Friday, October 8, 2010

Preludio a Cristobal Colón

Columbus Day weekend is here, and to celebrate, a weird tribute to the great explorer from a musical explorer, the Mexican Julián Carrillo (1875-1965).  This is the "Preludio a Cristobal Colón" (1922), his first work to employ the principles of the 13th Sound, his system of dividing the octave into smaller intervals than the 12 half-tones normally found in Western music (hence, the "13th" sound - beyond 12 - get it?).  If you think of the note "C" on the piano, a white key, and the black key beside it, "C-sharp", and then imagine seven more notes between these two (corresponding to quarter, eighth, and sixteenth-tones), you will get an idea how Carrillo's system works.

Despite its apparent complexity, the system actually produced some quite listenable, if strange-sounding, music.  This "Preludio," scored for wordless soprano and 5 instruments, ends up being a rather lugubrious piece with an E-Flat-minorish feel, its mournful quality probably not surprising when you consider the ill effects of European settlements, as begun by Columbus, on Native American populations, of which Carrillo was a descendant.

Carrillo: Preludio a Cristobal Colón
13th Sound Ensemble directed by Angel Reyes
Recorded February 7, 1930
Columbia Masterworks 7357-M, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 20 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 7.47 MB)

This record stayed in the Columbia catalogue for about 20 years, and was frequently cited in reference works of the time as an example of the most experimental music available on records.  David Hall, in his 1948 "Record Book," described the "resulting sounds as...not unlike those one hears from insect life in a field on a hot summer afternoon."

Exactly one other recording existed in the Columbia catalogue of a piece that employed microtones - a movement of a Duo for two violins by Czech composer Alois Hába (1893-1973).  It was to be found as the last item in the Columbia History of Music, Vol. 5, dealing with 20th-century music, which roughly ordered its 16 selections from the most musically conservative to the most far-out.  The Hába piece was placed even after a piece by Varèse!  Two years ago I transferred this entire volume of the Columbia History, which has been newly uploaded here:

Columbia History of Music, Vol. 5
Recorded 1934-37
Columbia Masterworks set M-361, eight 10-inch records
Link (FLAC files, 122.08 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 53.29 MB)


  1. Incredible! I have long wanted to hear this but never thought I would - thank you SO much. The exact recording date is in Vol.IV of Rust & Brooks' US Columbia discography but I'll have to go to a library to look it up - will try this week. Best wishes, Nick

  2. Thanks for this post - I do like the Columbia History of Music volumes.

  3. Hi again, Right, so I went to the library and here's what Rust & Brooks say:

    98677-1,-2 (both issued?)
    98678-1 (issued),-2
    98679-1,-2 and 98680-1,-2 Oracion [no composer] Anna L. Reyes, 16-Tone Harp-Cithera (unissued)

    98681-1,-2 Desengano (La Villa Reyes) 13th Sound Ens., Reyes (unissued)
    98682-1,-2 Sonata on Three Strings - 1st movt. (Carrillo) Alvaro Cerda (cello) (unissued)


  4. Hi Nick, thanks for that bit of sleuthing! I think my pressing used take 2 of side 1. I see the numbers "2 - 9" stamped 180 degrees from the matrix number stamp. On side 2, the numbers are "1 - 4".

  5. I work in the multimedia department at the library of a small liberal arts college. I ran across a copy of this recording there while we were shifting some records. In our case, we own a copy on the much older black Columbia label ("Viva-Tonal Recording," with the jagged "Electrical Process" indication).

    Stamped 180º from the matrix stamp on side 1 is "2-A-2", and on side 2 it's "1-A-3."

    I hadn't taken the time to listen to it while at work yet, though I was curious to hear the record. Now that I have, I can safely say that it's something that might appropriately accompany sucking on a lemon.

  6. I enjoyed your Leipzig Gewandhaus Wind posting - thank you.
    If you're interested, I have the same group's discs of quintets by Reicha, Lendvai and Beethoven Trio. As I'm not into blogging etc yet, so I would prefer to communicate the traditional email route!
    best regards
    Malcolm McMillan

    1. Hi Malcolm, I would be very interested in hearing what you have. Unfortunately when I tried to send you a message at the email address you give, it bounced. Could you send me an email? The part of my address before the "@" symbol is bryan52063 and the part after it is

  7. I don't know if you're interested, or if you already have them, but I have and will gladly transfer the first two volumes of the columbia history of music.
    My web site: