Evoking the Mayan world: 

Symbolism in Alberto Ginastera's Cantata para América mágica



Conference paper to be presented at Society for American Music, national conference, Denver, CO, March 2009

Alberto Ginastera's Cantata para América mágica (1960) evokes the Mesoamerican world in three ways: quotations of Mayan and Aztec texts; sonic references to Mexican indigenous music; and -- most impressively - the use of serialist techniques to symbolize the symmetrical, cyclical nature of the Mayan world view. First, the layout of the movements represents a cycle, with the first and sixth movements illustrating creation (quoting Popul Vuh) and destruction (Chilam Balam), and are symmetric, with the second and fifth movements being soliloquies using similar rows. More symbolically, the combinatorial D-hexachord represents destruction: it is the sonority of the climax of the work, when the prophecy of destruction is proclaimed. This chord is also the progenitor of all eight rows used in the Cantata through transposition, inversion, rotation, and repartition. Hence, the D-hexachord represents both creation and destruction, making it symbolic of the Mesoamerican concept of a cyclical universe, where one world was destroyed so that another may arise. Furthermore, each row is symmetric in that it is either constructed from a single hexachord, tetrachord, or trichord, or two Z-related hexachords. Sonic references to Mexican indigenous music are made by a percussion ensemble including the Aztec ceremonial drums teponaxtle and huehuetl, the latter evoked by timpani; shifting, odd-numbered metric groupings reminiscent of Aztec drum syllables; and ornamental vocalizations. The analysis builds upon work by Heister, Kuss, and others by identifying source texts for all movements, showing the rhythmic analogy to drum syllables, and explaining the symbolic meaning of the D-hexachord.