is less on clearly defined lines and shapes, and more on the sensory versus the emotional. Those who have an opportunity to look at the score will again see enharmonic writing like that found in the Capriccio No. 2.
The term “suite” refers to “any ordered set of instrumental pieces meant to be performed at a single sitting.” In seventeenth-century Baroque music, the suite was “an instrumental genre consisting of several pieces” (called movements) “in the same key, some or all based on dance forms and styles.” Examples of these dances are the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue (and the Minuet).
The suite later became “a group of pieces extracted from a larger work, especially an opera or ballet.” One of the most famous examples of this is the Suite from the Nutcracker, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
Program notes by Dr. John Noel