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Autumn 2021: Pupil Saver: Prelude No. 5 from Ten Preludes for the Piano by Carlos Chávez: Modernism Meets Mexican Indigenous Music


It is the Roaring Twenties in the United States. Financial prosperity, art deco, Felix the Cat, and jazz are flooding the streets of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In Mexico, the 1920s painted a very different scene. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 brought social and political reorganization and renewal to Mexico. In response to this sociopolitical upheaval, Mexican composers and artists developed an interest in the investigation and preservation of their cultural and musical traditions, as well as the indigenous art of their past. This, in turn, gave birth to Mexican musical nationalism. Among composers, there were varying opinions and approaches to better establishing Mexican music, its defining characteristics, and distinctive musical language. For Carlos Chávez, this meant incorporating melodies from the Aztec, Mayan, and other indigenous cultures into Western forms. He sought out and fused elements from pre-Hispanic and modern aesthetics as a foundation for a unique musical voice.1

In his Ten Preludes for the Piano, Chávez offers a set of pieces infused with elements of Mexican indigenous music. Prelude No. 5 specifically presents different compositional techniques that also prove to be useful pedagogical material for the intermediate student:


Composed around a base pentatonic scale (C-D-E-G-A), Prelude No. 5 also includes moments of modal inflexions from later introductions of B, F, and F-sharp in the Sostenuto pochissimo middle section. The combination of these elements helps to convey the essence of Mexican indigenous music. This also provides teachers with an opportunity to introduce their students to these harmonic features less common in traditional Western music.


The two-part counterpoint and imitation in Chávez's Prelude No. 5 would be helpful in preparing students for Two-Part Inventions by J.S. Bach, as it requires the student to shape linear counterpoint containing peaks at different times. Acquiring the skill to think in a horizontal or linear perspective, rather than thinking only harmonically, is crucial before tackling more complex pieces from Baroque composers.


Prelude No. 5 has a driving rhythmic foundation of triplets and two-eighth-note figures in a duple meter. This piece could serve as a rhythmic etude to help students develop a strong sense of pulse while alternating between triplet and eighth-note pairs (Excerpt 1). This prelude also presents the challenge of subtle tempo changes between its larger sections: Cantabile = 72, Sostenuto pochissimo = 69, and Ancora meno = 66. There is also one instance where the student will be required to play triplets against two eighth notes at the climax of the piece (Excerpt 2).


Carlos Chávez is known for his short, recurring melodic motives. Although one could easily perceive a rigid ABA form, Prelude No. 5 presents students with an opportunity to follow an evolving motivic idea from beginning to end. The Ten Preludes for the Piano by Carlos Chávez are published by G. Schirmer and distributed by Hal Leonard.


1 Luis Velasco Pufleau, "Nationalism, Authoritarianism, and Cultural Construction: Carlos Chávez and Mexican Music (1921–1952)," trans. Silvio J. Dos Santos. Music and Politics, 6, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 4,

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