Mexican composer/conductor/educator Carlos Chavez trained first as a pianist and later came to the art of composing to a great extent through self-instruction.
The first symphonic work by Carlos Chavez offers an example of the composer's working out of the Spanish musical tradition in terms relevant to his own time. That tradition addressed variation as the principal developmental device rather than form as found within the Austro-German heritage, based primarily on the sonata whether applied to solo and chamber music or to works of symphonic dimension. For this reason, the symphony was not strongly represented in Spanish music, not, that is, until Chavez began his exploration of the symphony based on motifs rather than on form. Proof of his process lies both in his copies of symphonic scores by the European masters (scores marked with notations of variations arising from basic themes) and in his own symphonies, all of which exemplify his preoccupation.
Sinfonía de Antígona is a brief, but eventful work, lasting approximately 11 minutes. In one continuous movement, it is founded upon a reexamination of the Greek modal system, employing differing modes (specifically the Dorian and Hypodorian) to convey the struggle within the heroine, Antigone, and her embattled relationship to her society. The symphony begins with woodwinds voicing a slowly oscillating, slightly dissonant melody. The strings next sound the austere theme, percussion punctuates, then winds are heard in octaves. Trilling high winds lead eerily to a steady rhythmic figure sounded by plucked strings. Softer string figures meander curiously before clashing brass chords interject ever more insistently. Drums then presage a return of the relatively quiet winds. Strings and winds are heard next in combination with the sounding of a high gong adding a sense of distance and anticipation. Just before the halfway mark, a faster rhythmic figure appears briefly, then winds combine with strings in a steadily broadening and ever grander effect, the percussion more urgent, reinforced by punching brass chords. The lower winds are heard beneath a flute, then the lower strings appear voicing open Copland-esque chords. The strings articulate a dancing figure and, as the conclusion approaches, the piece becomes once more slower, broader, simpler. Harp chords bring the symphony to an end.