María Teresa Prieto’s talent thrived in a musical home in Asturias, a province in the north of Spain. She studied piano and her fi rst published composition, Escena de niños, appeared in a magazine in 1917. Prieto continued her studies at the Madrid Conservatory, but composition did not become her passion until later in life. With the approach of the Spanish Civil War she left for Mexico, joining other artists and intellectuals fl eeing Franco’s fascist dictatorship. Prieto never lived in her homeland again, but exile created the catalyst for her creative work, a need to express in music her love for Spain, its people and culture. Mexico welcomed many Spanish refugees, and Prieto joined her brother, a businessman in Mexico City. Their home became a meeting place for other Spanish exiles and musicians traveling the world during the turbulent 1930s, fi gures such as Milhaud and Stravinsky. Prieto meanwhile perfected her art and learned from Mexico’s most important composers of the 20th century including Carlos Chávez and Manuel Ponce. She also studied with Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, California.
Beginning her composing life only after the age of 40, Prieto produced several works for orchestra including three symphonies, music for piano, chamber ensembles, and many songs for voice and piano. Her musical style is conservative, approachable and refl ects her passion for J.S. Bach. In some works, she uses scales and harmonies known as “modal” from ancient Greek and the Middle Eastern cultures that inspired the music of her Spanish homeland.
The symphonic poem Chichén Itzá evokes the Mayan ruin on the Yucatan Peninsula and three motifs associated with the structure: the Mayan ball game of Pelota, the Plumed Serpent, and the maiden sacrificed to the rain god. Oddly, little modal or exotic influence sounds in Prieto’s music here, perhaps because no one could know what Mayan music sounded like, silent for more than 1000 years. Without the help of friends and musicians Prieto’s music would also have been silenced. She herself did little to promote it, leaving it to musicians to appreciate its worth and bring it the public.