Cultures in Concert: Four Latin American Composers Who Fused Folk and Classical Music

By Angel Saldivar |

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As a Mexican music enthusiast, I am avidly fascinated by norteño and ranchera music. The former is a traditional style of music from the northern region of Mexico, and the latter is comes from Mexico's rural regions. Both of these genres are synonymous with folk music traditions that praise patriotism and love. For me, though, hearing them delights me because both genres remind me of spending time with my family. So when I began my internship at WFMT, I was curious if these folk music forms had any classical counterparts.

My first exposure to classical music, like many others from my generation, was through cartoons. It was only later that I discovered the names of pieces I'd heard many times before: Strauss’s Blue Danube, Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries," and Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. Though European composers are the most prominent in the classical canon, I became curious about the contributions of Latin American composers. So I sought out Latin Americans who embraced their culture and made names for themselves in classical music.

My exploration began with Elbio Barilari, an Uruguayan composer and professor of Latin American Music at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Through Barilari, who also hosts WFMT’s Fiesta, I learned about these 20th-century Latin American composers.

Manuel Ponce

Ponce was a Mexican composer whose focus was solely on classical music. Though, as Barilari indicates, "Ponce was not [directly] associated with folk music," he was instrumental in the popularization of folk music in the concert hall. For example, Ponce gave folk music classical arrangements such as in the prelude to "Cielito lindo." Here's a traditional folk interpretation...

... and here is Manuel Ponce's version.

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Villa-Lobos was a Brazilian composer who had huge influence on his country’s music. Villa-Lobos made a variation on the popular Brazilian dance form ciranda, which emulates the steady rhythm a type of social tango music called milonga. Here's a traditional interpretation...

... and here is Villa-Lobos's take.

Astor Piazzolla

Piazzolla was an Argentinian composer of tango music, who was among the first composers to usher tango, a musical style that originates from South America’s Rio de la Plata region, into the concert hall. Though the music of Argentina was an inspiration to Piazzolla, he was also influenced by the events of his time. One of his most popular pieces, Libertango, was composed during an era of dictatorship in Latin America. Compare a folk setting of a tango...

... with Piazzolla's Libertango.

Elbio Barilari

(1953-   )
Incidentally, Barilari was once an assistant to Astor Piazzolla. Barilari recalls some sage advice from his mentor: "Don’t listen to anybody, only your own taste." One of Barilari’s own pieces, Canyengue, takes inspiration from Piazzolla as well as regional folk forms. In some dialects, the term "canyengue" means "strong rhythm" or "melting with the music." The piece follows a type of candombe drumming music mixed with milonga. A traditional take...

... and Barilari's interpretation.

By following their own paths, these Latin American composers contributed significantly to classical music while embracing their Latin American identities.

Angel Saldivar is a student at ITW David Speer Academy who regularly tunes in to 98.7 WFMT. As an intern for the radio station, Angel assisted in live broadcasts, created social media web posts, and worked on audio post-production. After graduation, he will be studying journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.