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Manuel M. Ponces song cycles: selected harmonic aspects.

MEXICAN COMPOSER MANUEL M. PONCE (1882-1948) wrote prolifically for voice and piano, and song cycles are among the finest although lesser known works of his catalogue. (1) Musical styles demonstrated in the cycles are quite diverse, ranging from conservative modernism to more adventurous sounds, but one also finds references to older music. The poetry encompasses a large array of subjects in Spanish, English, Italian, and French by authors of many nationalities: Mariano Brull, Jose D. Frias, Juan del Encina, Enrique Gonzalez Martinez, Francisco A. de Icaza, Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, Comtesse de Noailles, Mathilde Pomes, Rabindranath Tagore, Franz Toussaint, and Luis G. Urbina. Both voice and piano parts are characterized by technical complexity and musical depth. Vocal ranges span from [C.sub.4] (middle C) to [A#.sub.5], and the piano exploits effective word painting procedures. Performers of different tastes, from the tonally oriented to those with a fondness for more dissonant idioms, will discover pieces to enrich their repertoire.

Ponce evinced an eclectic style that was in constant evolution. The creation of the cycles encompasses a period of fifteen years from 1925 to 1940; some were composed in Mexico, others in France. The cycles certainly were influenced by his studies with Paul Dukas at the Ecole Normale de Musique (1925-1932), where he obtained his Licence de Composition during an extended residence in Paris, one of the important musical capitals of the world. (2) As a result, one discovers varying levels of impressionism, neoclassicism, and sounds that evoke music from Mexico, Cuba, Spain, and France.

Almost all of Ponce's song cycles were dedicated to and premiered by his wife, (3) Clema Maurel, a Mexican singer of French descent, (4) who studied with a number of illustrious teachers in Mexico City, New York, and Paris. Among her more ambitious presentations were those in Paris at the Salle de L'Ecole Normale de Musique (1934) and in Mexico City's premier theater Palacio de las Bellas Artes (1935). In the latter, she performed as a soloist with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico conducted by Carlos Chavez. (5)

The eight cycles include a total of thirty individual songs ranging from a little over one to four minutes. Additionally, the composer's inventory contains some transcriptions for voice and string quartet as well as for voice and orchestra. (6) The titles, along with the dates of composition and the names of the poets whose work is included, are: Two Songs (1925; Rabindranath Tagore); Trespoemas de Lermontow (1926); Trespoemas de M. Brull (1926 1931); Poesies chinoises (1931-1932; Franz Toussaint); Cuatropoemas melancolicos (1931-1935; Jose D. Frias, Mathilde Pomes, Comtesse de Noailles, and Luis G. Urbina); Cuatro poemas de Francisco A. de Icaza (de la vida honda y de la emocion fugitiva) (1936-1937); Seis poemas arcaicos (1938; I, Juan del Encina; II-VI, anonymous); (7) and Tres poemas de Enrique Gonzalez Martinez (1939-1940).

The poems are rather short--some have only one verse, the longer ones have six--nevertheless, all are rich in emotional content and imagery. A wide spectrum of topics includes love, melancholy, youth, happiness, sadness, pleasure, and fear; death and old age are recurrent themes. Dozens of allusions to concepts, objects, and especially to nature appear. These subjects provide a rich canvas for applying word painting techniques.

Structurally, through-composed forms are employed. The piano provides introductions, endings, and interludes that separate verses. Aspects of ternary form emerge when the ending of a text shows a return to the initial idea; however, the return is usually small and the form can still be considered as through-composed.

Within a specific cycle, distinct harmonic approaches among songs are sometimes found. Furthermore, changes of tempo, texture, harmony, and other musical parameters are often exploited to suit each stanza. Tonally, the vocal parts vary. Some are more traditional, others are still conservative but with less typical accompaniments; yet a number of cycles are more complex in terms of melody and harmony. In the latter, the singer must be able to perform his or her part in tune without relying on the piano part, which can be quite intricate and dissonant.

Owing to space limitations, only a few music examples will be discussed here, presented in chronological order. (8) The opening bars of each cycle were chosen because they at once establish its sonority and style. This study will focus on harmonic and word painting techniques.

The cycle Two Songs is one of the more frankly impressionistic, with many unresolved triadic chords and techniques characteristic of that esthetic, such as planing. A thirteenth chord unfolds early (mm. 1-2); this pleasant, static, contemplative sonority, which may symbolize the flower in the text, is contrasted with darker chromatic material of fast harmonic rhythm in the following measures (mm. 4-8), where the thorn is mentioned. A form of planing occurs in mm. 9-11 where seventh and ninth chords are utilized. It is seen in a pure form in the upper voices of beats 3 to 5 of mm. 9 to 11. In m. 12 the thirteenth chord from the beginning returns but is now transposed up a major second (Example 1).

The poem "Les etoiles" consists of only one verse with six lines. The score is twenty-five measures long and its duration, a little over one minute, is one of the shortest. The piano part is quite dense and exhibits complicated chromatic harmonies (Example 2).

Since stars are the poem's subject, the piano part is written in a high register with both hands in the G clef. The F clef is found sporadically in few measures only. Fast angular lines of running sixteenths fill most of the bars.

In this excerpt the right hand plays exclusively the white keys of the piano, while the left plays only the black ones. (10) Throughout the piece, the two alternating chords on the first beat are repeated obsessively, while the composer plays with some variations in the right hand and changes of register in the left. The high register and bright, relatively fast moving lines seem to portray a sky filled with scintillating stars. Additionally, stars have a fixed position among themselves, which in this case may be illustrated by the constant reiteration of harmonies. This static element could also be associated with a sense of awe and contemplation, and the pianissimo, dolcissimo e ben legato indication might suggest how distant the stars are.

The poem "Granada," from Tres poems de M. Brull, is a homage to Granada, Spain. The text also includes a reference to that country's most celebrated instrument, the guitar. The musical setting has therefore a Spanish flavor, and for obvious reasons, is dedicated to Ponce's friend, the illustrious Spanish guitarist, Andres Segovia.

The piece contains five verses, the first occupying mm. 1-14. The spirit of the guitar takes over its entire length through the notes resulting from its open strings, E-A-D-G-B-E, as seen in the piano part, mm. 1-3, 5-6, 13-14. The characteristic strumming is imitated with arpeggio indications (Example 3).

The Phrygian mode typical of much Spanish music is found here. In this case the E Phrygian mode is treated in almost pure form, giving the passage a feeling of openness and a declamatory style quite suited for such a eulogy. There is a strong presence of the E pitch and of the E minor chord in the whole stanza. An E pedal runs throughout. A pedal of fourths built with the three lower notes of the guitar appears in ten of fourteen bars while the E minor harmony is evident in seven.

It's clear that by keeping these elements constant there is a need for contrast, so the composer introduces a single foreign note (Bb). A circle of fifths in mm. 7-10 (A minor-D minor-G major-C major) precedes a remote and rather dramatic Bb major chord (mm. 11-12; first introduced in mm. 4-5) that resolves to the tonic key of E minor (mm. 13-14).

Another element of harmonic interest is the fact that some level of dissonance is present in every measure. The six notes of the beginning form an E minor chord with two added notes: A and D. The other chords already mentioned are presented over fixed pedals creating clashes. A slow harmonic rhythm and a constant, driving quarter note pulse give a sense of airiness, broadness, and singing, that reflects some of the word imagery of the text.

The text of "Les deux flhtes" contains pleasant allusions to nature. A man standing next to a river hears a distant flute, to which he responds by playing his own flute. Birds listen to these unfamiliar relatives, whose language, however, they comprehend.

The piece opens with a "flute" solo. This melody shows characteristics often associated with 20th century lines: irregular phrasing, wide range, extreme leaps, use of the chromatic scale, and harmonic independence. Several significant things happen. The notes of m. 1 become a prominent motive ("flute," mm. 1, 3, 4; voice, mm. 5-6). They open and close the period (m. 1-4) and also start the second phrase (m. 3) which spans out from the first. Note that they never reappear in exactly the same manner; there is always some form of variation (Example 4).

The chromatic scale is handled here in an interesting way. The initial phrase (mm. 1-2) employs ten different, unrepeated notes (except for the E which, nonetheless, occurs in a lower octave). The second phrase introduces a new note, D, so only C# is missing to a complete chromatic scale.

An attractive impressionistic flavor is evoked with unresolved seventh and ninth harmonies: a French augmented sixth chord (F#-Bb-C-E) in mm. 1 and 4; a ninth chord by adding a D# in beat one of m. 3; and another seventh chord with the fifth omitted (D-F-C) in beat 2 of m. 3. Much interest is added to the chord in m. 1 because of the B natural chromatic passing tone. If omitted, a more traditional sound would emerge.

A two-voice texture is suggested in m. 2, as both voices proceed in a chromatic stepwise motion: one ascending (G-G#-A), the other descending (F-E-D#). Three intervals are outlined: major second (F-G), major third (E-G#), and tritone (D#-A). The latter creates an impression of unresolved tension that leaves the phrase with a need for continuation.

Finally, alternating time signatures (2/4, 3/4), irregular phrasing, wide diversity of note values, and the effective dynamics complement the introduction's expressiveness.

As the piece progresses there is a significant accumulation of elements. In mm. 5-10, the voice presents the first verse with a solo "flute" accompaniment. Important elements of m. 1 are recalled in both lines. The second verse displays a thicker texture. An ostinato built on fifths (C-G-D) in the left hand permeates the section, while the right hand shows a two-part contrapuntal writing.

A second piano interlude builds upon preceding elements. Now the left hand ostinato begins ascending, reaching its highest point at the end of m. 22 where the voice enters again. Then it starts to descend until the voice concludes its phrase. The right hand features an involved writing that now emulates the two flutes. (12) The original melody returns in the highest line (Example 5).

"Le nuage" makes reference to being in a boat that is slowly drifting in the sea with no captain and no rudder, reflected in the piano's waving figures. Harmonically it is quite chromatic and unstable, exhibiting some rather random progressions. There are many triadic formations. Some pile up to form seventh and ninth chords, such as on beat 1 of m. 5 (C-E-G-B-D). Others contain some triads, but also dissonances (m. 2, beat 2, C-E-G plus C# and D). The resulting idiom is quite odd, abstract, and dissonant. It has some impressionistic touches as well (Example 6).

"De oro," from Cuatro poemas de Francisco A. de Icaza, has two verses. An afternoon country scene is portrayed, with the sun shining over golden crops and a windmill's big, slowly moving blades. The latter elements are depicted in the piano part, marked Lentamente. The four quarter notes in each measure correspond to each one of the four blades. Octaves in the lower register give a sense of the size and heaviness of these moving parts, as one imagines standing close to the giant machine with its impressive dimensions. The quarter notes form a two-measure ostinato that accompanies the initial verse (Example 7).

The intervals of the ostinato enhance the picture. The note E is prominent: it appears in the strongest beat and has the lowest register, acting as a pedal to which the other notes gravitate. This center note symbolizes the shaft, and the rather angular intervals correspond to the wide spaces between the sails. It is important to note that the voice part unfolds around the E natural minor scale; the note E binds both the piano and voice parts.

The choice of notes contributes to create interest, ambiguity, and variance of harmony from m. 1 to m. 2. The tritone with its characteristic tension adds to the feeling of weight, effort, and the pulling motion of the artifact and its parts. With the rising and falling intervals one can envision the blades going from a position closer to the ground to their highest point. The changing and higher notes of m. 2 could suggest perceiving the blades from within different points of the circle, which might give the impression of their irregular speed even when the tempo remains the same. All of these expressive achievements are remarkable given the economy of means. On another plane, the imposing mysterious octaves seem to evoke a certain 20th century Russian sound.

The music for "Zagaleja del Casar" combines old and modern harmonic traits (Example 8). An agile piano introduction has a more chromatic touch because of the neighboring tones and vague harmonies (mm. 1-6); it gravitates around the keys of A major and C# minor (mm. 1-3). The quick melodic lines in mm. 4-6 revolve around the note E while the enigmatic sonority of an A# half-diminished seventh chord is suggested. This chord integrates elements of previous measures: the minor third C#-E that is a part of both the A major and C# minor chords; the major third E-G# belonging to the E major chord and the note A# introduced earlier (m. 3). The fragment closes with a fermata on the note E in m. 7, which is the dominant of what follows. In contrast, the next period, where the voice enters (mm. 7-11), is based on modal harmonies that portray an ancient flavor. It has a bright, clean sound since only major chords without dissonances are exploited. The Mixolydian mode is employed on A and F#.

In the poem of "Onda," from Tres poemas de Enrique Gonzalez Martinez, life from youth to death is meta phorically represented by the constantly travelling waters of a brook. The piano part is designed accordingly. The left hand sets a nice waving rhythm. The right hand presents running sixteenths in perpetual motion which span over the entire poem (except for mm. 18-21 and 33, where three eighths occupy the second beat).

Just as water moves in unpredictable ways, the composer varies the sixteenth figures creatively for a more interesting effect (compare m. 1 to m. 8). Contour, register, pitch content, and rhythmic irregularity are among the variables. In mm. 1-7, the composer presents four ascending notes against eight descending ones, the last of which is tied to the first note of the next measure. A different figure is seen in mm. 8-9, where a three-note pattern is repeated. The rhythmic irregularities in the right hand are contrasted with a regular design in the left (Example 9).

The harmony is more transparent and tonally oriented than in other cycles. Changes are clearly heard due to a slow harmonic rhythm. The excerpt in Example 9 uses only two basic chords: the tonic, C# minor (mm. 1-4, 8), alternates with a rather foreign chord of D major (mm. 5-7), which makes for a more unexpected and attractive turn. The right hand employs the pentatonic scales in E and D major, respectively. A certain impressionistic flavor results; the added notes from these scales provide sevenths, ninths, and thirteenths. A pedal on the tonic note C# remains throughout the passage. It forms a fresh sounding major seventh within the D major harmony.

The present article is a sampling, an invitation to discover this excellent repertoire. There is much to be done in terms of performances, recordings, articles, and academic study. Among recent recordings, one by soprano Silvia Rizo and pianist Armando Merino contains the complete cycles and incorporates a sixty-four page booklet that includes an extended article by Merino. (14) A long-time Ponce scholar, pianist Paolo Mello, gave an unpublished lecture on the subject in 2004. (15) He is also the Coordinator of the Proyecto Editorial Manuel M. Ponce, which has been publishing critical editions of music by the Mexican composer: the first edition of Poesies chinoises was released in 2002, (16) and a new edition of Poemas arcaicos in 2011. (17) It is hoped that many more outstanding contributions such as these will soon emerge. (18)

[I wish to dedicate this article to Paolo Mello, dear friend and distinguished colleague.]



Two songs. Editions Maurice Senart.

Tres poemas de Lermontow. Universidad Nacional de Cuyo.

Tres poemas de M. Brull. Editions Maurice Senart.

Poesies chinoises. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Cuatro poemas melancolicos. Manuscript.

Cuatro poemas de Francisco A. de Icaza. Southern Music.

Seis poemas arcaicos. Editorial Cooperativa Interamericana de Compositores.

Tres poemas de Enrique Gonzalez Martinez. Editorial Cooperativa Interamericana de Compositores.


(1.) Jorge Barron Corvera, "The Vocal Compositions of Manuel M. Ponce," Journal of Singing 54, no. 5 (May/June 1998): 5-13; Jorge Barron Corvera, Manuel M. Ponce: A BioBibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group; Praeger Publishers, 2004).

(2.) Ponce's personal archive (July 11, 1932).

(3.) A single song was dedicated to each one of the following: Irene Maurel ("Poema de primavera," from Cuatro poemas melancolicos), Luis G. Urbina ("La visita," from Cuatro poemas melancolicos), and Andres Segovia ("Granada," from Tres poemas de M. Brull).

(4.) Her mother, Columba Villagra, was from Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, and her father, Sarrazin Maurel, from France.

(5.) Jorge Barron Corvera, Escritos en torno a la musica mexicana (Mexico City: Miguel Angel Porrua; Universidad Autonoma de Zacatecas, 2014), Chapter III: "Clema Maurel: cantante y musa del compositor Manuel M. Ponce"; ManuelM. Ponce: A Bio-Bibliography: B371, B384.

(6.) For further information (editions, durations, dedications, individual song titles, bibliography, discography, selected performances, concert reviews, and transcriptions) see: Barron, "The Vocal Compositions of Manuel M. Ponce;" and Manuel M. Ponce: A Bio-Bibliography: W194, W195, W196, W214, W219, W220, W221, W222.

(7.) According to the edition by Editorial Cooperativa Interamericana de Compositores (Montevideo, Uruguay, 1943). Recent studies by Paolo Mello and Armando Merino (notes 14, 15, and 17) have found that not all these songs are from anonymous authors.

(8.) Other examples can be seen in Barron, "The Vocal Compositions of Manuel M. Ponce."

(9.) Individual conclusion date.

(10.) Ponce uses this technique with fluctuating levels of consonance/dissonance in other works: Sonata II for piano (1916), Quatre pieces pour piano (1929), Preludes pour violoncelle et piano (1930), Sonata breve for violin and piano (1930), Tres poemas de M. Brull (1931).

(11.) There are two earlier versions of this song. The first one is for voice and piano. Its manuscript is dated October 30, 1926 (date provided by Paolo Mello who obtained it from the Biblioteca Cuicamatini, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico), and was published in 1927 by Editions Maurice Senart. The second is an undated, unpublished manuscript for cello and piano. See also Barron, Manuel M. Ponce: A Bio-Bibliography: W32, W221.

(12.) The editor indicates that the additional part was added by Ponce to represent a second flute.

(13.) According to Jesus C. Romero, they were premiered on August 2, 1939 as Dos Poemas de Gonzalez Martinez. However, he does not indicate the individual titles. In a letter, Ponce reports that he concluded "Despedida," the last number of this opus, in 1940. In fact the manuscript of this song is dated December 11, 1940 (date provided by Paolo Mello who obtained it from the Biblioteca Cuicamatini, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico). Jesus C. Romero, "Efemerides de Manuel M(aria) Ponce," Nuestra Musica (Mexico City) 5, no. 18 (April-June 1950): 184; Barron, Manuel M. Ponce: A Bio-Bibliography: W219a; Ponce, letter to Adalberto Garcia de Mendoza, Chairman of Mexico's Conservatorio Nacional de Musica, Mexico City, 2 January 1941 (Ponce's personal archive).

(14.) "Manuel M. Ponce: Los 8 ciclos para voz y piano," Quindecim Recordings QP 136 (2005).

(15.) Paolo Mello, "Manuel M. Ponce: Los ciclos de poemas para canto y piano" (paper presented at the Primer Congreso Internacional de Cima y Sima, Zacatecas, Zac., Mexico, November 15-19, 2004).

(16.) Revised by Maria Teresa Frenk and Alfredo Mendoza.

(17.) Revision, preface, and critical notes by Armando Merino.

(18.) I wish to thank Carolina Zoila Mier Macias for an initial proofreading of this article and to Dixie Lee Sullivan, John Sullivan, and Richard Dale Sjoerdsma for their in-depth revision and most valuable editorial suggestions.

Jorge Barron Corvera holds Master's and Doctoral degrees in Violin Performance from the University of Texas at Austin, and completed a one-year postdoctorate visiting scholar residency at Yale University. He has worked as a teacher, performer, and researcher in Mexico and the United States, and has published musicological journal articles in these countries as well as in Chile and the United Kingdom. He is the author of the books Manuel M. Ponce: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004) and Escritos en torno a la musica mexicana (Mexico City: Miguel Angel Porrua--Universidad Autonoma de Zacatecas, 2014). Dr. Barron is a full professor at the Unidad Academica de Artes of the Universidad Autonoma de Zacatecas and a member of Mexico's Sistema Nacional de Investigadores.

Caption: Example 1. Two Songs (1925): I, mm. 1-12.

Caption: Example 2. Trespoemas de Lermontow (1926): I. "Les etoiles," mm. 1-4 (Paris, June 15, 1926). (9)

Caption: Example 3. Trespoemas de M. Brull (1926-1931): "Granada,"11 mm. 1-14 (Paris, 1931).

Caption: Example 4. Poesies chinoises (1931-1932): "Les deux flutes" (March 1932), mm. 1-6.

Caption: Example 5. Poesies chinoises (1931-1932): "Les deux flutes," mm. 19-22.

Caption: Example 6. Cuatro poemas melancolicos (1931-1935): "Le nuage," mm. 1-6 (Paris, February 20, 1931).

Caption: Example 7. Cuatro poemas de Francisco A. de Icaza (de la vida honda y de la emocion fugitiva) (1936-1937): "De oro," mm. 1-4 (November 22, 1936).

Caption: Example 8. Seis poemas arcaicos (1938): "Zagaleja del Casar," mm. 1-11.

Caption: Example 9. Trespoemas de Enrique Gonzalez Martinez (1939-1940):13 II. "Onda," mm. 1-9.
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Author:Corvera, Jorge Barron
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Date:Sep 1, 2015
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