As a composer, conductor, educator, pianist, and percussionist, José Pablo Moncayo built a legacy in Mexican music at a young age. In his few decades of study and professional activity, he produced numerous works for piano solo, chamber music with piano, other mixed chamber ensembles, symphonies and shorter works for orchestra, and the opera La mulata de Córdoba.
As a skilled young pianist, Moncayo entered the Concervatorio Nacional de Música in 1929, where studied with Hernández Moncada. The school’s director was then Carlos Chávez, perhaps the most foundational figure in early 20th century Mexican musical nationalism. Chávez began a composition class at the conservatory around 1930, and among the first of its students were Silvestre Revueltas – another of Mexico’s best-known composers – and the young Moncayo. In 1932, Moncayo met the most iconic figure of American musical nationalism – Aaron Copland, whom Chávez had invited to Mexico for a chamber music festival. The relationship between Chávez and Copland would be pivotal to Copland’s own stylistic development, ironically infusing what we think of as Copland’s “American sound” with rhythmic and melodic characteristics of Mexican popular music. A decade later, just as Copland crossed the border to visit Chávez, Moncayo attended the Berkshire Music Festival (now know as Tanglewood) upon invitation from Copland and Sergei Koussevitsky. However, if one hears similarities to Copland’s Rodeo in the final section of Huapango, they should not assume that the younger composer was influence by his American elder – Rodeo was premiered the year after Huapango.
Moncayo’s Huapango was premiered in 1941 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, by Carlos Chávez and the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México, and is based upon a popular style of Mexican music by the same name. The huapango style encompasses diverse instrumental possibilities –from a trio of stringed instruments to a large mariachi ensemble replete with strings, percussion, brass, and vocals. It is often accompanied by a dance style called zapateado, and the name huapango may derive from cuauhpanco, a Nauati (Aztec) word meaning “on top of the wood.” Moncayo’s work employs the full spectrum of orchestral sound – strings, winds, brass, a large percussion array of Latin and European instruments alike, and even a prominent harp. Huapango’s complex rhythmic structure and joyful melodies evoke the instrumental, vocal, and dance elements of the huapango style, making it Moncayo’s most popular and beloved works.