1. Indeed, music that could be considered "Hispanic" by the 1950s would have come from diverse sources and traditions, not least of which was the mainstream of Western art music. Popular since the early nineteenth century, when composers in general starting emulating what they considered the exotic (i.e., the non-Western European), the Spanish style rubbed elbows with music inspired by the Orient, the Middle East, and in many cases, indigenous folk musics of other European countries. The vogue of the Hispanic which peaked in the 1880s found its ultimate vehicle in Bizet’s Carmen (1875), a work fusing a French sensibility with melodies borrowed from real Spanish sources (whose publishers the composer credited in his score). Although Bizet did not adhere doggedly to any particular authentic style, the durability of his work has ensured the generalities of the "Spanish idiom" (as it is called by Gilbert Chase)34 a place in the world of the best-known classical pieces. No one can hear the word "habanera" today without thinking of Carmen.

  2. Although the Hispanic influence can be seen in music hailing from virtually all European nations, it was the French who took to it more readily and carried it most successfully into the twentieth century. Debussy in his many Spanish-inspired works, and especially Ravel,35 who inherited much of his interest in Spain from his mother, downplayed the flamboyance and dance qualities of the Hispanic, and instead adapted its atmosphere and quiet exoticism to music that, as is often said of French music during this period, "suggests rather than depicts." Furthermore, works by Spanish composers, not just those inspired by them, began to see the light of day in Western concert programs; a production of Granados’s Goyescas (in the original language) graced the 1915/16 Met season, the first opera by a Spaniard to be performed there.36 The popularity of the Hispanic which prompted opportunities such as this ensured that works such as Albeniz’s Tango in D and parts of Falla’s El amor brujo and La Vida breve would achieve the rank of concert gem. In addition, though, the relationship between Hispanic and Pseudo-Hispanic composers, both in the classical and popular repertoires, showed a continuing cultural exchange between the old world and the new.37 As the tango and habanera were the result of dances moving to Latin America and then back to Spain, so did Spanish composers such as Falla take cues from their French counterparts as to the most current fashion of depicting their country. The style, as in popular music, became so standardized that classical works by indigenous composers sometimes reflected more on contemporary Spanish works by foreigners than on current music of their homeland.

  3. In fact, by this time there was no mistaking the "Spanish idiom" in music worldwide; it incorporated a variety of almost stereotypical musical elements from this wide range of Hispanic traditions and influences. The opening of Maurice Ravel’s short character piece of 1918, Alborada del Gracioso, originally for piano and later orchestrated, provides a perfect example of how the Hispanic was most typically represented in concert music of the early century.

  4. The first and most basic element is the distinctively Hispanic rhythm, based in a 3/4 or 3/8 time signature (the metre of the jota, one of the most widely known and borrowed of Spanish dance genres); in this piece, the grouping of eighth notes and the accented offbeats in the pizzicato strings provide the initial "habanera" rhythm, later reorganized to simulate the switching of metres. Triplet turns are also a prominent feature (especially on or after the first beat of the measure, as in the infamous genre of bolero), as are chains of descending thirds, syncopations, and the ubiquitous lowered second scale degree. Melodies often span the interval of a sixth, with an insistence on one note, and often the melodies and, subsequently, cadences tend to end on the fifth scale degree. In such cases, the sixth degree is often flat and the seventh natural, thereby reproducing—above the dominant—the augmented second degree often found above the tonic.

  5. In addition to purely melodic and rhythmic characteristics, a sense of instrumentation was essential to the Spanish idiom. The guitar, that paradigmatic Spanish stage prop, was usually present, or at least alluded to. The pizzicato and style brisé nature of its performance was easily simulated with pizzicato strings, and the gradual build-up of chords to form a strumming sound was also readily reproducible in lieu of the real thing, as in Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas. Less easy to simulate on piano or strings were the distinctive sounds of the castanets and tambourine, but these instruments found their way into the orchestral and operatic repertoire, where much of the "Spanish idiom" found its life. And, of course, into the Broadway musical.



  6. This "Hispanicizing" orchestral repertoire was largely French, and was widely disseminated through the Western world. Although most American composers were familiar with the style, none could have been more so than those who studied in Paris, the compositional center of the early century. Perhaps the most important of these—and surely the most influential on Bernstein—was Aaron Copland. Copland was one of the first in what was called the "Boulangerie," American composers who flocked to Paris to study with famed teacher Nadia Boulanger (Pictured). Virgil Thomson, among that initial generation, later commented that "every town in the United States could boast two things: a five-and-ten cent store and a Boulanger student."38 Copland did not even know about Boulanger when he made his initial move to France; he was at Fontainebleau on an international scholarship studying with the deeply conventional Paul Vidal, but stayed in Paris for four more years to continue his studies with Boulanger, in whom he found an ardent supporter and friend. The two most prominent "serious" composers of Copland’s time there remained Stravinsky and Ravel, both using jazz and the latter, the Spanish style. Copland was already considering jazz as the most likely source for forging an authentic American musical voice (an opinion Bernstein shared and propounded in his Harvard thesis some years later);39 Boulanger supported his early experiments in that vein. The rhythmic complexity of his jazz-inspired compositions (Copland claimed not to be able to play jazz himself) intrigued his teacher, but they were also not unlike the rhythms and rhythmic alterations which were a regular part of Spanish works both in Europe and in the popular music of America.40 Although Copland did not take up a Spanish style while in Paris, it was not many years after his return to America that another influence brought him in contact with this Hispanic, this time from Latin America.

  7. "He conquered Mexico through Chávez" was how Virgil Thomson succinctly put Copland’s relationship with his neighbors to the south. "Aaron was the president of young American music, and then middle-aged American music, because he had tact, good business sense about colleagues, and loyalty."41 Copland was first invited to Mexico by composer and conductor Carlos Chávez in 1928, for performances of the Piano Concerto. Although Copland would not spend any extended time in Mexico until 1932, he returned to Santa Fe in 1977 and 1982 to be part of the Chamber Music Festival held there. He found, both in Chávez and the Mexican people, inspiration and motivation. In a letter to Thomson, Copland revealed, "The best is the people—there’s nothing remotely like them in Europe. They are really the ‘people’—nothing in them is striving to be bourgeois. (Thompson and Copland pictured) In their overalls and bare feet they are not only poetic but positively ‘émouvant.’"42 His first-hand experience with Mexicans in overalls came when Chávez took him to a popular night spot called "El Salón México." The score eventually resulting from the experience was one of Copland’s most popularly successful, even among the Mexican musicians who premiered it. It seems that Copland shared with the French an affinity for the musical style of a neighboring Hispanic culture. Indeed, he used many of the same earmarks of the "Spanish idiom" to reference Latin America.

  8. "It took me three years in France to get as close a feeling to the country as I was able to get in these few months in Mexico," Copland wrote to Chávez near the end of his Latin American visit.43 Boosey and Hawkes picked up publication of the work, Ralph Hawkes nicknaming it an "American Bolero." Hoping to further capitalize on the success of the piece, the company decided to commission a piano arrangement of the work in 1941 by a young musician named Leonard Bernstein. Copland’s relationship to Bernstein was based on multiple affinities. One of the many substitute fathers who paraded through Bernstein’s life, the older man represented everything that Bernstein could become as a composer. There seemed no limit to their shared sympathies and allegiances: both were gay sons of Russian Jews, both were intellectual products of the East Coast, both were concerned with social issues; and both were tireless promoters of an authentic American voice in music. "I went to him as to a magnet because he was the American composer and he was the closest thing I ever had to a composition teacher."44 Bernstein found in Copland a spiritual and musical role model, and, although the Hispanic was well known to Bernstein from the standard repertoire and the popular music that surrounded him, the tradition of composition in this style was handed down to him not from Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, but from Copland. It was Copland’s imprimatur that made the Latin American, the Hispanic, part of an American voice, and that allowed it to meld so comfortably with the many other influences that infuse West Side Story. Copland’s fingerprints are all over this piece, not least in those tinged with the Hispanic. Copland’s El Salón Mexico was a work especially important to Bernstein; he actually made two different arrangements of it, one for piano solo, another for two pianos, performing the latter on several occasions with Copland. Later, Bernstein stated that (apart from obvious employment reasons) he made the Salón arrangement because he was tired of American pianists using a Hungarian Rhapsody for an encore. More than just an effective virtuosic turn, Bernstein’s arrangement was intended also to contribute to American content in piano recital programming.45 A letter of October 1938 from the Harvard senior to Copland reveals Bernstein’s thoughts not just on the piece but also on the issues he would face in his own works for the musical theatre:
  9. I saw the Group Theatre bunch today and they all asked for and about you. Odets, true to form, thinks the Salón Mexico "light," also Mozart except the G Minor Symphony. That angers me terrifically. I wish these people could see that a composer is just as serious when he writes a work, even if the piece is not defeatist (that Worker word again) and Weltschmerzy and misanthropic, and long. Light piece, indeed. I tremble when I think of producing something like the Salón.46

  10. Twenty years later, Bernstein would compose just such a piece. The very obvious and striking similarities between Salón and the Hispanic aspects of West Side Story suggest that, although Bernstein was certainly exposed to this style through other works in the classical repertoire, the link with Copland was the closest to home and probably the most present in his mind when he sat down to write the "Great American Opera".

  11. Bernstein had another key and even more direct contact with Latin-American culture. His wife, Chilean-born actress Felicia Monteleagre, accompanied him on a tour of Latin America in the early part of his career,47 and he had this to say (publicly) about the music:

The Latin American spirit has other ancestors besides ‘Latin’ (Spanish and Portuguese) ones. First of all there are Indians—the original inhabitants of these countries, and in some cases very strong civilizations in themselves. And secondly, Africans, a tremendously important influence, at least as important as in our own country. It is the mingling of these different ancestors, influences, and heritages which makes the Latin American spirit what it is, at least in music. The sweet, simple primitiveness of the Indian music mixes with the wild, syncopated, throbbing primitiveness of the African music; and both of these, mixed with the fiery flash of Spanish music and the sentimental sweetness of Portuguese songs, make up the music we know as Latin American.48

As Bernstein seems to suggest, the Latin American musical world was in many ways analogous to the American, a connection which Bernstein had recognized (and expounded on at length) in his Harvard senior thesis, "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music." For Copland, Salón was only the first of a number of later works, such as Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring, in which he sought a particularly American sound by the adoption of folk material into an art music context. Europe’s fascination with the Hispanic seems to have provided (at the least) pleasantly distracting exotic color or (at most) a close embrace of the "Other." Once it was transplanted to America, however, the Latin American became similar to, if not intrinsically part of, "American" music in general. Along with relating to the non-Hispanic composer of Hispanic music, the American composer shared with real Hispanic composers—in different historical and geographical moments—the desire to forge a national identity while trying to get away from the European mainstream. Albéniz, Granados, Falla, Rodrigo, Ginastera, and Chávez served as good role models for how to do this and also earn international appeal. Copland’s and Bernstein’s interest in direct musical expression for everyday people—along with their interest in American musical identity—made them more interested than most in the possibilities of this "light" music.


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34. Gilbert Chase, The Music of Spain, (New York: Dover, 1959)

35. Debussy’s "Soirée dans Grenade" from Estampes and "Iberia" from Images; Ravel’s Habanera, Rapsodie Espagnole, L’Heure Espagnole, Bolero, Alborada del Gracioso and others.

36. For a contemporary view of the popularity of the Hispanic in music of the early century, see Carl Van Vechten’s The Music of Spain (New York: Knopf, 1918).

37. The "Pseudo-Hispanic" is another colorful but apt description coined by Gilbert Chase.

38. Quoted in Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland: 1900 Through 1942 (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), 62.

39. Reprinted in its entirety in Bernstein, Findings, pp. 36-99.

40. In describing the finale from his ballet Grohg, excerpts of which were later adapted into his Dance Symphony, Copland refers to rapid alternations of 5/4, 3/4 and 3/8, not unlike those of Latin American music. His Short Symphony was also noted for its rhythmic complexity, mostly the result of the same kinds of metric shifts; it was dedicated to Latin American composer Carlos Chávez.

41. Vivian Perlis interview with Virgil Thomson, quoted in Perlis, Copland: 1900, 200.

42. Letter to Virgil Thomon 5 December 1932, quoted in Perlis, Copland: 1900, 214.

43. Aaron Copland in a letter to Chávez 2 January 1933, quoted Perlis, Copland: 1900, p. 216.

44. Bernstein interview (date unknown) excerpted in television documentary Reaching for the Note, 1998.

45. John Gruen, liner notes to Bernstein: Complete Works for Solo Piano. Pro Arte PAD 109, 1983.

46. Letter from Leonard Bernstein to Aaron Copland, 20 October 1938.

47. Among Latin American compositions Bernstein recorded were Fernández’s Batuque, Guarnieri’s Dansa brasileira, Revueltas’s Sensemayá, and Chávez"s Sinfonía India, all recently reissued on Sony’s "Bernstein Century" series as Latin American Fiesta.

48.Leonard Bernstein, liner notes reprinted in Latin American Fiesta.


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