Born in Missouri and educated at Louisiana State University and the Eastman School of Music, Herbert Owen Reed (1910-2013) served on the theory and composition faculty at Michigan State University from 1939 to 1976. He wrote music in a variety of genres, and has especially made an impact in the wind band world, where several of his compositions are widely performed. Among these, La Fiesta Mexicana stands out as his masterpiece.
Reed came to write La Fiesta Mexicana after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship for study in Mexico for six months in 1948-49. While there, he heard Mexican music from the many different cultures that make up the country’s heritage, including Aztec, Roman Catholic, and mariachi music. He used these various ideas, often quoting them nearly verbatim, and stitched them together with elements of his own contemporary style in La Fiesta Mexicana‘s three movements. He provides conductor’s notes in the work’s score (bear in mind the composition date of 1949 while reading). Numbers he mentions are rehearsal marks in the score:
The Mexican, as a result of his religious heritage, feels an inner desire to express love and honor for his Virgin. The Mexican fiesta, which is an integral part of this social structure, is a study in contrasts: It is both serious and comical, festive and solemn, devout and pagan, boisterous and tender.
“La Fiesta Mexicana,” which attempts to portray musically one of these fiestas, is divided into three movements. These movements, plus possible choreographic notes, are described below.
I. Prelude and Aztec Dance
The tolling of the church bells and the bold noise of fireworks at midnight officially announce the opening of the fiesta (opening pages of the score). Groups of Mexicans from near and far slowly descend upon the huge court surrounding the old cathedral–some on foot, some by burro, and still others on bleeding knees, suffering out of homage to a past miracle.
After a brave effort at gaiety, the celebrators settle down on their serapes to a restless night (No. 1) until the church bells and fireworks again intrude upon the early quiet of the Mexican morn (No. 4).
At midday a parade is announced by the blatant blare of trumpets (No. 5). A band is heard in the distance (No. 6). The attention is focused on the Aztec dancers, brilliantly plumed and masked, who dance in ever-increasing frenzy to a dramatic climax (No. 7 to end of the movement).
The tolling of the bells is now a reminder that the fiesta is, after all, a religious celebration. The rich and poor slowly gather within the walls of the old cathedral for contemplation and worship.
Mexico is at its best on the days of the fiesta, a day on which passion governs the love, hate and joy of the Mestizo and the Indio. There is entertainment for both young and old–the itinerant circus (first part of the movement), the market, the bull fight, the town band, and always the cantinas with their band of mariachis (Nos. 22-28)–on the day of days: fiesta.
The score also contains a dedication: “To Lt. Col. William F. Santelmann and the U.S. Marine Band”, the conductor and group that premiered the work in 1949. It further contains a subtitle: “A Mexican Folk Song Symphony for Concert Band”, making it perhaps the first full symphony for band written by an American-born composer.
An anonymous band performs the piece:
I. Prelude and Aztec Dance
The mariachi episode in movement III is a direct quote of “La Negra”, played here along with old-timey mariachi photos:
The first movement uses another tune which Reed calls “El Toro”. This is not showing up easily on YouTube (nor is it particularly easy to search, given the number of other things out there called “el toro”), so we must survive without a video for now.
Finally, here is a taste of an authentic Aztec dance:
Read more about H. Owen Reed on Wikipedia and a nice article for his 103rd birthday. La Fiesta Mexicana is featured at the Wind Repertory Project, Wikia Program Notes, MusiClassical.com, and Alfred Music.