1 Home Guitar History 1 2 3 End Notes & Bibliography Next Page 1
Music & The Socio-Cultural Environment of
Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music, University of Hawaii
The history of postcolonial México is dominated by a struggle to acquire nationhood despite obstacles of diverse race, religion, language, culture and geographic isolation. Unlike European nationalism, where national consciousness grew from common bonds of language and culture, Mexican nationalism resulted from the necessity of unifying diverse cultural groups in the struggle against foreign domination. Thus, the nation of México was conceived as a reaction against over three hundred years of foreign domination, and bore its painful emergence through three national movements: the Independence of 1810, the Reform of 1857 and the Revolution of 1910.
Each of these movements share the common attribute of being a response to an outside force rather than an internal one, and, although each boasted its own socio-political objectives, the struggle against foreign domination--political, military or economic--remained central to all three movements. Moreover, each movement represents a successive stage in the evolution of the Mexican state and its cultural identity; thus, these movements progressively increased national conscious and cultural integration. Therefore, because of a long history of foreign oppression, a predominant feature of Mexican nationalism is its distinctly antiforeign attitude.
This antiforeign attitude emerged full-blown during the early twentieth-century. Andrés Molina Enríquez, a prophetic pre-revolutionary writer, helped inspire a national campaign to combat foreign influences and do all things--art, music, writing of novels, manufacturing, scientific research, etc.--the Mexican way; i.e., for the ultimate purpose of glorifying México and all things Mexican.1 The arch-nationalism of early twentieth-century México produced profound socio-political changes which culminated in the Revolution of 1910 and the reforms shortly after. The Revolution marked the floodtide of nationalism and the flowering of nationalistic art. Art, which in prior times was a reflection of European models, began to gain world recognition because of its unique combination of nationalistic elements and increased artistic quality. The quality and direction of Mexican art was affected by the Revolution in two basic ways:
1. Strongly felt and widely disseminated socio-political goals produced intense nationalism which, in turn, produced artistic goals of national symbolism and non-European technique.
2. The Revolution caused the geographic displacement of various ethnic and socio-economic groups, and served as a catalyst in their cultural integration.
Cultural integration, according to Carlos Chávez, is a prerequisite to the creation of superior art.2 The Revolution therefore served to produce the cultural conditions and inspiration to break from European traditions and create art--sometimes superficially, sometimes elegantly--that is uniquely Mexican.
Leftist Politics and the Aztec Renaissance
From 1876 until the Revolution of 1910, México lived in bondage to dictator Porfírio Díaz's feudalistic reign: the government, foreign businessmen and large land owners at the top and the Mexican peasant at the bottom. Viewed in simplest terms, the complex series of upheavals known as the Revolution of 1910 destroyed the feudalistic system and established a new social order supposedly based on the principles of democracy. The period from 1910 to 1920 was filled with bloody horrors and untold suffering: most of the presidents were assassinated by their opposition and approximately one and a half million Mexicans died in the internal scuffling.
The year 1920 marks the culmination of the Revolution and the beginning of relative political stability. The new leftist government of President Alvaro Obregón initiated important reforms which, in reality, required several succeeding administrations to fully enact: the feudal land system of the hacienda was dismantled, labor was organized and reformed, foreign economic despoliation was curtailed, education was declared free and secular, health and welfare programs were initiated, and indigenous culture--especially pre-conquest Indian culture--became the focus of a national cultural program.
The use of pre-conquest culture as nationalistic symbols was fueled, at least in part, from far beyond the borders of México. Arthur P. Whitaker comments on Communist use of pre-conquest culture to cause internal division and anti-Western sentiment:In the minds of its Communist instigators this new nationalism was a weapon of political-cultural warfare: it was designed to divide Latin America from the United States and the rest of the World and to facilitate Communist penetration of Latin America by sowing discord and creating confusion among its people. In furtherance of this purpose the Communist conspirators used Latin American intellectuals as their cat's-paws in propagating subversive ideas. They disparaged everything that tended to unite the Latin Americans with one another as well as the United States and Europe. To this end they fomented a narrow nationalism by playing up the glories of each national culture in Latin America, with special stress in each case on the indigenous culture (Aztec, Maya, Inca, and so on) on which the present-day culture was assumed to be based. 3
In 1918, Soviet agents entered México with the intent of infiltrating the Mexican Socialist Party; consequently, there was an immediate diffusion of Communist cultural propaganda and, two years later, the Mexican Communist Party was officially recognized by Moscow.4 The revolutionary social nationalism of the Mexican government (i.e., nationalism linked to social idealisms and programs) was significantly influenced by Communist propaganda and thus sparked the so-called "Aztec Renaissance." Indianism, the use of symbolism, motifs, etc., from pre-conquest Indian culture, had strong proponents in the arts. The popularization of the story of the last Aztec king, Cuauhtemoc, and his conqueror, Hernán Cortés, in art, music, literature and film illustrates the power of artistic media to change public thinking: Cuauhtemoc is commonly thought to symbolize the glory of México and all things noble and good; Cortés, in contrast, represents the darkest evil and the epitome of Western imperialist domination.5
The attempt of Soviet Russia to undermine the Mexican Revolution and instill Communist ideology failed. The reason for its failure, historian Daniel James writes,. . . is that it came into direct competition with the Mexican Revolution and Mexican nationalism. . . . The flagrant attempts of foreigners, under the direction of a foreign government, to intervene in México's internal affairs could only arouse the suspicion and objection of the native Mexican forces who had come to power precisely as a result of their struggle against foreign intervention."6
However, it is evident from the art of post-revolutionary México that Russia's tactics of political-cultural warfare, i.e., the use of pre-conquest culture as the basis of nationalism, had an important and lasting impact on the arts of México.
Although it is difficult to find documentation on the political activities of Mexican musicians, it is well known that México's three leading artists, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, were members of the Soviet backed Mexican Communist Party, having joined in 1922.7 These three artists were later commissioned by the Mexican government to paint murals, now of world-wide renown, on the walls of public buildings in México City. The murals of these men are particularly important because they express the government's and the artist's nationalistic sentiments and, due to the strength and revolutionary validity of the symbolism used, helped initiate a powerful nationalistic movement in the arts. Although Manuel Ponce began creating nationalistic music during the revolutionary years, the mainstream of musical nationalism began after the nationalist school of painting had been established following the Revolution. Carlos Chávez, a friend and ideological ally of Rivera, remarked ". . . our attempt at a similar program in music took place some years later after the Mexican painters had started their movement."8 In this statement Chávez is referring to an organized and government-subsidized movement towards musical nationalism, which he began at the Conservatorio Nacional in 1928.
Chávez, the leading exponent of the Aztec Renaissance in music, had decisive leanings towards the left during the 1920s and 1930s. His persistent and influential preaching on the virtues of pre-conquest Aztec culture as "what is deepest in the Mexican soul" and as "the most important stage in the history of Mexican music" establish him, in the least, as a pawn in the political-cultural warfare of Soviet Russia.9 In contrast to Chávez's emphasis of pre-conquest Aztec culture as the basis of nationalism during the 1920s and 1930s, it is interesting to note his redefinition of national music in the early 1960s--perhaps coinciding with a waning from the left:Indian music is Mexican, but so is the art of Spanish origin. It is correct and plausible to consider even the native operas in the Italian style or the Mexican symphonies of German inspiration as Mexican. Obviously the condition of being Mexican does not add anything to the aesthetic quality of an artistic production. Only when Mexican music reaches artistic quality does it become national art.10
©Copyright 2001 by Peter Kun Frary All Rights Reserved
1 Home Guitar History 1 2 3 End Notes & Bibliography Next Page 1