A Classical Playlist for Cinco de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

It’s a curious holiday with a curious history—it commemorates the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, between the Mexican army and invading French forces sent by Napoleon III, who hoped to conquer the country and bring it into France’s orbit.




The French troops landed at Veracruz and marched inland toward Mexico City. Mexican forces, who had been beaten badly in a series of skirmishes, retreated back to the heavily fortified city of Puebla.  The French commander, believing he could end the Mexicans’ resistance with a single stroke, chose to attack the city from the north.  It was a costly mistake.  The Mexican defenders held, and as the French pulled back Mexican cavalry flanked them and turned the retreat into a rout.

The world expected the French to easily conquer the country, and the Mexicans’ unexpected victory served as a huge morale boost for the beleaguered defenders.  That said, the success was only temporary; the French regrouped, and with the arrival of additional troops were able to win the Second Battle of Puebla in 1863.  The French moved on to capture Mexico City, where they installed Emperor Maximillian as a pro-French puppet.  This “Mexican Empire” survived until 1867, when Mexican forces under Benito Juárez defeated the last remnants of the French army and had Maximillian executed.

With this background, it’s easy to see why Cinco de Mayo remains more of a mid-level holiday in Mexico today—it was a plucky, momentary victory on the eve of a large-scale defeat.  In truth, within Mexico the holiday is mostly celebrated in and around Puebla itself.

That said, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a new life north of the border, where it remains a major holiday among Mexican-Americans.  Here, it is a festive expression of cultural pride and a time for the honoring of cultural symbols.  In this way, it shares strong similarities to St. Patrick’s Day, which is a much larger event in the US than it is in Ireland.

* * *

Mexico is an intensely musical place; it is the home of a wonderful range of musical styles and forms, in both popular and “formal” styles.  In the spirit of today’s holiday, allow me to share some recommendations of works in a more classical vein.

Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla: A La Xácara Xacarilla This first recommendation is particularly appropriate for Cinco de Mayo, in that the composer lived in Puebla and was appointed Maestro de Capilla of Puebla Cathedral in 1628.  In short, he’s a hometown hero.  Padilla was a fascinating composer whose music is just starting to get the attention it deserves.  Educated in Europe, he wrote in a late Renaissance-early Baroque style popular in Spain and Italy at the time; but he was also influenced by the music of the New World.  His motets and villancicos crackle with energy and rhythmic vitality.


Manuel Ponce: Concierto del Sur.  Beginning his musical career in 1901, Ponce rose to become a cultural hero in Mexico, and was honored with the sobriquet, “Creator of the Modern Mexican Song.” While he wrote in many different genres, his compositions for guitar are some of his most celebrated works, and form an essential part of the instrument’s repertoire.  Ponce was a friend and collaborator of Andrés Segovia and made a variety of arrangements for the Spanish master—many of which Segovia eventually recorded.  His guitar concerto, Concierto del Sur, is a marvelous starting point to explore Ponce’s fascinating art.


Carlos Chávez: Sinfonía India. Chávez is perhaps Mexico’s most famous composer—a good friend of Aaron Copland who similarly set out to express his county’s soul through music.  Chávez was particularly inspired by the music and musical instruments of Mexico’s indigenous people, and frequently worked these distinct sounds into his scores.  Sinfonía India is a wonderful example of this; for this work he draws together a variety of folk melodies from the Huichol people of Nayarit, the Yaquis of Sonora, and the Seris of Baja California to create a single-movement symphony.  It is a joyous, unique creation.


Silvestre Revueltas: La Noche le los Mayas  Mexico’s bad boy of a composer, Silvestre Revueltas, was an eccentric genius.  He was hailed for his talent, but only lived to compose a handful of works. His short orchestral work, Sensemayá, brought him international fame; I’d argue, however, that his true masterpiece is his score of the film, La Noche le los Mayas, which was subsequently adapted into an orchestral suite.  To recreate the sound-world of the Maya, the composer called for a host of specialized percussion instruments and conch trumpets.


Silvestre Revueltas: Sensemayá. Sensemayá is too good a piece to leave off this list.  It is based on the Afro-Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén’s poem about a ceremony for the sacrifice of a serpent. Revueltas’s driving ostinato is the musical echo of Guillén’s refrain: “mayombé, bombe, mayombé.” This starkly original, thrilling piece of music caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic and established Revuelta’s reputation.  It remains his best-known and most frequently performed work.


Daniel Catán: Florencia en el Amazonas.  Premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 1996, this opera immediately became a hit.  It takes the literary stylings of Gabriel García Márquez as a starting point, creating a fascinating world where myth, reality, metaphor, and truth blend into a seamless whole.  The story centers around Florencia, a famous opera diva taking one last trip to the famous opera house in Manaus, Brazil—but her trip up the Amazon River in a steamboat sparks a deeper journey of personal discovery for her and her fellow passengers.


Gabriela Ortiz: Altar de Muertos. Ortiz was born into a musical family, with her parents being noted folk musicians. Her own career has taken off since the mid-1990s, garnering praise and numerous awards for her many compositions.  Altar de Muertos is an ambitious piece that celebrates of Mexico’s great holiday, the Day of the Dead—a holiday based on honoring family and your departed ancestors. The work is filled with traditional touches, including a direct quotes of Mexican folk songs, but also draws inspiration from European chamber music from the 20th Century. This short clip provides a taste of the whole….


PS:  Because I’m a fan of mariachi, I can’t resist an encore of sorts.  Los Arrieros (“The Muleteers”) abounds with ever-changing rhythms, and is one of my favorites!



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