Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez was born on 13 June 1899 in Popotla, near Mexico City, Mexico. The youngest of six children, Carlos was brought up by his mother Juvencia after his father died when Carlos was only five. Juvencia was well-suited to oversee her many children as she served as directress of the Normal School for Young Women in Popotla.
Carlos began taking piano lessons from his brother Manuel at age nine and studied briefly with Asunción Parra. But in 1910 he became a student of Mexicos leading composer of the time, Manuel Ponce. Five years later he met the man whom Carlos would say developed his musical formation, Pedro Luis Ogazón. (It was Ogazón who first introduced Debussys music to Mexico in 1903.) Through Ogazón, Chávez was largely influenced by the harmony theory of Juan Fuentes.
Chávez began composing shortly after beginning his piano studies. He wrote several simple pieces and was adept at improvisation at the keyboard. At age 12 he assiduously devoured Albert Guirauds Traité d’Instrumentation et Orchestration and through it learned to read and study the orchestral scores of the masters. He began composing his first symphony three years later, even though at the time he had heard a symphony orchestra only once. The symphony was completed in 1918 (Sinfonía para orquesta).
The first public concert of Chávezs music occurred in 1921, which included his Sextet for Strings and Piano. The performance was well received, and the new revolutionary governemnt shortly thereafter commissioned Chávez to compose a ballet based on ancient Aztec themes. In El Fuego Nuevo, Chávez incorporated many indigenous Indian themes he recalled from his early years to create a distinctively sonorous orchestral work of seminal import to his future compositions. Unfortunately, the work was turned down by Julián Carillo, director of the Orquesta Sinfónica, and it remaind unperformed until 1928 when it was premiered by the Orquesta Sinfónica de México under the baton of Chávez himself.
While in Paris, Chávez befriended composer Paul Dukas who encouraged him to concentrate on the rich musical heritage of Mexico, just as de Falla had done with Spanish music and Bartók and Kodaly with the folk music of Hungary. Returning to Mexico for the birth of his first child Anita, Carlos began organizing concerts of contemporary music at the National Preparatory School and promoted many works never before heard in Mexico. Among the composers whose works were performed were Bartók, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, Satie, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Varčse as well as compositions by Chávez himself.
Having finally achieved his well-deserved acclaim, Chávez returned to Mexico in 1928 to accept the post of musical director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Mexicana.
The 1930s saw the birth of many of Chávezs most memorable works, including the Sinfonía de Antígona (1933), Sinfonía india (1935), Chapultepec (1935), 10 Preludes for Piano (1937), and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1938). As though to cap the decade, he was commissioned in 1940 to compose a work to commemorate an exhibit of Mexican art New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, and the result was Xochipilli: An Imagined Aztec Music, scored for four winds and six percussionists, using a variety of indigenous Mexican instruments.
Carlos Chávez died on 2 August 1978. Perhaps fittingly, his death occurred while visiting with his daughter Ana in the Coyoacán suburb of Mexico City, quietly passing away in the homeland he had so much honored through his voluminous compositions.