Cinco de Mayo is an odd sort of holiday. It is not Mexico’s Independence Day, which is actually September 16. For the most part, Cinco de Mayo is not really even celebrated in Mexico. It is a much bigger party in the United States. Originally, it started as a remembrance of the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. In Puebla a small and poorly outfitted Mexican army defeated a French force twice its size. The victory fostered a sense of patriotism and national unity for the Mexican people. Eventually, Cinco de Mayo grew to be a popular celebration of Mexican culture and heritage in America.
El Salón México is a piece of music that is odd in a similar sort of way. It is a ten minute symphonic poem for orchestra by the American composer Aaron Copland. The work was completed in 1936 and is in a “Populist” style, a period for Copland where he was writing deliberately accessible and understandable music. Copland was writing music that people would listen to, and works that were distinctly American. Works that were not merely warmed over imitations of European music that would never live up to the European original.
Aaron had visited Mexico, but the folk tunes he borrowed were things he got from written sheet music of popular Mexican melodies. So the “Mexican-ness” we get in El Salón México is really twice removed: some person heard the Mexican original and wrote it down, then Copland adapted that transcription into his piece. He must not have done too bad, the first performance was given by the Mexico Symphony Orchestra in 1937.
As a depiction of a popular dance hall in Mexico City, the resulting music is pure Copland. It is rhythmic and driving with clear melodies. It is not overly dissonant, but still remains modern and carries Copland’s personal musical voice of the period.
Here is a performance by the Frankfort Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Here is another performance of the same piece, from a 1942 NBC radio broadcast conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The sound is a little dated, but you can still hear that clear “Toscanini” orchestra sound and his famously brisk tempos.
So in review, we have performances of a American composer’s rendition of Mexican dance music, played by a German orchestra in one case and an American orchestra conducted by an Italian Maestro in another case. Whatever! Its great fun and I hope to kick back with a cerveza, chips and salsa and enjoy the party.