Antonio De Almeida: Ricardo Castillo Paál Kabá, Moscow Symphony

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Ricardo Castillo - Paál Kabá (1956)
Conducted by Antonio De Almeida with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.

Ricardo Castillo was born in Quetzaltenango on 1st October, 1891 and died in Guatemala City on 25th May, 1966. His childhood interest in music persuaded his mother, fulfilling one of his father's great wishes, to send him to Paris to study the subject.

From 1906 to 1922 he lived in Europe, studying violin with A. Lefort and harmony with Paul Vidal. Gradually, he focused on composition, abandoning his violin studies. During his stay in Paris he composed his first piano works, published in that city and in 1918 married Georgette Contoux Quanté, a French pianist who had obtained the Prize for Excellence as a pupil of Alfred Cortot at the Conservatoire. They moved to Guatemala in 1922 and a few years later Castillo was appointed harmony, composition and music history professor at the National Conservatory of Music. In 1948, using three different pseudonyms, Castillo won the three prizes at the Science, Literature and Arts National Contest in Guatemala and in 1951 the same prize in that contest with his Eight Piano Preludes.

Castillo never showed special interest in opera, the Lied or choral music and for this reason his personality reflects the autochthonous musical culture of Guatemala rather than the use of limited melodic contours or rhythmical formulae of folklore music. Musical culture in the pre-Columbian civilization in this region was merely instrumental; expression through the human voice was not as appreciated or developed as in other civilizations.

The orchestral work of Castillo is symphonic (Sinfonieta, Xibalbá) or dramatic (ballets La Doncella Ixquic and Paál Kabá). His piano works are mainly descriptive (Escenas Infantiles, El Agua que Corre, Guatemala: impressiones, Poema Pastoral, San Andrés Xecul. The series of Nocturnes, Preludes and the Seven Piano Pieces contains his only abstract musical compositions.

Ricardo Castillo was largely a composer of short pieces, and the attraction of his music derives from a certain quality and freshness of ideas, as well as his candour, bordering on ingenuousness.

The music for the Paál Kabá ballet is Ricardo Castillo's most complete and elaborate work. Its composition took so long that it makes one reflect on the fact that Paál Kabá took up a long period of the composer's creative activity, owing to the fact that we can foretell this ballet elaboration from his works in 1940.

Paál Kabá's subject is based on a Mayan legend which tells of the sacrifice of a young maiden in honour of the young God of Corn so that there would be many fruitful crops.

After being painted blue, Paál Kabá is sacrified before the villagers in Tikal's Central Temple after the priest has performed an exorcism in order to dispel the evil spirits. The Paál Kabá's sacrifice is followed by the ceremony where several ritual dances are performed, and it is during the culminating moment of the War Dance that the God of Corn, unexpectedly, falls and is destroyed. This is a terrible omen which terrifies the villagers who then flee and abandon the city.

For the composer, Paál Kabá's subject probably represented the premonition of the Spanish conquest which was to come. Like many other famous scores destined for the theatre, Paál Kabá is also a symphonic narrative which does not need choreography and can be performed in concert. Paál Kabá was completed in 1956.