Music Carlos Chávez
Jacqueline Avila
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0304


Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez (b. 1899–d. 1978) was one of Mexico’s leading composers, conductors, administrators, and musical educators during the 20th century. Born in Popotla, a suburb near Mexico City, on 13 June 1899, Chávez’s began his musical career with piano lessons, studying initially with Manuel M. Ponce. Then, at the age of sixteen, he became a music teacher during the changing social and political landscape of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). After successful publications of some of his short piano works, he soon received a commission from the Secretary of Public Education (SEP), José Vasconcleos, to compose a ballet. For this charge, Chávez chose an Aztec legend, labeling his work El fuego nuevo. Unfortunately, this work was never performed in Mexico, which led Chávez to seek other opportunities, first in Europe, then in New York City. Chávez’s collaborations with modernist composers and artists in New York City proved to be transformative for the composer, leading to a wave of compositions that reflected the modernist currents of the time. Upon returning to Mexico City, Chávez took on new roles, including the director of Orquesta Sinfónica Mexicana (later called the Orquesta Sinfónica de México), and then an appointment as the director of the Conservatorio Nacional, where he provided robust changes to the curriculum. In 1933, Chávez served as the chief of the Department of Fine Arts for the SEP and later collaborated with Paul Strand on his film project Redes (1935). His varying positions in Mexican institutions and his search for a Mexican musical identity initiated a wave of nationalism that can be heard in his works H.P. (1932) and Sinfonía India (1935) and his participation in the Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Later works reflected an approach to universalism and cosmopolitanism, such as the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1938). During the 1940s, Chávez became the director of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), which oversaw several national artistic projects in Mexico. After resigning from INBA, Chávez returned to composition and taught courses at the Conservatorio Nacional. Chávez’s musical career was eclectic and diverse, spanning several important areas of Mexican musical and artistic culture. He rose to become one of the most recognized musicians in Mexico during the 20th century.

General Overviews

General overviews of Chávez’s life and compositional output are included in music histories that span the 20th century (Antokoletz 1992), through the history of Latin American music (Béhague 1979), or the history of music in Mexico, as outlined and discussed in Mayer-Serra 1941, Mayer-Serra 1960, Moreno Rivas 1994, and Stevenson 1952. Mead 1982 examines Henry Cowell’s fondness for publishing music by Latin American composers, including Chávez, in his New Music Quarterly. Several of these sources focus on Chávez’s implementation of styles and techniques deemed to be part of the Mexican aesthetic of music composition in the early to mid-20th century.

  • Antokoletz, Elliot. Twentieth-Century Music. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1992.

    Provides a brief discussion of Chávez in relation to other modernist composers of the 20th century (see pp. 221–227).

  • Béhague, Gerard. Music in Latin America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

    Survey on Latin American art music from the viceroyalty to the mid-20th century. The author discusses the style, compositional technique, and musical aesthetic present in Chávez’s works.

  • Estrada, Julio, ed. La música de México. 5 vols. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1984.

    Volume 1, Historia, provides a lengthy and extensive discussion that covers thirty centuries of Mexican Music. Volume 4, Nationalist Period, 1910–1958, and Volume 5, Contemporary Period, 1958–1980, discuss Chávez and his music. Organized as a series of essays, several of Chávez’s compositions, his book Toward a New Music, and his time with the Orquesta Sinfónica de México and INBA are explored.

  • Mayer-Serra, Otto. Panorama de la música mexicana, desde la Independencia hasta la actualidad. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1941.

    The author argues that Chávez was one of the major composers that reflected musical nationalism in his works. Also discusses Chávez’s appropriation and use of Indigenous melodies and influences in his compositions, a practice that was replicated in other compositions by several composers.

  • Mayer-Serra, Otto. The Present State of Music in Mexico. Washington, DC: Organización de Estados Americanos, 1960.

    This source argues that through his musical style and his compositions, Chávez transitioned from Mexican musical nationalism to universalism. The author also suggests that more foreign music be incorporated into Mexican musical culture, fusing with the folkloric and vernacular musics of the country.

  • Mead, Rita. “Latin American Accents in New Music.” Latin American Music Review/Revista de la Música Latinoamericana 3.2 (Autumn-Winter 1982): 207–228.

    DOI: 10.2307/780137

    The author concentrates predominantly on the works of American ultramodernist composer Henry Cowell and his proclivities to promote non-European music. In his publication New Music Quarterly, Cowell published a variety of compositions by Latin American composers, including Chávez, Carrillo, and Villa-Lobos. In regards to Chávez, Cowell was especially interested in the combination of Indigenous and modernist elements in his works.

  • Moreno Rivas, Yolanda. La composición en México en el siglo XX. Mexico City: Conaculta, 1994.

    Compositional works and ideologies of Chávez are explored in this text as well as those of Ponce, Revueltas, and Carrillo. The author covers themes such as old romanticism and the concept of origins within Mexican art music. The book surveys Chávez’s student composers in the Conservatorio Nacional during the 1930s and 1960s.

  • Moreno Rivas, Yolanda. Rostros del nacionalismo en la música mexicana: Un ensayo de interpretación. Mexico City: ENM-UNAM, 1995.

    Focuses on the development of musical nationalism in Mexico during the 20th century. The author focuses on works by other prominent composers who stood alongside Chávez, including Manuel M. Ponce and Silvestre Revueltas.

  • Stevenson, Robert. Music in Mexico: A Historical Survey. New York: Thomas A. Crowell, 1952.

    Author discusses and defines Chávez’s use of and reference to Indigenous musics (labeled as Aboriginal) and his work with the Conservatorio Nacional and the Orquesta Sinfónica de México. Chávez’s work prior to 1952 is also examined.

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