Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Toccata for percussion (1942)

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Carlos Chávez (June 13, 1899–August 2, 1978)

"[Chávez’s] work presents itself as one of the first authentic signs of a new world with its own new music” –Aaron Copland

The 7th child of a Mexican father and Native American mother, Carlos Chávez, born in Mexico City, was a renowned composer, conductor, educator, and author. Chávez’s first musical training was from his brother. Trained primarily as a pianist, his compositional facility was largely self-taught, though he did eventually study with Manuel Ponce. As a writer, he wrote two books and more than 200 articles on music. His oeuvre includes five ballets, seven symphonies, four concertos, a cantata, an opera, and innumerable pieces for voice, piano, and chamber ensemble.

Maturing at the time of renewed cultural nationalism that followed the Mexican revolution, Chávez brought vigor and prominence to twentieth-century Mexican music. This was largely accomplished through his use of native instruments and his investigation of indigenous Indian cultures, native folk elements, and dance forms. His compositional style was marked by the incorporation of Mexican, Indian, and Spanish-Mexican elements. His music was fundamentally percussive, hallmarked by polyrhythms, cross-rhythms, syncopation, and numerous irregular meters. The Toccata is one of his most popular and frequently performed works.

In the late 1930’s, John Cage asked Chávez to write a piece for Cage’s Percussion Ensemble in Chicago. The result was the 1942 Toccata for Percussion. However, Cage’s group was unable to negotiate the rolls, and did not premiere the work. The premiere waited until 1947 when the percussion section of Chávez’s orchestra performed it in Mexico City.

The Toccata, for 6 players and in 3 movements, utilizes traditional orchestral percussion instruments. It was choreographed by Xavier Francis and performed as a ballet by the Toxcatl Academy of Mexican Dance in 1952. However, Chávez emphasized that this work is fundamentally abstract.

The 3 movements are of contrasting timbres. The first and last movements share a sonata-like conception, and feature drums. This creates a certain symmetry. The first movement, in a rounded repetitive form, spotlights the drums. The different musical material assigned to each drum, combined with the voicing, creates a contrapuntal texture. This is an achievement: since drums lack pitch, it is difficult to let individual strands of rhythmic melody emerge. The second movement is for the metal instruments and xylophone. The drums return for the third movement and are joined by the glockenspiel.