El Salón México
Analysis and history
A 25 second sample of "El Salón México" demonstrating the refrain based on "El palo verde"
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The work is a musical depiction of an imaginary dance hall in Mexico City, which, its name implies, represents the country of Mexico as Copland perceived it. The subtitle was "A Popular Type Dance Hall in Mexico City." Although Copland wrote in his autobiography that he had been taken there by Carlos Chávez, he also learned of it from a guidebook:
Perhaps my piece might never have been written if it hadn't been for the existence of the Salón México. I remember reading about it for the first time in a tourist guide book: "Harlem-type nightclub for the peepul [ sic in the source quoted], grand Cuban orchestra. Three halls: one for people dressed in your way, one for people dressed in overalls but shod, and one for the barefoot." When I got there, I also found a sign on the wall which said: "Please don't throw lighted cigarette butts on the floor so the ladies don't burn their feet."
…In some inexplicable way, while milling about in those crowded halls, one really felt a live contact with the Mexican people — the electric sense one sometimes gets in far-off places, of suddenly knowing the essence of a people — their humanity, their separate shyness, their dignity and unique charm.
The above is a series of white lies. In the 75 years since the work's premiere, there has been no newspaper article about the "original" Salón México. None of the hundreds of Copland enthusiasts who have heard the work and visited Mexico City has succeeded in tracking it down. Even the guidebook, with its "peepul" and "people dressed in your way", has not been identified. The concept that a commercial establishment would invite peasants who had no shoes (who were doing what, in Mexico City?), and that the well-to-do would patronize the same establishment, even in a separate room (soundproofed?), with a Cuban orchestra, is incongruous, to say the least. Not many mariachis in Havana. No wonder it sounds like a Harlem nightclub.
The work contains three musical styles and goes through the series of three twice, starting each time with the upper-class music, passing through a more vigorous working-class music, and ending with the foot-stomping dance of the peasantry. Divisions between the sections are clear, as if one had walked through a doorway. The upper-class music suggests formal European dancing of the nineteenth century, delicate and even a bit sissified. The peasant music is far richer rhythmically and more powerful, with a suggestion of the pre-Hispanic (Indian) in it. The work's conclusion celebrates this kind of music, not that of the well-to-do.
Copland began the work in 1932 and completed it in 1936. The Mexico Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance under the direction of Carlos Chávez in 1937. The piece was premiered in the U.S. in 1938. Although Copland visited Mexico early in the 1930s, he based this tone poem not on songs he heard there, but rather on written sheet music for at least four Mexican folk songs that he had obtained: "El palo verde," "La Jesusita," "El mosco," and "El malacate." The powerful refrain that appears in the piece three times stems from "El palo verde." Critics have variously described the piece as containing two, three, or four parts, but many listeners find that it moves seamlessly from one theme to another with no clear internal boundaries.
At least three arrangements of the piece exist in addition to the orchestral score. Copland adapted the work for the 1947 musical film Fiesta, directed by Richard Thorpe for MGM. Leonard Bernstein created arrangements for solo piano and for two pianos, four-hands very shortly after the premiere. In addition, a piano transcription of the score was made by conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1942, when the Maestro included the music on an NBC broadcast concert.
In 2006, Paul Glickman and Tamarind King started work on an animated short film based on the Aaron Copland score. In 2007 "El Salón México" received a New Mexico New Visions $20,000 work grant. In 2009 "El Salón México" debuted at The Film Museum Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The computer-animated short was accepted into the following film festivals: Rome International Film Festival (2009 winner, Sylvia Award for Best Animation), Independent's Film Festival (2009 winner, Best Independent Animation), Santa Fe Film Festival, Kids First Film Festival, Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and the Tiburon International Film Festival. Additionally, it was named Best of Fest as one of "the best films you've never seen" of 2010.
Leonard Bernstein (for Columbia Records and Deutsche Grammophon) and Copland (for Columbia Records) himself conducted recordings of the work. Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra performed the music in a broadcast concert on March 14, 1942, which was preserved on transcription discs; according to biographer Mortimer Frank, Copland praised the performance in a radio interview. Other conductors who made recordings of El Salon Mexico include Arthur Fiedler, Eugene Ormandy, and Eduardo Mata.
- Berger, A. (1990). Aaron Copland. New York: Da Capo Press.
- Pollack, H. (2000). Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
- Smith, J. (1955). Aaron Copland, his work and contribution to American music. New York: Dutton.
- Santa Fe New Mexican, September 11–17, 2009