Carlos Chavez Biography

(Greatest Mexican Composer of the 20th Century)

Birthday: June 13, 1899 (Gemini)

Born In: Mexico City, Mexico

Carlos Chavez was probably the greatest Mexican composer and conductor of the twentieth century. He is remembered for successfully blending the indigenous Mexican music with modern harmony. Born into a well-to-do family of Creole heritage, he became interested in music early in his life, composing his first piece by the age of eleven, studying piano with successive teachers.  Concurrently, he also studied other instruments on his own, writing his first peace for piano and violin around the age of twelve. A graduate of Conservatorio Nacional de Música in Mexico City, he imbibed local folk music while living in Veracruz, vacationing with his family in the interior, later combining it with classical European music to create his own style. Concurrently with writing music, he also worked for the improvement of Mexican music, holding various administrative posts all through his life, founding the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico to promote, among others, the Mexican musicians. Also a successful author, Carlos Chavez had written more than five hundred articles and two books on music.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez

Died At Age: 79


Spouse/Ex-: Otilia Ortiz (m. 1922)

father: Augustín Chávez

children: Anita

Born Country: Mexico

Composers Mexican Men

Died on: August 2, 1978

place of death: Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico

City: Mexico City, Mexico

Childhood & Early Years

Carlos Chavez was born on 13 June 1899 in Popotla, near Mexico City, Mexico. His father, Augustín Chavez, was an agricultural inventor, while his mother, Juvencia Ramírez, was a teacher, who served as directoe of the Normal School for Young Women in Popotla.

Born youngest of his parents’ six children, he had at least one brother called Manuel de él. After the death of their father in 1902, the siblings were raised by their mother.

Around the age of nine, Carlos began studying piano with Manuel. Later, he also studied briefly with Asunción Parra and then with Manuel M. Ponce, composing his first piece, La danza de las brujas, in 1910.

In 1911, he composed five more pieces among which Preludio was for piano and violin, signifying, he must have started learning violin by that time. Sometime now, he also read Albert Guiraud’s Traité d'Instrumentation et Orchestration and through it learned to read and study the orchestral scores by himself.

Sometime in early 1910s, at the onset of the Mexican Revolution, the family relocated to Veracruz, where he grew up surrounded by the culture of indigenous people, which later had a great impact on his music. However, others opine that he came into contact with indigenous culture while vacationing with his family. 

In 1915, he became a pupil of Pedro Luis Ogazón, studying piano with him at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música in Mexico City.  In the same year, he began writing his first orchestra, completing the work in 1918.

Meanwhile in 1916, he took some instruction in harmony from Juan Fuentes and started a cultural journal, Gladios, with his friends. One his first major works, Sextet for piano and strings, was written in 1919.

In 1920, Carlos Chavez graduated from Conservatorio Nacional de Música with a diploma in composition. In the same year, some of his early piano pieces were published by Wagner y Levie.

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In 1921, Carlos Chavez began his career with a well-received public concert. Shortly, he was commissioned to compose a ballet based on ancient Aztec themes by the newly elected government. It resulted in the composition of Toxiumolpia: El fuego Nuevo, his first important work in a Mexican style.

In El Fuego Nuevo, he incorporated many indigenous Indian themes he remembered from his early years to create a booming orchestral work. However, it was rejected by the director of the Orquesta Sinfónica and remained underperformed till 1928.

In October 1922, he and his wife went on honeymoon to Europe, spending five months in Berlin, where his Deuxieme sonate pour piano (1921) was published by Bote und Bocke.  They also spent few weeks each in Vienna and Paris.

In Paris, he met composer Paul Dukas, who encouraged him to concentrate on the rich musical heritage of Mexico. It was also during this time that he discovered the works of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, which left a lasting impression on him.

In April 1923, he returned to Mexico to organize and direct the New Music Concerts series, where he presented the European novelties. In December, he went on his first visit to the USA, all along producing some marvelous works

In 1924, he began writing series of articles on contemporary music and art for a Mexico City newspaper called El universal, producing more than five hundred articles in his life time. During this period, he also set up ties with the country’s political establishment.  

In September 1926, he traveled to the USA for the second time. He stayed in New York City until June 1928 and met well-known composers, publishers, and performers, including Edgard Varèse. With Varèse’s help, he soon got involved with the International Composers' Guild, who presented two of his works, Three Hexagons and the Dance of men and machines.

On returning home in June 1928, Carlos Chavez was invited to reorganize the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. He was shortly appointed its first conductor and gave his first concert in September 1928. He held this position till 1949. Working with unprecedented success during this period, he premiered 197 works, of which 83 were by Mexican musicians.

Simultaneously in December 1928, he was appointed the director of his alma mater, Conservatorio Nacional de Música, holding the position till March 1933 and again for eight months in 1934. Concurrently, he also headed the Department of Fine Arts in the Ministry of Public Education in 1933-1934.

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In spite of his administrative responsibilities, he continued to write prolifically, producing around ten pieces from 1928 and 1932. He composed Piano Sonata No 3 in 1928 and completing his ballet Caballos de vapor in 1932. In 1933, he wrote his First Symphony and in 1935-1936 the Second.

In 1937, he published his first book, Toward a New Music, which was followed in 1940 by Mexican Music. Meanwhile in 1938, he conducted a series of concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and in 1940 produced concerts at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

In 1940s, he produced many important works, such as Xochipilli (1940), Concerto No. 1 for piano and orchestra (1940), Toccata for percussion instruments (1942), La hija de Cólquide (1943-1944), Violin Concerto (1945) (1949-50)3  etc, Written on commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, La(4) hija de Cólquide spawned several well-appreciated subsidiary works.

By 1945, Carlos Chavez had come to be known as the foremost Mexican composer and conductor. In the following year, he founded a concert promotion society called Nuestra Música, concurrently playing an important part in establishing the Institute of Fine Arts, serving as its first director from 1947 to 1952.

In 1952, he decided to give up his administrative duty to concentrate more on his music, maintaining a busy schedule throughout the decade, both at home and abroad. Among the important works of this decade were his three symphonies; Symphony No 3 (1951), Symphony No 4 (1953), Symphony No 5 (1953).

In 1953, he received commissions from the New York City center of Music and Drama, for a three-act opera.  Entitled Panfilo and Lauretta, the work was completed in 1956 and premiered in New York on 9 May 1957.

In 1958, he was appointed to the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetics at Harvard University, serving in that capacity for one year. His lessons were later collected and published in 1961 as Musical Thought.

All through 1960s, he continued to compose, writing number of symphonies, songs, and chamber works, significant among them being Symphony No 6, Soli II, Soli II and Soli IV.  In 1969, he resumed administrative duties when he accepted the post as Secretariat of Public Education.

In 1973, he was appointed Head of the INBA Music Department and music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional. But he resigned a month later from both the posts because of a dispute with the orchestra members’ union. However, he continued to write, composing his last work, Concerto for trombone and orchestra, in 1976-1977.

Major Works

Carlos Chavez is best remembered for his Symphony No 2: Sinfonía india. Composed in 1935-1936, the work derives its material from the melodies of northern México’s native-American tribes. Premiered by Columbia Broadcasting Orchestra and given its first concert performance by Boston Symphony Orchestra, the work became immensely popular, both home and abroad.

Awards & Achievements

In 1932, Carlos Chavez was appointed Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, of France.

In 1978, he was awarded honorary memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

Personal Life & Legacy

In September 1922, Carlos Chavez married Otilia Ortiz, a fellow student of Luis Ogazón and an accomplished pianist in her own right. They had three children; Anita, Agustin and Juanita.

Possibly in 1974, he moved to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life. There he gave his final performance, conducting the premiere of his Concerto for Trombone on 8 May 1978.

He died peacefully on 2 August 1978, while on a visit to his eldest daughter, Anita, in the Coyoacán suburb of Mexico City. His mortal remains lie buried in the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons of the Civil Pantheon of Dolores.

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