The Kennedy Center

Toccata for Percussion Instruments

About the Work

Carlos Chávez Composer: Carlos Chávez
© Richard Freed

The Toccata, composed in 1942, was not heard until August 13, 1948, when the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México performed it under Eduardo Hernández Moncada. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed this work on February 4, 5, 6 and 9, 1988, under Mstislav Rostropovich, and presented it last on February 23-29, 2000, in Young People's Concerts conducted by Takao Kanayama.

The score calls for 2 snare drums, Indian drums, 2 tenor drums, bass drum, claves, maraca, 2 suspended cymbals, large and small gongs, chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, and timpani, distributed among six players. Duration, 12 minutes.

Carlos Chávez, the most influential figure so far in the musical life of Mexico, had a lifelong fascination with percussion instruments and the exploration of broader roles for them. In such works as the ballet Los cuatro soles ("The Four Seasons"), the Sinfonía india and the Aztec fantasy Xochipili-Macuilxochitl Chávez augmented an already sizable conventional battery with reconstructed and "imagined" Aztec and Indian instruments, which he used melodically as well as for color and rhythmic effects. In 1942 he composed a major addition to the smallish repertory of concert works for percussion alone. In contradistinction to the works just cited, his Toccata has no folkloric elements or any sort of descriptive purpose, but focuses on--and, one might say, celebrates--the character of the instruments themselves. Chávez himself conducted the work's United States premiere in a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra on December 1, 1953, at which time he provided this note of his own:

The Toccata was written as an experiment in orthodox percussion instruments--those used regularly in symphony orchestras, that is, avoiding the exotic and the picturesque. Therefore it relies on its purely musical expression and formalistic structure.

The thematic material is, for obvious reasons, rhythmic rather than melodic. However, themes proper, integrated by rhythmic motifs, are developed as I would have done with melodic elements. The form follows a given pattern and the course of the music follows a constantly renewed treatment of the basic thematic elements.

The work is laid out in three brief movements. The two outer ones, scored mainly for drums of various sorts, are oth in sonata form and are built on related material. The middle movement is a Largo emphasizing metallic timbres and giving prominence to the glockenspiel and xylophone to provide a surprisingly melodic effect. The glockenspiel is introduced in the final movement as well, to give what Chávez described elsewhere in his note as "a hint of a melodic element," and a specifically Latin American flavor emerges in the relaxed interlude just before the violent passage that leads to a return of the opening material.