Cuernavaca by Joseph Willcox Jenkins

Throughout the course of this blog, I’ve talked a lot about my college music experience. I was recently reminded of something else from that era when I saw the music for “Cuernavaca” by Joseph Willcox Jenkins show up on my music stand at our first band rehearsal this season. Way back in either my freshman or sophomore year, we played this piece in band.

I hated it.

Now that so much time has passed, I honestly couldn’t tell you why I hated this piece so much. I had forgotten that I’d ever played it until I saw the music again. Was it something about the piece itself? Did we play it badly? Did I not like something the conductor was doing? Did we spend a disproportionate amount of time on this piece compared to other things we played that term? Did I simply like other pieces better?

Cuernavaca, Mexico

Cuernavaca, Mexico
(image license: CC0 Public Domain)

I’m sure there are many other questions I could ask about my experience with Cuernavaca, but I don’t know if I would ever really learn the answers. I will say, though, for whatever reason, I rather like the piece now. I couldn’t tell you if it’s because I’ve learned more or my tastes have changed. Perhaps both? But now I can say I’m looking forward to working on the piece over the next semester.

Joseph Wilcox Jenkins had a lengthy career in composition, working as the arranger for the U.S. Army Field Band, the U.S. Army Chorus, and later as a professor of theory and composition at Duquesne University. By and large, his most popular work is American Overture for Band, which I’ve played several times over the years. It’s easy to find recordings and information about that piece. Cuernavaca? Not so much. I took a look at the score (dated 1969), and there’s just this brief note:

“Cuernavaca, a work in Latin-American style, was premiered by the Duquesne University Band in Pittsburgh. The main idea of the work is a fast Rhumba, which evolves into a frantic type of “Mexican Hat” dance in 6/8 meter. The secondary idea is a reposeful Tango. The treatment of the material is in a relatively free Rondo form. The work is included in the Educational Record Reference Library band series.”


The piece begins with a bold statement by the trumpets and percussion, answered by the middle and lower voices of the band. The trumpets restate their theme, almost note for note, with the last bit echoing to lead us into the body of the piece.

At 0:20, the accompaniment sets the tone for the rhumba. The melody enters at 0:26, played by the upper winds. After their first statement, the trumpets answer with a fanfare. We hear another section of melody and fanfare (0:37), then the horns push forward with a syncopated motif (0:45). The upper winds continue with the melodic line, with the horns in an echo (0:55). The melody adds some bounce to it before smoothing back out to end the phrase. A brief, three-note motif is passed around beginning at 1:03 to take us into the next part.

Although the trumpets repeat their initial statement at 1:09, the answer changes moods from what we heard at the beginning. The winds have a bouncy motif at 1:18, then at 1:25 the trumpets take over the transition. There are two bars of syncopated 4/4 time at 1:28, then we transition into 6/8 time and lay the foundation for the dance.

At 1:35, the trumpets and piccolo (flutes, too? It’s hard to hear in this recording) take over the melody. While they essentially repeat the first statement of this theme, it’s been shifted in time just slightly (1:40). At 1:50, the mood changes just a little for the next bit of the theme, and this time there’s more of a melodic echo (1:54). The trumpets enter again at 2:04. Although it feels at first they are starting another new melodic section, they’re actually setting up a transition. Beginning around 2:09, they play a four-note descending motif that is echoed by other instruments, similar to what happened at the piece’s introduction. Listen for all the four-note snippets between here and 2:31. There’s also a gradual slowing down and softening of the ensemble to lead us into the tango.

The bassoons provide us with a tango rhythm at 2:32, then a solo flute and bass clarinet play a snippet from a previous melodic line (2:41; it’s hard to hear the bass in this recording, but it’s there). But this is still introductory material for the tango; the oboe solo enters with the theme at 2:53. The bassoon, and then the clarinets, answer with their own motifs. The oboe plays again at 3:30, but doesn’t finish her theme with a firm ending (3:51). Instead, the clarinets take the last few notes and repeat them, waiting for something to happen…

Which it does at 4:05, when the percussion decides they’ve had enough of the slow tango section and want to pep things up. But the rest of the group isn’t quite as ready yet, compared to what we heard way back at 0:26. This time the theme is played by a flute solo, and instead of accented accompaniment notes, there’s just a sustained chord, which adds a tense feeling to all of it. The trumpets still have their fanfare (apparently they agree with the percussion!), but then it’s right back to the solo flute and the sustained chord (4:27).

Instead of continuing with the rhumba, at 4:34 we switch over to the fast dance theme similar to what we heard at 1:50. The horns get a chance to echo at 5:03 then usher in the four-note descending motif. At 5:10, the trumpets recall the opening melodic line of the piece. When they repeat it, we expect to continue with that we’d heard earlier, but Jenkins isn’t ready to take us there, yet. Instead, he slows it back down again in order to give us one last glimpse of the tango section (5:46). The line passes from flute, to oboe, then to the horn, before making our last transition into the rhuma (6:21).

The trumpets shout out an abbreviated fanfare at 6:27, and we embark on a recap of the first rhumba theme. Jenkins keeps it note-for-note here (Well, except for the power drill at 6:48. That’s new.)

Around 7:19, we shift into the coda section so we can bring the piece to a close. Jenkins bases the ending on the fanfare. I like the excitement at 7:30, especially with the piccolo emphasizing the upward sweep of notes. The piece ends with big, accented chords, with the percussion hammering away. The last chord isn’t a straightforward major triad, which kinda goes along with pieces of this era. It works, though, and it’s what Jenkins gave us.

I’m glad I got a chance to revisit this piece. While I love “American Overture for Band,” it’s nice to hear another work by Joseph Willcox Jenkins and perhaps bring it back into our concert band consciousness. Sadly, the music appears to be out of print, but maybe there’s hope for a resurgence.

In case anyone is interested in how our community band performance went, here’s the audio:

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