Mexican composer Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) was and remains one of Mexico's most beloved figures in the world of classical music.
Ponce was the first Mexican composer who consistently introduced elements of the folk and popular music of his country to classical composition. He is also internationally known among guitarists and lovers of guitar music; he was among the first modern composers to write extensively for the guitar, and, through his association with guitarist Andrés Segovia, he played a key role in the revival of the guitar in classical music. Ponce made a variety of contributions to the classical repertory over his long career, never remaining content with a style he had mastered but always forging forward with new musical investigations. In the history of Mexican classical music he is rivaled in importance only by Carlos Chávez.
Manuel María Ponce was born on December 8, 1882, in the small town of Fresnillo, Mexico, in the state of Aguascalientes. He was the twelfth child of his parents, Felipe de Jesus Ponce Leon and María de Jesus Cuellar. Ponce's father had participated in the 1867 revolution that restored Mexico's independence, and when Manuel was born, the family was hiding out in Fresnillo to escape lingering political fallout from that event. They soon moved to the larger town of Aguascalientes, where Ponce spent most of his early life. Ponce's mother loved music and urged her children to study the piano. Ponce's teachers were not musical professionals; he took his first lessons from his older sister Josefina, and he later studied with a local lawyer, Cipriano Avila. Ponce survived both smallpox and measles as a child.
During his teenage years Ponce played the organ at the Church of San Diego in Aguascalientes and wrote several small keyboard pieces. At 18, in search of wider musical experiences, he moved to Mexico City. In 1901 he enrolled at Mexico's National Conservatory of music to study solfèe (sight singing), music theory, analysis, and composition. At this time, musical composition in Mexico was heavily influenced by European models, but from the beginning Ponce showed an interest in writing arrangements of the Mexican folk music he heard around him. Largely self-taught, Ponce already had such a strong grasp of musical fundamentals that he felt the curriculum at the National Conservatory was too easy. After a year he returned to Aguascalientes, took a job teaching at a local music school, and spent time in the city's Jardín de San Marcos park discussing the potential for the creation of Mexican national art forms with a likeminded group of friends.
Determined to challenge himself further, Ponce decided to travel to Europe to study in 1904. He set out for Italy by way of Guadalajara, San Luís Potosí, St. Louis (Missouri) and New York, giving recitals at each stop. He arrived in Bologna, Italy, hoping to study with a local teacher, Enrico Bossi, bringing with him about 40 of his own compositions. In Europe, Ponce encountered a whole new level of musical competition. According to Jorge Barrón Corvera in Manuel María Ponce: A Bio-Bibliography, Bossi was unimpressed with Ponce's music, telling the young artist that “in 1905 one should write music of 1905 … or even 1920, but never music of 1830. You have talent, but you lack knowledge of musical technique.” Nevertheless, Ponce was admitted for some lessons with Bossi and other teachers at Bologna's Liceo Musicale. He had to sell his piano to finance these lessons.
At the end of 1905 Ponce moved on to Germany, studying piano with Edwin Fischer and Franz Liszt's student Martin Krause. In central Europe, musical nationalism was a hot topic, and Ponce's fellow students in Germany encouraged him to pursue his interest in Mexican music— something that he had the opportunity to do firsthand after he returned to Mexico, broke, in 1906. He had written a body of new music that showed a new level of sophistication reflecting his studies in Europe, and his piano technique was now at concert level.
Criticized for Use of Local Materials
Back in Mexico, Ponce was hired as professor of piano at the National Conservatory, succeeding Mexican composer Ricardo Castro. Mexico was still in the grip of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díz, which emphasized imported products in culture as it did in the realm of technology, and at first Ponce had little success with his nationalist outlook. According to Corvera, Ponce himself later recalled that “the young musician [referring to himself] who in those far gone days initiated the work of preserving and dignifying the little popular tunes, was accused of making music that smelled like huarache, or Indian sandals.” Among Ponce's students at his private studio during this period was Carlos Chávez. Ponce introduced to his students, and to Mexico in general, the French Impressionist music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel; in 1912 a group of Ponce's students gave an all-Debussy recital at which the 13-year-old Chávez played Clair de lune.
The first of Ponce's mature large-scale works date from the period before World War I. Ponce's Piano Concerto had its premiere on June 7, 1912, with the composer at the piano. The work was a traditional Romantic concerto stylistically, but it also contained Mexican folkloric elements. Ponce also composed a variety of small piano pieces, and he continued to arrange Mexican folk music. Canciones Mexicanas (Mexican Songs), begun in 1912 and published in 1914, consisted entirely of arrangements for voice and piano of Mexican folk songs—except for “Estrellita” (Little Star), which was an original Ponce composition. That song became an international popular hit, and remains Ponce's single best-known composition. As of 2008 there were at least 180 recordings of it in existence, by performers ranging from the Benny Goodman orchestra to Spanish opera star José Carreras. The idea of copyright, however, was in its infancy at the time, and Ponce never received any royalties for his evergreen song: it quickly became so familiar that publishers and audiences assumed it was a traditional song like the other pieces in Ponce's set.
Ponce began a sustained campaign as a writer and lecturer to promote the use of Mexican materials in classical music, but before he could make much headway, the Mexican Revolution against Díaz's rule broke out, and Ponce decided to escape the disorder by traveling to Havana, Cuba. Ponce lived in Havana from 1915 to 1917, and his stint there produced Cuban-flavored works including a sonata for cello and piano. A 1916 trip to present his music in New York resulted in negative reviews, and Ponce for the rest of his life had a poor relationship with American critics and audiences. His music remains more popular in Latin American than in North America. Ponce married a French singer, Clema Maurel, on September 3, 1917; the couple had no children. He was active as a music critic and musicologist, writing newspaper and magazine articles in Cuba and founding a new Revista Musical de México (Mexican Musical Review) after he returned to Mexico City in 1917. He remained in the Mexican capital until 1925 and was active as a critic there.
The most important musical event in Ponce's life in the early 1920s was his meeting with the Spanish guitarist Segovia in 1923. The meeting came about after Ponce had written a detailed review of one of Segovia's concerts that impressed the guitarist, who had almost single-handedly revived the role of the guitar in classical music. Ponce went on to become a full partner in that revival, soon composing a Sonata Mexicana (1925) and a Thème varié et finale (Varied Theme and Finale, 1926) for Segovia, and continuing to write for the guitar for the rest of his life.
Took New Lessons in France
In 1925 Ponce decided to challenge himself once again: he traveled to Paris and enrolled in classes with the composer Paul Dukas at the Ecole Normale de Musique; he also took private lessons with Dukas. The move reunited Ponce with Segovia, resulting in a host of new Ponce guitar compositions, and it placed him in the company of progressive European composers. Ponce founded Paris's first Spanish-language music magazine, La Gaceta Musical, and emerged with a new backer in Dukas, who said that the top score in his classes at the Ecole Normale was not good enough to express his positive opinion of Ponce. By the end of his stay in Paris in 1933, Ponce, who began as a conservative, Romantic composer, had written works on the leading edge of European composition of the day—the 1929 Suite bitonal, for example, demanded that the members of an ensemble play in two different keys at the same time.
Ponce returned to Mexico City in 1933, remaining there for the rest of his life and continuing to compose, teach, and lecture. The following year he became director of the National Conservatory. He brought all of his training and experience together into a mature style heard in several of his most celebrated works: the Concierto del sur (Concerto of the South) for guitar and orchestra had its premiere in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1941, with Segovia on the guitar; it has become a staple of nearly every classical guitarist's repertory, and in general Ponce's music is central to the tradition of classical music for the guitar. Ponce wrote other works for symphony orchestra, including a “divertimento sinfónico” called Ferial in 1940 and a concerto for violin and orchestra in 1943. These works, in Corvera's words, “effectively integrate a wide variety of elements from Mexican music: indigenous, mestizo, folk, popular, and even elements from the music of the Spanish motherland. They make use of folkloric material as well as Ponce's own melodies. In addition they convey a ‘Mexican sound’ through rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic gestures.”
Ponce was awarded a number of prizes in his later years, including Mexico's National Prize for Arts and Sciences in 1948, which carried a cash award of 20,000 pesos. In poor health in the late 1940s, he died of uremic poisoning on April 24, 1948. Ponce is remembered as the founder of Mexican musical nationalism, and his music is considered central to the tradition of classical music for the guitar.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Nicholas Slonimsky, ed. emeritus, Schirmer, 2001.
Corvera, Jorge Barrón, Manuel María Ponce: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood, 2004.
“Biography,” International Manuel Ponce Society, http://www.imps.org (February 11, 2008).
“Manuel Ponce,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 11, 2008).
“Manuel Ponce and the Suite in A minor: Its Historical Significance and an Examination of Existing Editions,” Doctor of Music thesis, Florida State University (2006), http://etd.lib.fsu.edu/theses/available/etd-12162005-160048/unrestricted/02KevinMandervilleTreatise.pdf (February 11, 2008).
"Ponce, Manuel." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ponce-manuel
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Ponce, Manuel (Maria)
"Ponce, Manuel (Maria)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ponce-manuel-maria
"Ponce, Manuel (Maria)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved April 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ponce-manuel-maria