When Augustin Hadelich and Joyce Yang played Manuel Ponce’s “Estrellita” as an encore at a Schubert Club International Artist Series recital in Saint Paul last week, I remembered that the song had also graced Renée Fleming’s IAS recital in October. In that program book I wrote:
“Born the same year as Stravinsky, Manuel Ponce (1886–1948) was the leading Mexican musician of his day. During two stints in Europe he soaked up impressionist and modernist trends, but most of his life was spent in Mexico, where he transformed that country’s concert music and informed the study of its folk music. “Estrellita,” one of Two Mexican Songs to Ponce’s own lyrics, is his best known work.”
I see that I missed a few things, particularly the song’s significance in pop culture.
According to musicologist Denis Stevens, Ponce may not have written the song at all; it may be his arrangement of a folk song. The Oxford History of Mexico notes that Ponce, operating with the same modus as Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams, “used Mexican folk music of Spanish origin as the basis for art music in a romantic vein.” Ponce himself said:
“I consider it the duty of every Mexican composer to ennoble his country’s music by giving it artistic form, attiring it in the garb of polyphony, and lovingly conserving the popular music that is the expression of the country’s soul.”
In his Schubert Club recital, Hadelich played an arrangement by Jascha Heifetz (pictured, c. 1920) which also has an interesting provenance. Ponce wrote “Estrellita” in 1914, and it was not covered by copyright. When Heifetz was on tour in Mexico City in 1923, he needed a Mexican piece for his program. He heard “Estrellita” in a café, took napkin-notes, arranged it when he got back to the hotel, and played it that night. View a clip of Ayke Agus, Heifetz’s former student and master assistant, who tells the story in the PBS American Masters 2015 documentary on Heifetz, Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler.
Heifetz, of course, became famous enough to play himself in the 1939 Archie Mayo film, They Shall Have Music, starring Joel McRea and featuring Walter Brennan. View a clip of Heifetz playing the song in the movie here. Later, Deanna Durbin recorded “Estrellita” beautifully for Brunswick in 1941. Listen on Youtube.
Last night, courtesy of TCM, I happened across another movie that highlights the song: Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film, A Woman’s Secret, with Maureen O’Hara, Gloria Graham and Melvyn Douglas. Graham plays a singer, Susan Caldwell, who sings under the stage-name Estrellita. The song is the first thing in the film, apparently sung by Graham, but dubbed by Kaye Lorraine. Oddly, Susan is said to have a limited range, but the song is more demanding than “O mio babbino caro”; it covers an octave and a sixth! I found the film pretty confusing, but engaging in a noir kind of way, hitting some of the same notes as All About Eve.
You can download the score of this lovely song—whoever wrote it—for free: IMSLP.