Silvestre Revueltas (1899–1940)

Silvestre Revueltas was one of the leading Mexican composers of the 20th Century. He was born in Durango at the turn of the century on New Year’s Eve 1899, into an extremely artistic family. (His brothers and sisters include two painters, an acclaimed actress, and an author. In addition, his elder daughter was a ballet dancer, his young daughter was a writer, and his nephew, a concert violinist and conductor.)

Revueltas studied music at the Mexican National Conservatory in Mexico City. He later did additional studies in Texas and Chicago. He was a gifted violinist and gave many concerts and recitals. In 1929, he became the assistant conductor of the Mexican National Symphony under fellow composer Carlos Chávez, as well as conductor and violin professor at the Conservatory. Most of his compositions date from this time until his death. After a falling out with Chávez, he left his conducting post in 1935 and went to Spain, where he briefly fought with the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War before their loss to General Franco. He returned to Mexico in 1937, but had difficulty finding a position and lived in poverty, as well as suffering from alcoholism. He died from pneumonia in 1940.

With the exception of a few early works, his remarkable output as a composer is concentrated during the years 1929–1940. He composed piano music, songs, and chamber music, including four string quartets, the Ocho por Radio, and the Two Little Serious Pieces for a quintet of wind instruments, (not the usual woodwind quintet, but an ensemble consisting of piccolo, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, and baritone saxophone). He also wrote many works for orchestra, including the early Ventanas, the Homenaje a Frederico Garcia Lorca for chamber orchestra, and his best-known work, Sensemayá, a thrilling, odd-meter piece that depicts the ritual hunt and killing of a snake. It is an orchestral showpiece, full of rhythmic energy, similar to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He also wrote two ballets, El Renacuajo Paseador, which was premiered on the day he died, and La Coronela, which was left unfinished at his death and completed by various others.

In addition, Revueltas wrote several film scores, which he often turned into concert suites. These include Redes, La Noche de los Mayas, and ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! Not only did Revueltas write the score for this celebrated early classic of Mexican cinema, he also acted in it, appearing as the saloon piano player. Although his output is somewhat small, due to his untimely death, it is an important body of work that helped establish a unique Mexican cultural voice and paved the way for future composers in his country. The day after his death, the poet Pablo Neruda wrote a poem in his memory:

“When a man like Silvestre Revueltas returns once and for all to the earth,there’s a rumbling, a surge of voice and weeping which prepares and broadcasts his departure… 

Be at rest, brother, this day of yours has ended,with your gentle and powerful soul you fill yourself with light brighter than the light of day and with a sound blue as the voice of the sky.

Now are the stars of the America your homeland, and from today on your house without doors is the earth.”

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

¡Vámonos Con Pancho Villa!

Suggested Reading:

Peter Garland. In Search Of Silvestre Revueltas: Essays 1978–1990.

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