I knew Mexico was home to classical composers and had its own history in classical music, however, I am ashamed to admit I had no idea about the extent of its history. Mexico was creating music in the classical style at least as early as the seventeenth century during the baroque period. Unfortunately, many of these great composers have been forgotten or been written about so little. For that reason, this week I would like to discuss Higinio Ruvalcaba, a Mexican composer, and violinist who lived from 1905 to 1976.
Doing research on Ruvalcaba has certainly been very challenging. There are very few resources and documents about him in Spanish and even fewer in English. His son Euginio Ruvalcaba did publish a book on him in 2003, but I unfortunately did ot have access to it. For the purposes of this blog post, I will summarize the sources I could find and link the texts in the footnotes.
I could write an entire paper on his life, but I think his daughter Marcela Ruvalcaba does an excellent job of summarizing it in her article “In Memory of the Virtuoso Violinist Higinio Ruvalcaba”. I would highly reccomend checking it out. It is in Spanish and for the purposes of this post I read it in spanish, however you can hit the translate button and get the genral idea of the article. According to his daughter, Ruvalcaba was born in Jalisco, Mexico in 1905 and was a child prodigy on the violin and with composition. he began composing for strings at a young age. He learned the violin at four years old by listening to a mariachi player and imitating the sounds coming from his violin on his own instrument. Throughout his life, Ruvalcaba played in many orchestras including the National Symphony Orchestra and the Mexico city Philharmonic. He also conducted and composed many works1
The first piece of of Ruvalcaba’s work I came across was his piece “Chapultepec” (listen here) in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox archive. This particular recording was performed in 1923 in New York, New York by the International Novelty Orchestra. The piece is labeled a foxtrot. A foxtrot was popular during the 1920s and is in 4/4 time with a lilting beat2
.Ruvalcaba’s foxtrot “Chapultec” has the style of a foxtrot with some added instrumentation and musical ideas that bring in Spanish culture. One example of this cultural blending is the utilization of castanets in the recording. Castanets are an instrument popularized by flamenco music and dance and they are made of wood and make a unique wooden clicking sound.
Another interesting fact about this piece is that every recording I found utilizes different instrumentation and stylistic add ons such as the addition mordents, the melody being played by a salterio instead of a wind instrument (I struggled with identifying the instrument used in the 1920’s recording). A salterio is a traditional instrument used in Spanish music dating back centuries3.
In some ways, the recorded version of the piece performed in America is definitely more Europeanized, but since I could find little evidence or notation of Ruvalcaba’s piece I am unsure as to which recordings are more true to his intentions. Given that he was classically trained in what was accepted as the western canon, but also raised around and inspired by Mariachi I could see his vision going either way. I attached some other recordings below so you may compare them yourself.
Overall, I wish I had more answers About Higinio Rulvacaba and his life, but I was and still am excited by what I did find.
1Ruvalcaba, PorMarcela Flores, Marcela Flores RuvalcabaBailarina, Bailarina, See author’s posts, and Nombre *. “A La Memoria Del Virtuoso Violinista Higinio Ruvalcaba.” Periodismo del sector cultural al estilo GRECU, April 20, 2020. https://pasolibre.grecu.mx/a-la-memoria-del-virtuoso-violinista-higinio-ruvalcaba/.
2Norton, Pauline. “Foxtrot.” Grove Music Online, January 20, 2001. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000010075.
3James W. McKinnon, Nelly van Ree Bernard, Mary Remnant and Beryl Kenyon de Pascual. “Psaltery.” Grove Music Online, July 30, 2020. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000022494?rskey=GJo2oe&result=3.