Danzón No. 2

Arturo Márquez (b. 1950)

In 1993 Mexican composer Arturo Márquez visited his friends, painter Andrés Fonseca and dancer Irene Martinez, in Malinalco. Both were passionate about the Mexican danzón, a couples dance equal parts elegance and passion, set to the rhythms of a charanga band. They brought Márquez to the dance halls of Veracruz and Mexico City, where the danzón tradition began. Entranced by the atmosphere of the halls and impressed by their place in shaping the culture of urban Mexican life, Márquez paid them homage and captured their essence in his Danzon No. 2. The piece remains a culturally significant and popular work by one of Mexico’s most respected composers.

Márquez, born in 1950 in Alamos, Sonora, in Mexico, grew up surrounded by the music of his heritage; his father was a mariachi player, his grandfather a Mexican folk musician, and he later studied composition with Mexican composers Federico Ibarra, Joaquín Gutierrez Heras, and Hector Quintanar. While his earlier works were experimental, he moved away from his avant-garde compositions as he sought to reach audiences with a more accessible style, as with his eight Danzónes. Danzón No. 2 was commissioned by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico in 1994. Márquez dedicated the work to his daughter Lily, and it premiered in March 1994 in Mexico City with the Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM, under the direction of Francisco Savin. Márquez was already well-known in his home country, but it was this piece that gave him recognition abroad, particularly after it was included in the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra’s successful 2007 tour of Europe and the United States, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting to wildly enthusiastic audiences. Since its premiere, both the piece and its composer have been showered with accolades in Europe and the Americas, while back home Danzon No. 2 has been referred to as a “second national anthem.”

The danzón is often juxtaposed with the tango as its northern counterpart—both are refined urban dances with sensual rhythms and often melancholy melodies. The danzón had its origins in the Cuban habanera and became a popular part of Mexican city life in early 1900s. Like Copland earlier in the century, who was inspired to write El Salón México after a visit to the region, Márquez felt the irresistible pull of those same dance halls and poured their flavor into his own piece. But for Márquez, unlike for Copland, the danzón was a symbol of his heritage and his composition was a very personal declaration of love for his country. Added to his fascination with the dance was a layer of national consciousness; the urgency of the Zapatista movement, which began with an uprising the same year as the commission, gave him a more clearly defined awareness of why it was crucial to understand and represent his country’s culture. In choosing to compose for a dance tradition that hearkens back to the generations prior to his own, Márquez promotes the continuity and perseverance of his culture through music and dance, even as he transforms it by adapting it to concert form. Describing how his piece relates to the tradition, Márquez wrote that the danzón is “a genre which old Mexican people continue to dance with a touch of nostalgia and a jubilant escape towards their own emotional world…The Danzón No. 2 is a tribute to the environment that nourishes the genre…it is a very personal way of paying my respects and expressing my emotions towards truly popular music.”

The piece features an elegant, slow introduction typical of a danzón, and then bursts into a fiery passion, full of syncopation and percussion rhythms and only pausing for short lyrical solo or duet passages. It opens with a melody in the clarinet that glides up into wistful high notes. The bright clacking of the clavés gives the piece its Latin heartbeat. The clarinet melody is taken up by the oboe, and the two instruments circle each other like a pair performing the stately dance itself.

A brief solo piano interlude transitions into a new section and a change of mood, set off by short, sharp strokes in the strings and accents in the deep bellied brass. A new theme rings out con fuoco in the winds and brass, and the strings unleash swirling runs which add to the momentum. Everyone pauses for a sweet statement on the piccolo, and then the piano transitions again into a lyrical section with the opening melody on solo violin. Before everyone gets swept away, though, they are brought back by a sharp return to the percussive strings, and the dance continues more wildly than before. The piece becomes increasingly boisterous as fragments of each theme are heard amidst the wild rumpus. Finally, at the height of the frenzy, the ensemble unites in a repeated rhythm on a single note that grows in intensity, and the piece rises to an emphatic close.

© Pamela Feo