Is it possible that the upcoming quincentennial of Columbus's discovery of the New World will turn out to be one of the great non-events of the 1990s? The evidence so far suggests that what ought to be a joyous celebration will be destroyed by radical ethnic agendas and liberal self-hatred.
The opportunities lost for awakening pride in ourselves and our achievements, and for enlarging knowledge of our own history and that of the rest of the Americas, are immense. The New World, after all, is not merely a metaphor; it remains today what it has been for five hundred years: the major shaping force in contemporary life.
It is possible—and indeed necessary—to be more particular about what might be done by way of a Columbus celebration. In this regard, we should consider paying proper tribute to the rich twentieth-century classical music tradition that exists all the way from North America to the farthest reaches of South America. Our own national tradition—in particular our great symphonic and chamber music, most of it dating from the 1920s through the 1950s—is at least partially known and respected. Unfortunately, such is not the case anywhere with the marvelous music of our Southern neighbors. Merely to mention Carlos Chavez (1899-1975) in Mexico and Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) in Brazil is to name two of the greatest masters of music, albeit sorely ignored, of music in this century. One immediately thinks too of Silvestre Revueltas (1896-1940) and Bias Galindo (b. 1910) in Mexico, along with Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) in Argentina, as not just deserving national reputations but repeated performances everywhere.
The plight of the music of Villa-Lobos is particularly interesting, and particularly disturbing. The composer of many hundreds of pieces—the figure of one thousand has been mentioned—he is not even given the justice of a complete listing of his works in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. His innumerable large-scale works of quality and substance, brilliantly combining in equal measure Brazilian folk music, veneration of Bach, and 1920s modernism, are unavailable on LP, and are difficult to obtain in printed form. Altogether, Villa-Lobos is now known to the music-loving public (if at all) only for his Bachiana Brasileira no. 5 (1938-41), a marvelous and haunting wordless aria for soprano and cello ensemble. Unknown are his wonderful string quartets, his piano music (some of the best written for that instrument in this century), and such large-scale works as the lush, folk-inspired Uiraparu (1917), and Erosao (1950), a stark setting of a Brazilian myth of the origin of the Amazon River.
What a marvelous opportunity for paying tribute to Columbus's voyages the music of Villa-Lobos—and that of his Latin American colleagues—would provide. Here, in music, is a true voyage of discovery, for both musicians and for audiences. There can be little doubt, either, that this music would be a discovery not just for North American audiences but for audiences in the entire Western hemisphere.
It is easy to understand why all this music cannot form a part of the Columbus quincentennial celebration; once again, politics has taken command. As is the case in every other sphere of public life, the radical imperatives of feminism, ethnicity, and multiculturalism have crowded out the best that our civilization has to offer. But a further question must be asked: why hasn't all this beautiful music exercised a more serious challenge to the American musical establishment? The answer, alas, is simple. It cannot be stated too strongly that the cause of Villa-Lobos's plight, like that of today's music itself, is the chronic failure of musicians and administrators alike to choose any musical course that does not provide instant career gratification and audience success. Those who are responsible for the present mania for performing all of the works of Mozart in 1991, the two hundredth anniversary of that hardly neglected genius, will understand the situation immediately.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 2, on page 2
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