El día de los muertos (2006)

For Percussion Ensemble

Duration:  13 minutes
Eight Percussionists

Commissioned by Bradford and Dorothea Endicott
for Frank Epstein and the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble
Premiere Performance:  December 3, 2006; NEC Percussion Ensemble;
Frank Epstein, Conductor

Recorded by New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble; Frank Epstein, Conductor; Naxos 8.559683

Illustration: Gran fandango y francachela de todas las calaveras
(Happy dance and wild party of all the skeletons), Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913).


…If I told you to sample the disc by going straight to track 4—Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s El dia de los muertos, then I would be cheating, as this is a work that stands out from the crowd. Based on the Mexican folk holiday, The Day of the Dead, it is the perfect mix of tuned and untuned instruments, its rhythmic drive and melodic invention totally captivating.
                                                   David's Review Corner

…Robert Xavier Rodríguez’ El día de los muertos (2006), whose playfulness and joy (representing the Mexican Day of the Dead, during which departed souls celebrate with their living descendants) seem[s] to extract the most basic elements of percussion instruments – brightness, forthrightness and rhythmic vitality.
…The most programmatic of the pieces is El día (the composer’s notes explain the story), in which the dead are awakened by children and then celebrate with the living before returning to their graves. One can clearly hear the breeze blowing in the cemetery, the sparkling bells that awaken the spirits, and a folk melody that seems to be buried underneath the music. It all feels rather like an odd children’s fairytale world, full of fantasy and whimsy, which is Rodríguez’s gift to the listener through his skillful orchestration.

Can it get any better? Yes, with Robert Rodriguez’s El dia de los muertos, based on the traditional Aztec-Mexican ceremony where the dead are invited to celebrate with the living. Another NEC commission, it dispenses with drums---apart from timps---and concentrates on pitched percussion instead. From its deep, slumbering start it’s clear the piece has an orchestral weight and thrust, the two vibraphones, glockenspiel, chimes, crotales, gongs and marimbas plus the Janá?ek-like figures on the timps producing the gaudiest, most thrilling sounds imaginable. This is astonishing; indeed, it’s the most original percussion writing I’ve heard in ages. All I can say is, prepare to be amazed.
                                                      Music Web International

Composer’s Note:

As the title indicates, El día de los muertos is a programmatic work, based on the Mexican folk holiday The Day of the Dead.  The Mexican version of All Soul’s Day has a distinctively playful and nostalgic identity which sets it apart from the ghostly images of the American and European Halloween, as exemplified in Mussorgsky‘s Night on Bald Mountain and Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre

Following Aztec legends, the Mexican tradition represents the dead as sleeping in a cool, quiet place called Mictlán.  To begin the holiday, the living send their children (symbolically, those who are farthest away from death) to the cemetery to invite the spirits of the dead to come out for a day to cavort with the living.  In my scenario for the work, church bells ring to help the children awaken the spirits.  The living prepare ceremonial dishes and create home altars with memorabilia of their departed loved ones.  The skeletons then rise from their graves, and the spirits of the dead are reunited with the living.  There is a joyous fiesta, with singing, story-telling, feasting and dancing.  At the end of the day, bells ring again and the revels end.  The living, again led by the children, say goodbye to the dead, and the spirits return to their graves, where they resume their rest in Mictlán for another year. 

The percussion writing for El día de los muertos is unusual in that it employs no drums other than timpani.  Instead, there is a rich assortment of pitched percussion (crotales, glockenspiel, two vibraphones, chimes and several tuned gongs), with prominent use of two marimbas (the marimba being the national instrument of Mexico, as well as an apt musical representation of skeletons).  These pitched sounds are accompanied by triangle, bell tree, wind chimes and a variety of non-pitched cymbals, shakers and unpitched gongs, with atmospheric use of maraca, rain stick and vibraslap, substituting for the uniquely Mexican instrument, the quijada, literally the jawbone of an ass. 

The work’s Mexican roots are reflected in the use of several popular Mexican folk songs, most prominently A la puerta del cielo (At the Gate of Heaven) and La realidad (Reality).  Other melodies are El Colúmpico, Los pronunciados, Jacinto Treviño and Laredo.  All of the Mexican melodies are combined in a quodlibet at the center of the work, where the living and the spirits of the dead are united.  Two other, highly contrastive, musical elements are a two-chord dirge-like chaconne to depict the Aztec land of the dead and, as a European liturgical reference, the Gregorian chant Offertorium for All Saints’ DayExultabunt Sancti in Gloria (The Saints Rejoice in Glory).