Today we commemorate five years since the departure of one of the greatest educators of professional musicians in the recent history of our country.
Mexico, currently one of the countries with the largest number of concert music composers in the world, cannot be explained without its great teachers; characters with a remarkable pedagogical vocation, who formed different generations of students throughout a life devoted to musical education. Following this line, in the field of composition, is a fascinating task. Already in 1996, musicologist Robert Stevenson, in his prologue to Eduardo Soto Millán’s Dictionary of Mexican Music Composers, noted the following: “In proportion to the number of its inhabitants, no nation can boast of having a greater number of composers, both of concert and popular music, than Mexico.” In the field of academic composition alone, I estimate close to 300 composers. This, over six generations, ranging from Manuel M. Ponce to the young recent graduates.
A fair tribute deserves to be paid to each of these artists, who have combined their creative activity with teaching. One of the most striking examples of our recent history is that of maestro Humberto Hernández-Medrano, who passed away just five years ago, and who for more than four decades taught hundreds of professionals in his Polyphonic Studies Workshop (Taller de Estudios Polifónicos). He was born on July 2nd, 1936 (1941, according to some sources) and died on February 13, 2016. He was part of the first generation of students of the historic composition workshop that the great Carlos Chávez founded at the National Conservatory of Music in 1960. In that year, Chávez wrote a letter to his friend, the American composer Aaron Copland. In this letter, published by Gloria Carmona in her “Epistolario Selecto de Carlos Chávez”, the author states the following: “…I accepted to work in what is called a composition workshop, at the Conservatory; it is based on the principle that the only way to learn composition is to compose, and I follow a historical order; there are five boys, and all of them very talented”. They were, in addition to Hernández-Medrano, Héctor Quintanar (1936-2013); Eduardo Mata (1942-1995); Leonardo Velázquez (1935-2004), who after a brief stay in the workshop was replaced by Jorge Dájer (1926-2012); and finally, Jesús Villaseñor (1936), the only one alive to date, and author of no less than 20 symphonies. Of course, this first generation was followed by others, who undoubtedly continued and continue to build the history of Mexican music.
After concluding his studies at Chávez’s workshop, Hernández-Medrano continued his studies at the legendary Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, where he was a student of Dmitri Kabalevsky (counterpoint), Sviatoslav Richter (chamber music), and was even advised in orchestration by Dmitri Shostakóvich.
Upon his return to Mexico, he directed the Center for Music Studies (CEMUAS), the choir and the band of the Autonomous University of Sinaloa (UAS) in Culiacán. As witnessed by Carmen Leticia Borboa, the band was composed mostly by students and teachers of the emerging school. According to the thesis “Un inciso irrelevante. Génesis de una política cultural de Sinaloa, 1966-1975”, by historian Pedro Pablo Favela Astorga, this group was reinforced by some musicians from the then Orquesta Sinfónica del Noroeste (OSNO), which had been practically dismantled after the bankruptcy of its board of administrators in 1966. This thesis shows that the orchestra moved its headquarters from Culiacán to Guadalajara in order to safeguard its continuity.
Later, in 1973, Hernández-Medrano founded his Polyphonic Studies Workshop in Mexico City, which he maintained for 43 years until his death, and from which so many of us graduated. In his method and contents, Hernández-Medrano summarized Chávez’s system and the historical Soviet system of that time, and in the theoretical-musical aspect he became, without any doubt, one of the most solid in the world. It was certain that he who finished the exhaustive program after a few years could easily revalidate his studies in practically any institution in the world and exceed, with great frequency, the depth of analysis of the great works of any good international program at an undergraduate level.
In his classes he used to quote some of the works he had composed along with his pedagogical work. He was especially proud of his composition for two pianos, In Memoriam Carlos Chávez, premiered in Miami in 1989; of his Cantata for tenor soloist, choir and orchestra Plegaria y Profecía, dedicated to his former student Sergio Vela, premiered at the 20th Festival de Música de Morelia Miguel Bernal Jiménez; and of his Homenaje a Copland, for orchestra, which was premiered in 2007 at the Festival Internacional Cervantino with the Orquesta Filarmónica de la Ciudad de México. These last two works were premiered by his former student, Maestro Enrique Barrios, who in the case of Homage to Copland, conducted it on several occasions, including its premiere in China with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, as well as its last performance to date, in 2010, at the XXII Manuel Enríquez International Forum of New Music, conducted by the Carlos Chávez Symphony Orchestra.
In 1978, he received the “Águila de Tlatelolco”, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; in 1983, the Lira de Oro, from the “Sindicato Único de Trabajadores de la Música”; in 2009, the Mozart Medal, from the Austrian Embassy in Mexico; and in 2015, a year before his death, the SACM honored him by celebrating his 50 years as a composer.
His legacy lives on in his work and in each of the students who received from him a vast tradition through his exceptional lessons.