Biograhpy

Silvestre Revueltas' memory is immersed in a cloud of misunderstanding, prejudice and myth. To this day he is likely to be portrayed as an extraordinarily talented but unknown Mexican composer; Mexico's musical ambassador to the world; an unduly forgotten master of Western Music; a compositional eminence that emerged from a landscape of cactus and dry earth; even, the genius under the volcano who was ruined by alcohol. For over half a century the ignorance concerning the life and music of Silvestre Revueltas has continued to nurture such misrepresentations. Familiar depictions of Revueltas as a merely folkloristic composer, uncommonly gifted but insufficiently trained and leading a messy life between poets, revolutionary dreams and alcohol dependence, urgently need to be replaced by an accurate and deeper understanding of the man and his music.

Born on December 31, 1899 in Santiago Papasquiaro, a town in the state of Durango, Mexico, Revueltas began studying violin when he was eight years old, and pursued later studies in both violin and composition in Mexico and the United States, including two years at the Chicago Musical College (1918-20).
In the 20s he conducted ensembles in the U.S. and collaborated as a violinist with Carlos Chávez in recitals of modern music. At Chávez's invitation, he became the assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra, serving in that position from 1929-1935. Revueltas taught violin and composition at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City, also conducting the Conservatory Orchestra. In 1937 he traveled to Europe to conduct several of his orchestral works and to lend support to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, barely 40 years old, Revueltas succumbed to pneumonia, aggravated by alchoholism. In his last decade, Revueltas had been astonishingly productive, writing almost forty compositions - including six works for full orchestra and eight film scores - in a mature, vitally individual voice.

In the aftermath of its revolution, Mexico was agitated by political and ideological turmoil among its artists and intellectuals. Revueltas shared with his fellow artists the belief in popular cultural expressions as the ideal foundation for the development of a "new revolutionary culture." In fact, he was at one time the chairman of the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists. His much better-known contemporaries, the painters Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clernente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros were also actively militant, but they knew how to exploit their political exoticism to gain prestige, popularity, international connections and cornmissions. In Revueltas, case, however, his deep-felt convictions - in cornbination with his natural tendency toward withdrawal and solitude - left hirn in political isolation.
A further comparison with the painters is revealing. Whereas the muralists depicted the people through thernes of epic grandeur that tended to reduce expressions to a single generic characterization - "the masses," victimized or triurnphant - Revueltas sought to discover the innermost soul of these people, their joy as well as their frustration, their hope as well as their pessimistic irony. The resulting rnusic is one of a highly personal nature, far from the rnore generic nationalistic rnusic composed by his contemporaries. Poet Octavio Paz has recognized this better than anyone:
All his music seems preceded by something that is not [simply] joy and exhilaration, as some believe, or satire and irony, as others believe. That element, better and more pure, ... is his deep-felt but also 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 conternporaries. His music occupies a place in our hearts above that of the grandiose Mexican murals that seem to know all, except pity. Neither the paintings of Orozco, or Siqueiros or Diego [Rivera] contain sympathy, joy or compassion.

Although Revueltas did not like the label "musical nationalist," most of his better-known compositions strongly reflect various expressions of folklore or employ direct style quotations and structures derived from popular song forms like the "Corrido," the "Son," or the "Huapango." But rather than quoting and mechanically transferring traditional tunes into his music, as did many of his fellow composers, he was able to extract what is intrinsic in meaning and form to Mexican mestizo music and build upon it a compositional technique that led to a truly unique, Revueltian style.
André Breton, like many other spiritual travelers who visited Mexico, was stunned when he encountered there not one, but many strikingly diverse cultures living side by side. Mestizaje - five hundred years of spontaneous or forced, conscious or hidden, clashing or linking encounters of contrasting values, languages, creeds, customs, colors, sounds generates a kaleidoscopic world in which human expressions mutate from moment to moment, producing the unexpected at all times, with every turn shedding new light on the old while creating everchanging premises of what is to follow.
Such seems to be the heart of Revueltas' compositional world. Noisily, we hear different people talking at the same time, nonetheless making sense. In churning metric, rhythmic and harmonic dissonance, we hear two orchestras playing at the same time, yet sounding strangely coherent. Familiar sounds ring unexpectedly new when crossbred with other equally familiar sounds: schizoid patterns, strangely fused into a cohesive style; one symmetry versus another, creating the impression of a disjointed discourse that unsettles at first, but ultimately grants fulfillment and serenity to our ear and mind.

On January 1, 1900, Revueltas was one day old. Although born in a remote and tiny village and raised in provincial Mexican towns far removed culturally from Europe, and never having studied in the Old World, the great transformations of its art and society in the new century may have somehow touched the young Revueltas.
Of Esquinas ("Street Corners"), his first work for full orchestra, Revueltas wrote:

Sorne rnusical sages are able to read an actual determinate torrn into thls music: binary, ternary, Liedform. It wasn't rny intention. [The music] I was talking about has multiple shapes and no apparent coherence. It is subject to the rhythrn of life, not to the exact distance from one sidewalk to the other. There is nothing I can say about the technique behind the music because it doesn't interest me. Some good-humored people claim I have mastered composing technique; then again, some ill-tempered claim I haven't. Well, they surely know better.

Revueltas' rnusical constructions remind us of the rnodernism of Cubist paintings. The figures, drawn from everyday life, are twisted, turned, or superimposed, unfolding hidden dimensions yet remaining, at the same time, simple and identifiable. Revueltas' farniliar tunes and sounds are daringly intertwined or layered, creating a mosaic of clean and transparent complexity that can be listen to this way, or the other, or both.
Revueltas rejected rnusical Romanticism by staying away from the "great forms" of the German and the French. His rnusic always states its message succinctly. lt is the immediacy and power of expression that concerned him: once an idea was asserted, he went on to something else, often changing rnoods in surprisingly daring contrast. As a result, most of his compositions are rather short.
Like Satie, Revueltas liked to deprive his compositions of romantic grandiloquence by choosing titles like Earth for the Flowerpot, Batik, Chit-Chat Music, Street Corners, Windows, Travel Journal, Little Serious Pieces, Eight on the Radio, Rhapsody in the Shape of a Radish or Agave Plant.

Although he shared the modernist sensibility of Satie and the Cubists, Revueltas was certainly no member of the European club. From Paris he wrote his wife Ángela,

Now I realize how much rny music is bound to disagree with all norms established by these civilizations. I'd love to perform it here, simply to see the expressions of disgust in their faces. It would be as if something obscene, or tasteless, or vulgar had been uttered.

This "vulgarity" in Revueltas' music, the bright and often brusque timbres that immediately strike us, cannot be understood without listening to the small village bands and mariachis that are so abundant in Mexico. Revueltas listened to them without prejudice, and synthesized a daring and original concept of orchestration from their sounds. The importance of trumpets, tuba and clarinets in his music, for instance, is drawn directly from the instrumentation of such bands, as is his delight in the use of biting and purposefully unrefined articulation. Revueltas also exploits the out-of-tuneness of the village bands: by consistently choosing instruments of extreme register like the piccolo, the bass and E-flat clarinets, the tuba and the contrabass, shrillness and spontaneous dissonance become a characteristic of color rather than intonation. And rather than ignoring or "correcting" such provincial habits as lack of precise coordination or limping phrasing, he recognized their potential and found ways to positively integrate these spontaneous asymmetries into his musical language.
The two versions of one extraordinary score, Planos ("Layers"), later published in its orchestral version as Danza geométrica ("Geometric Dance"), contain a clue to Revueltas' most advanced and personal idiom. The musical material of Planos consists of a number of closed units, each with a singularity of its own, defined by the use of elements such as timbre, intensity, articulation, choice of register, melodic outline, meter, rhythmic design, or length. By themselves they may sound simple and even conservative. What is unique and artful, though, is Revueltas' ability to combine these units into a whole, via techniques of sequencing, double and triple superimposition, stretti, micro-quotation, extension and shadowing. Thus he constructs episodes with a variable density of layered information and carefully lays out a plan for their evolution in his composition. A complex design of ostinati and rhythmic planes underscores and unites these episodes, giving continuity and creating overall form. Out of the resulting mosaic the singular Revueltas sound finally emerges. His ingenious musical motifs are joined in a discourse that can be at the same time flowing and abrupt, a faithful mirror of the daily battle within the conflicting imagery of his inner and outer worlds. "Silvestre, like all real people, was a battlefield," Octavio Paz writes:

Inside Silvestre lived numerous interlocutors, many passions, many capabilities, weaknesses as well as refinement .... This wealth of possibilities, divinations and impulses give his work - the American continent's most important - the sound of a primal chord, like the first light that escapes a world in formation.

As a young man, Revueltas concentrated on violin and conducting; composition was no more than a sporadic entertainement. Playful and somewhat clumsy but inspired experiments between 1926 and 1929 drew the attention of his friends - Carlos Chávez among them - who encouraged him to make a more serious attempt at composition Cuauhnáhuac, written in 1931, inaugurated a short but very productive creative life lasting only ten years and broken off by his untimely death in 1940.
Following Cuauhnáhuac, written in 1931, he quickly produced two more equally ambitious works: Esquinas ("Street Corners") and Ventanas ("Windows"). He returned to this rnusical form in 1933 with the popular Janitzio (revised, 1936), and 1934 with Caminos ("Paths"), closing his cycle of "sound murals" in 1938 with Itinerarios ("Travel Journal"), one of his best, yet rarely performed, scores.
All are executed with broad strokes of sound, daring color, and transparent form, strongly recalling the imposing aesthetics of the Mexican muralists. Like them, Revueltas allowed the imagery Mexican cultures to flow into bis art, and used the power of directness to reach his public.
The descriptive titles, which could well have been chosen by a painter of landscapes and scenes, jump out at us. These scores embody the musical heritage of the more conservative and romantic side of Revueltas' personality. Among them we find the best expressions of musical nationalism written in Mexico. However, with the exception of Janitzio, they are little known. Writing music for film became Revue main means of survival after his estrangement in from his long-time mentor Carlos Chávez. Except for one important film, Redes ("Fishermen's Nets," also known as "The Wave"), photographed by Paul Strand, they are only memorable because music that Revueltas wrote for them.
Revueltas always intended his music for films to live beyond its use in the movies. The case of Redes is particularly striking. Even before the last take of the movie was shot, Revueltas had already finished a large symphonic score, conceived as a whole, that could have been played without interruption as a concert piece. If it had been up to him, he would have liked Strand to cut the film to his music, rather than the other way around.
Revueltas' manner of composing long, striking, self-sustaining musical episodes made it easy for composers and conductors to assemble symphonic suites from these scores. This is how Erich Kleiber's version of Redes and two different versions of La noche de los Mayas ("The Night of the Mayas") by Limantour (in four movements) and Hindemith (in two movements) came into being. The international fame of such personalities may explain why these particular compositions became better-known and more frequently played than the forgotten tone poems.

Revueltas' resolute engagement with the cultural and political movements of his day, as well as his love of poetry, brought him in contact with the works of writers such as the Cuban Nicolás Guillén, the Mexicans Ramón López Velarde and Carlos Pellicer, the American Langston Hughes and above all, Federico Garcia Lorca, from Spain. This passion is sublimely expressed in works such as the Homenaje a Federico García Lorca ("Homage to Federico Garcia Lorca") composed in 1936 and known deservedly as one of Revueltas' best compositions; his well-known masterpiece Sensemayá (1938); the Three Sonnets (probably 1937) for speaker and ensemble; and songs for voice and various instrumental combinations that are among Revueltas' most characteristic and original creations.
Minor poets, friends and colleagues also provided inspiration for Revueltas. The light-spirited poems by the Mexicans Daniel Castañeda and Carlos Barrera provided the texts for lovely songs like El tecolote ("The Owl"), Ranas ("Frogs") and Dúo para pato y canario ("Duet for Duck and Canary"). Surprising sonorities, marked rhythmical interest, suggestive visual and aural images, and even amusing references to music in their poems aroused Revueltas' imagination and suggested the original and playful orchestrations for these songs.
Revueltas was known for his seriousness an his deep anger at injustice, but also for his extraordinary sense of humor and satirical nature. Much o his chamber music and many scores written for th stage reflect this side and offer testimony of his love for jest and farce. EI renacuajo paseador ("Polliwog Takes a Stroll"), Toccata sin fuga ("Toccata without a Fugue"), 8 x Radio (" 8 on the Radio"), Dos pequeñas piezas serias ("Two Little Serious Pieces"), Parián ("Marketplace") and Troka are but a few example the playful and optimistic Revueltas. Scores such these, rarely performed due to the oddity of their instrumentation, are remarkable accomplishments that should not be forgotten. They are among the best chamber music written in the first half of our century.
Listening to Revueltas' music today, we wonder why his name is not invoked the same breath with kindred spirits like Poulenc, Weill or Varèse. The reasons that once might have explained this void in our culture's memory hardly seem valid today - just a few measures of his string quartets are enough to convince us of bis striking originality. As we celebrate the centennial of bis birth, it is time to rewrite the history books and make space for an unforgivable omission.

Roberto Kolb Neuhaus
© Copyright 1998 by Peermusic Ltd.

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