When musicians think of the canon we know today, we usually immediately say Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, etc. When we’re sitting in a music history class or an ensemble rehearsal, most of our teachers say, “Oh you should know this, it’s standard repertory”. As a horn player, I must know and have played all the Mozart Concerti and know the standard orchestral excerpts. The one thing all of these examples have in common is that these canons are European-centered. There is no mention of music of other cultures, ethnicities, or even genders. This is very evident as we study the music of others, specifically the music of Mexico. Before this seminar class on 20th-century Mexican music, I had never heard or studied about it because, in a sense, it wasn’t considered part of the canon that we know about- its music other than European. Although there are multiple canons and they are constantly changing, I still believe that Mexican music and its history has still not gained its rightful place in the canon.
In the introduction to Saavedra’s dissertation, she emphasizes that the focal point of Mexican music history only began nearly a century ago in the late 1920s. The music produced in this era, mostly by Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas, was seen as “nationalist” music. Saavedra refers to this period as the Aztec Renaissance, where Chavez’s Sinfonia India and Revueltas’s Sensemaya are the pieces that have come to represent Mexican music. I like to think, what about all the music that was written before this “Renaissance”? Mexico has such a rich and interesting history that I’m sure it would be beneficial to understand the kinds of music they were producing before Chavez and Revueltas revolutionized the Mexican musical canon. The Mexican Revolution impacted not only the everyday lifestyles of the people, but also the country’s place in the musical world. After finding its musical self, which included non-traditional styles, works, and instrumental media (completely opposite that of the European canon), Mexican music finally became more accepted by the Western world. I think the world was surprised that Mexico’s music didn’t evolve in the same manner as European music did, expecting the creation of composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. Who is to say that Chavez, Revueltas and Mexican composers in general are not equal to the mentioned composers above? I think it’s simply because there hasn’t been enough research done on this area of music history and how Mexican music has contributed to the canon in significant ways.
“Musics and Canons”, an article written by Philip Bohlman, explains the different aspects of canons and how they are conceived and who in responsible for the creating them. One section I found particularly interesting was entitled “The Texts as Canons”. One way canons are created are by musicologists who turn music into texts, such as dictionaries, journals, field recordings, and even bibliographical indexes. These texts are very important to maintaining canons and making them accessible to anyone. Bohlman states, “to enter the canon of great works, a piece of music must “last,” and how better to make it last than to transform it into text?”. This process makes the music more permanent and determines precisely where their position in the canon will be. One great example of this is Carlos Chavez himself. As he became widely known throughout the world, he was determined to build his and Mexico’s image in the music world, producing press releases, writing articles and program notes and also giving lectures. In a way, Chavez became what Bohlman calls a “canonizer”.
There have been many canons throughout history and they are constantly evolving to accommodate the music being written every day. Mexican music has yet to gain its proper place in the Western art music canon, but as more research and exploration of it is done, it will eventually become a standard area of study. We all have our own canons and what’s important to us, and I think our job is to share it with others so they can expand their own canons. Fortunately, this class has added Mexican music and its history to my personal canon.