Measure by Measure

Mahler in the Jungle

The Mexican composer who championed the people, and who memorably depicted the Yucatán on film

By Sudip Bose | September 7, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The life of Silvestre Revueltas was short, anything but happy, and remarkable for the intensity with which it was lived. With the exception of Carlos Chávez, Revueltas was the most important Mexican composer of the 20th century, the creator of red-blooded, pictorial, hyper-rhythmic music, much of it written to accompany films. He wasn’t exactly a nationalist; folk music didn’t much interest him. He did, however, relish the popular idioms of his land. His music may call to mind Stravinsky at certain times, Mahler at others, as well as Bartók and Edgard Varèse, yet pulsing through its pages are the soulful sounds of the bands playing across the Mexican countryside, in villages and on ranches. This isn’t fusion so much as it is a celebration of both high and low, the refined and the rustic. What makes his body of work all the more astonishing is that Revueltas largely produced it during one turbulent decade—the final 10 years of his life.

Born in Mexico City on the last day of 1899, Revueltas began playing the violin at eight, exhibiting a prodigious talent. He studied at Mexico’s National Conservatory of Music before continuing his education in Austin, Texas, and later in Chicago. A career as a concert violinist seemed likely, and in the 1920s, he returned home and began playing recitals with Chávez, who was the same age as Revueltas and who had also recently returned to Mexico from a period of time in the United States. It was Chávez who convinced Revueltas to accept a teaching position at the National Conservatory and who later appointed him to the position of assistant conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México. Together, the compatriots championed the Mexican music of their time—that is, until a rift opened up between them, and Revueltas left to conduct a rival orchestra.

He had already begun composing music, including film scores and four excellent string quartets, when he was drawn to the cause of antifascism. As a leader of the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, Revueltas, along with Octavio Paz and several other prominent Latin American artists, journeyed to Spain after the outbreak of civil war, to throw their support behind the Republican cause. Franco’s triumph sent a dispirited Revueltas back to Mexico—and a life of impoverishment and hardship, during which he consumed ungodly amounts of alcohol. How remarkable that this difficult period would yield so much music. Aaron Copland, an enthusiast of Revueltas’s, once remarked that when “seized with the creative urge, he has been known to spend days on end without food or sleep until [a] piece was finished.” That manic diligence led to such compositions as the score for the 1939 film La noche de los mayas (Night of the Mayas). The movie itself was a critical and popular failure, yet the music, posthumously arranged into a four-movement symphonic suite by fellow composer José Yves Limantour, remains one of Revueltas’s most beguiling scores. This was the first piece of his that I came to know, on LP many years ago, with Fernando Lozano conducting the Mexico City Philharmonic. The work is full of contrasts, beginning with the epic sweep of the first movement, with its poetic string writing and passages of Debussy-like Impressionism. A joyous, spritely scherzo follows, and then comes a lush, luxuriant nocturne—Mahler by way of the humid Yucatán jungle. (The fourth movement is a frenetic, percussive bacchanal, a great jolt to the senses, though much of this movement—90 percent of it, according to one estimate I have read—was written by Limantour.)

“There is inside me,” Revueltas once wrote, “a very peculiar understanding of nature: Everything is rhythm. The poet’s language is everyday language. Everyone understands it or feels it. Music alone has to perfect its own language. All of that together is what music is to me. My rhythms are booming, dynamic, tactile, visual. I think in images that are melodic strains, that move dynamically.” Another late masterpiece—the tone poem Sensemayá, based on a poem by the Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén—beautifully demonstrates this ethos. Revueltas was at a social gathering in Spain when he heard Guillén recite the poem, which tells the fate of the West African princess Lucero, turned into a snake by a tribal magician upon rebuffing his advances. The magician proceeds to kill the snake, but just as he performs the bloody, ritualistic act, he himself perishes, with Lucero’s soul finding its release. Revueltas’s musical version, which he orchestrated in 1938, captures the mood brilliantly: we can feel the foreboding in the acutely rhythmic, driven lines, and in the obsessive repetition of musical motifs, the sense of carnality intensified by the assortment of beating drums. Critics have pointed out a similarity with The Rite of Spring, and sure enough, Sensemayá could be a musical cousin of Stravinsky’s great sacrificial dance.

In 1947, Leopold Stokowski recorded the piece, making the name Revueltas known around the world. This was, alas, seven years after the composer had died at the age of 40. Although the official cause of death was pneumonia, alcohol was that really killed him. He was, like the Consul in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, an intensely suffering soul who perpetually sought salvation in the bottle. Pablo Neruda composed a poem for the occasion of Revueltas’s funeral, but Octavio Paz memorialized him best, I think, when he paid tribute to the composer’s “joyful concern for man, animal, and things. It is the profound empathy with his surroundings which makes the works of this man, so naked, so defenseless, so hurt by the heavens and the people, more significant than those of many of his contemporaries.” Erich Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein, Eduardo Mata, and other conductors have all promoted Revueltas’s music over the years. More recently, Gustavo Dudamel has taken up the cause with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. If we are in the midst of a Revueltas revival, so much the better: music this poetic, this visceral, this memorable cannot have too many evangelists.

Listen to Alondra de la Parra conduct the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in this performance of Sensemayá.

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