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Over the Waves, the Mexican Waltz that Conquered the World

Over the waves, Sobre Las Olas
Over the Waves, by Juventino Rosas

By Guadalupe P. Quintana P.
Photos from Archivo Clio, Fototeca Nacional / 26611

“Only one other waltz vies with the “Blue Danube” for the privilege of being played around the world every day, every hour. It is “Over the waves”, the best known musical composition among those produced by the Mexican arts.”
José Emilio Pacheco, Mexican Author.

The world was conquered by a Mexican waltz around the end of the 19th century: Over the Waves, written by a little known Mexican composer, and its melody filled the air in dance halls, parks and fairs throughout Europe where it delighted listeners who danced and cheered it as if it were their own.

Waltzes had conquered the heart of music-loving Europeans earlier that century. Inspired by the spirit of Germany’s romantic movement, they uniquely embodied grace, fluidity, and cadence. The word “waltz” itself is derived from the German verb walzen, to turn, spin. It reflected some of the basic values which changed late 18th century Europe, ideals of liberty, expression, freedom. The popularity of this dance spread throughout the Old World and inspired its leading musicians: Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, and especially Strauss, to compose more of such music. Europe fell in love with waltzes. According to José Emilio Pacheco: “Waltz was 19″century rock, the first music that echoed around the world, symbolizing at the same time the dizzying closeness and alienation of desire.”

This euphoria soon found its way across the Atlantic and landed on the fertile ground of late 19th century Mexican high society. In such an environment, this popular form of ballroom dancing with its light beat and brilliance quickly became identified with the spirited high times and sophistication that surrounded Mexican upper classes during the Porfirio Diaz era (1876-1911). Just like polkas, mazurkas and the Spanish chotis that were the rage in Europe, the waltz was adopted and transformed by Mexicans to reflect our vitality and sensitivity. In Mexico, this spirited European dance acquired a melancholy that became a cultural emblem.

A Lupe, y para qué en el Casino?

A Lupe, y para qué en el Casino? Three Piano Dance Pieces

For some unexplained reason, the romantic sounds of Over the Waves have become a universal hymn, a beautiful musical piece that even today transports Mexicans back to their magical childhood. Its chords remind us of the wonder we felt at village fairs. the delicious thrill of circus performances, the emotion contained in a pounding chest while acrobats gracefully arched through the air… It was penned by a young and bohemian Mexican composer named Juventino Rosas whose musical genius inspired him to write more than one hundred concert pieces and one opera in only eight years. He was a man of humble peasant birth who experienced the glory of fame along with the vagaries of fate and misfortunes of love in a short 26-year life.

Juventino Rosas

Juventino Rosas in his younger years

Juventino Rosas, the intensity of a short life

He was a bohemian. For next to nothing
-a cigarette, absinth, a kiss- he gave away
the pearls of his heart, the wings of his soul.
Manuel Guttiérrez Nájera, Mexican Poet

Juventino Policarpo Rosas Cadenas was born on January 25, 1868, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato In a little village known today as Santa Cruz de Juventino Rosas. His father, Juan de Jesus Rosas, was a man of the earth, a peasant who served his country playing the harp in a military band. He taught his three children to play musical instruments and sing. Young Juventino learned the violin, Manuel the guitar, and Maria Patrocinio sang while Dad strummed the harp. Together, the family formed a popular band that, in the typical fashion of Mexican village life, performed at fairs and played regional music at dances and festivities in the Santa Cruz area.

In 1875, the Rosas family set out on foot to seek a better life in Mexico City. 400 kilometers away. Juventino was by then seven years old and an accomplished violinist, playing folk tunes and songs on a crude fiddle bought in the mountains.

A dance piece dedicated to the President General Porfirio Díaz
Dance dedicated to the President General Porfirio Díaz

They settled in a quarter called Tepito, one of the most crowded and dangerous areas of Mexico City, on a street ominously called Amargura (Bitterness). At first, Juventino played with the family on neighborhood streets, and later he began to jam with other local bands. In a few short years, he became quite popular, playing with equal ease at street parties or in high society gatherings and ballrooms where his violin solos delighted all. But soon, just like a waltz, his life began to spin out of control.

At the age of 18, he had already accomplished what other musicians took a lifetime to achieve. Young Juventino had already played in and lead some of the biggest bands in Mexico. He played for diva Angela Peralta, the Mexican Nightingale, during her last national tour and won wide public acclaim when he soloed on his violin at the National Theater for President Porfirio Diaz. Juventino studied at the Music Conservatory and, like his father, he also played in a military band.

National Theater
National Theater in Mexico City

His accomplishments included composing the battle hymn Cuauhtémoc and some salon pieces such as Ensueño Seductor, La Cantinera, Sueño de las Flores, Te volví a ver and, apparently during that same time, the waltz “Over the Waves.” By then he had also lost all his family and known the joy and heartbreaking pain of love; he had lived through the misery of indebtedness, loneliness, and the anguish of alcoholism…

Genius, virtuosity, fame, and glory alternated like acrobats in his life with poverty, pain, bitterness, loneliness and alcohol until his premature death in 1894 in the Cuban city of Surgidero de Batabanó, far from the land that gave him birth.

Doña Carmen Romero Rubio de Díaz
Doña Carmen Romero Rubio de Díaz, the muse of “Carmen”

By the Spring

Some say that Juventino Rosas composed his masterpiece after a party in the village of Contreras south of Mexico City. Others say that it was in Cuautepec, not far from the Basilica of Guadalupe north of Mexico City, after he had deserted from the military band in which he played. Only one thing is certain: he composed Over the Waves in a forest while sitting at the edge of a stream under the shade of an elder tree. It was in such a setting that this young, enamored musician found inspiration to write the work that would immortalize him.

Originally called Close to the Spring, its name was later changed because its chords evoked images of a boat gently rocking on the ocean rather than those of a murmuring stream. He dedicated his composition “to Dame Calixta Gutierrez de Alfaro, patron of the arts” and offered it to his benefactress on her saint’s day, delighting all those who heard this beautiful waltz for the first time.

Success followed our musician, but his debts pursued him. With his newest work barely reaching popularity, Rosas decided to sell the rights together with those of a Spanish chotis piece called Lazos de Amor to music publishers Casa Wagner y Levien, for the sum of 45 pesos. Under their management, Over the Waves, or Sobre Las Olas, in Spanish, became an immediate commercial success. Published in various editions, it earned Casa Wagner y Levien more than 100,000 pesos, and since then was forever incorporated into the sublime pages of Mexico’s musical repertoire.

Rotunda of Illustrious Men in Mexico City
In 1909 the remains of Juventino Rosas arrived in Mexico and since 1939 they lay in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men in Mexico City.

Titled Over the Waves in English and Ueber den Wellen in German, it crossed the Atlantic to the Old Continent, the birthplace of waltzes, where its melancholy notes took root in everyone’s heart and where still few know that this enchanting melody is a gift from a Mexican composer named Juventino Rosas.

Further reading:

  1. Barreiro Lastra, Hugo: Album Musical de Juventino Rosas, Mexico: Gobierno del Estado de Guanajuato, 1994. ISBN: 968-6170-70-0
  2. Álvarez Coral, Juan. Juventino Rosas. Su vida y su obra. Mexico: Sociedad de Autores y Compositores de Música, 1972.

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