Music Post: South American composers on parade


Classical music in Latin America, like that of the United States, started as an extension of the European tradition, then was enriched by the folk music already to be heard on the ground. Modern classical music from Latin America tends to be as well-accepted worldwide as popular music from the same region, and for the same reasons.

Everyone knows the tango, and a growing number known milonga, which is similar to a habanera but more uptempo. Both come from Argentina and Uruguay. Everyone knows the samba and the bossa nova, which come from Brazil. Everyone knows the rumba, which comes from Cuba.

South America is home to 370 million people, more than the United States, without counting Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean. More than half live in Brazil, which had been a colony of Portugal. Most of the rest of South America has roots in Spain. South America had not more than 30 million residents before European colonists arrived. European diseases killed off 40% to 90% of the indigenous population, depending on whom you ask, and colonials imported slaves from Africa to replace workers. This means the cultural melting pot, musically speaking, had three ingredients, local, European and African. Spaniards sought to subdue local religions but inadvertently saved local culture by teaching locals to write.

European colonies in South America were founded from around 1500 and were well-established by Bach’s lifetime (1685-1750). During Beethoven’s life (1770-1827) most of South America became independent.

By the late 1800s South American nations were well-established and major cities had symphony orchestras and welcomed tourist performers from Europe.

Manaus, a city in the middle of the Amazon, has had an opera house since 1896.


Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was born into an educated and affluent family in Rio de Janeiro, but his father died when he was 12, and he found work as a street musician. Villa-Lobos liked to tell exciting stories about living for several harrowing years in the Amazon; we don’t how much of that was true. But apart from exposure to street music and sounds of nature, Villa-Lobos played cello well enough to be a cellist in the Rio Opera. In 1917 when he was 40, the Ballets Russes came to town, and he also met Darius Milhaud, then working at the French Legation. Villa-Lobos spent much of the Roaring Twenties in Paris before returning to Rio.

Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez (1897-1948) is a link figure in Brazilian music (though he personally was Spanish, not Portuguese.) Born in Rio, 10 years younger than Villa-Lobos, he was pressed into service as a choral teacher at the Rio conservatory when an older teacher fell ill, and wound up remaining at the school for the rest of his fairly short life. He wrote the first successful Brazilian national opera, and drew a suite from it that has begun to find a public outside of Brazil. It is a reminder of how slowly nationalist music catches on, even in its home, that the opera premiered in Rio with the libretto translated into Italian.

Mozart Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993) was clearly born into a music-loving family in Sao Paolo – his parents name his brothers after Rossini and Verdi! But his name embarrassed him, so he called himself Camargo, after his mother’s maiden name, and his signature was M. Camargo Guarnieri. He went to conservatory studying piano and composition, and studied in Paris under Charles Koechlin. Later he conducted the Sao Paolo symphony and became director of the conservatory. From 1940 to 1987 he composed six symphonies, six piano concertos, two violin concertos, string quartets and film music.


Enrique Soro (1884-1954) was born in Chile to an Italian musician father and a schoolteacher mother. He studied piano in Concepcion and in Milan. Soro was a close contemporary of Villa-Lobos who never became as famous as the Brazilian, mostly because he returned to Chile after his studies and mostly remained there.


Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) is usually called an Argentinian composer, but perhaps it’s more complicated than that. His father was Catalan and his mother was Italian. He was born in Buenos Aires and was 29 before traveling elsewhere, but later he lived in the United States for two years and moved to Switzerland for the last 13 years of his life. He pronounced his name the Spanish way – “HEEN-a-stair-a” – for most of his life but in his last few years began to prefer the Catalan way of saying “GENE….” Despite all this, and the uniquely energetic style of his music, Ginastera was much influenced by Argentinian folk music, though its influence on him mecame progressively more abstract. Emerson Lake & Palmer based their “Toccata” on a movement from a Ginastera piano concerto and the jazz fusion band Free Flight did something similar.


Carlos Chavez (1899-1978) was born in Mexico City, seventh child of a Creole family, whose father, the inventor of a successful plow, died when Chavez was three. Older siblings got him music lessons but he made his living as a cultural reporter and critic for a Mexico City newspaper. In the Roaring Twenties he married and took his bride on a months-long honeymoon in Europe. By the end of the decade he was conducting the main symphony in Mexico City, and running its conservatory. Chavez befriended Aaron Copland, who spoke Spanish, and took him to the cantina that inspired “El Salon Mexico.” Chavez is remembered outside Mexico mainly for his symphonies, especially “Sinfonia de Antigona.”

Jose Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958) was a student of Carlos Chavez. Born in Guadalajara, he worked his way through conservatory as a jazz pianist. In 1941 he wrote his best-known work, “Huapango,” original music inspired by the popular music in the Mexican state of Veracruz.



Arturo Marquez (1950- ) was born in Mexico’s Sonora state, oldest of nine children, son of a mariachi player and grandson of a folk musician. The family emigrated to Los Angeles so Marquez studied in both Mexico and the United States. Like Moncayo, Marquez found inspiration of music from Veracruz. He moved back to Mexico and now lives in Mexico City. His best-known work “Danzon” is based on a Cuban dance format that has become popular in Mexico as well.


Aldemaro Romero (1928-2007) was a jazz pianist and a classical composer, all of whose music, in any genre, had influences from Venezuelan popular music. He played piano in Caracas dance bands while studying music. He gigged in Havana and New York in the 1950s, then founded his own dance band in Caracas. He played with Stan Kenton and Tito Puente and made arrangements for RCA Victor.


Miguel del Aguila (1957- ) was born in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and lived there until age 21. Then he went to conservatory in San Francisco, then lived for 10 years in Vienna. Now he lives in Los Angeles. His music nonetheless represents South American dance music.

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