A Concert of Mexican Songs of the 19th Century

Verónica Murúa

Verónica Murúa

Arturo Ramírez

Arturo Ramírez

By Fredric Dannen

Arturo Ramírez was studying for his doctorate in music at the University of Madrid when he became curious about an instrument from his Mexican homeland that had all but disappeared—the seven-string guitar. For years, Ramírez had played the ubiquitous six-string guitar; his teacher and mentor was the renowned Mexican guitarist Juan Carlos Laguna. But indications of a seven-string instrument crept up in Ramírez’s research—in sheet music indicating an additional string tuned to a low B, in paintings, and even in a 19th century photograph. Details were scarce. The Romantic era in music, from the early to middle 1800s, so well documented in Europe, was something of a cipher in Mexican musicology. “We don’t have a lot of information about even the composers during this period of time in Mexico,” Ramírez says.

A Concert of Mexican Songs of the 19th Century
Arturo Ramírez and Verónica Murúa
Wed, Aug 3, 7pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta
festivalsanmiguel.com
154 5141

Ramírez was persistent, however, and ended up writing his PhD dissertation on the guitarra séptima mexicana, or Mexican seven-string guitar. (He adds the qualifier “Mexican” to distinguish the instrument from Russian and Italian guitars with seven strings but different characteristics.) Unable to find a playable antique version of a guitarra séptima, Ramírez had a new one built to specifications, and today he is considered one of its few master performers.

On Wednesday, August 3, at 7pm, Ramírez and soprano Verónica Murúa will give a concert at the Teatro Ángela Peralta, as a feature of the 38th Annual San Miguel International Music Festival. The concert will consist of a dozen songs by seven different 19th century Mexican composers who wrote for voice and the seven-string guitar. Comparatively little is known about the composers—in some cases, even the years they were born or died are question marks—and sheet music for their songs was gathered through often-painstaking research.

The musicologist Juan Ramon Sandoval, another authority on music of 19th century Mexico, laments that so many works of that era have been lost. He cites Miguel Planas (ca. 1839-1910), whose two songs will be performed at the August 3 concert, as “an important composer of the 19th century who has faded into oblivion.” A lost opera by Planas about Don Quixote is high on Sandoval’s most-wanted list.

In the art songs that have survived, Ramírez says, “there is clearly a European influence, particularly Italian. The lyrics, often settings of beautiful poems, are very Mexican. But the melodic lines are like bel canto.” Indeed, another of the featured composers, Cenobio Paniagua (1812-1882), wrote an opera about Catherine of Cleves, also lost, reusing a text by Felice Romano, who provided many of the librettos set to music by Donizetti and Bellini.

All in all, the concert will have the mystique of an archeological excavation. It marks the first joint performance of Ramírez and Murúa, and some of the songs being presented, Ramírez says, “have not been played for a century or more.”

Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office, or on line at festivalsanmiguel.com. For more information, call the festival office at (415) 154 5141.

 

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