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Feature Fridays: Silvestre Revueltas

In the music library's ongoing series, this week's feature is from student assistant Ryan Jacobs, who discusses the works of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.

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For National Hispanic Heritage Month, Music Library Assistant Ryan Jacobs has chosen three Latin American composers to highlight from the Naxos Music Library. This is part three of a three part series. These individuals were chosen as some of the premier examples of composers whose work has been shaped heavily by the culture and influence of their native lands and lands where they traveled.

Silvestre Revueltas

The final composer I’d like to highlight in this series is Silvestre Revueltas, a Mexican composer who seamlessly combined the traditions and worlds of Mexican folk and neoclassical music. Where many composers had used folk tunes as quotation and reference, Revueltas brings out the raw characteristics of the music, celebrating their individuality without dilution.

Homenaje a Garcia Lorca is a piece written in the wake of the murder of poet Federico Garcia Lorca and is one of Revuelta’s best-known works. The free-flowing trumpet solo set the mood in the outset of the piece, and the instrumentation (notably without low woodwind, cello, or viola) is meant to evoke a Mexican village band, and includes references to folk music such as Andalusian songs sung by prisoners awaiting sentence.

Sensemaya is an orchestral work based on a Cuban poem about the killing of a snake, which is a ceremony with African origins. It is another one of Revueltas’ most famous compositions. It is known for the instrumental additions of folk percussion, dissonant harmonies, and complex winding rhythms that evoke serpentine imagery.

The poem tells the story of Lucero, a princess transformed by a magician of the tribe into a snake, in revenge for her rejection of him. Men hunt the snake, which is eventually killed by the magician himself. As he does this, he dies and the spell is broken; Lucero has her soul back, to the joy of the tribe. (Naxos)

The final piece I’d like to highlight is Revueltas’ score for the film La noche de los mayas. Written the year before his death, the music evokes Mayan culture through heavy use of percussion, specifically indigenous Mexican percussion such as the guiro (scraped gourd) and caracol (conch shell).

The work is cast in four movements, the first, “Noche de los mayas”, beginning with ominous percussion blows but thereafter evoking an ominously tense but trance-like state. The second, “Noche de jaranas,” is a frenzied dance, with constantly changing metres and a colorful use of brass and woodwind characteristic of Mexican bands. This is followed by a sensual, nocturnal movement, “Noche de Yucatán”, the only one to employ a genuine Maya melody; Revueltas made a point of avoiding the use of indigenous materials in general. “Noche de encantamiento” the final movement, dramatically suggests a sinister magic ritual, working up a frenzied dance from initial chaos, with driving percussion and an obbligato for the conch shell, almost like the fulfilment of the promise of the first movement: it is music quite unlike any other. (Naxos)

It is my hope that this series provides a jumping-off point for the exploration of Latin American music, which is as rich as it is distinct. As varied as the music of North America and Europe are, it can be argued that the music of Latin America is even more diverse.

In addition to the three composers highlighted in this series, there are many other hispanic and latinx composers’ works available to listen to via Naxos. We have prepared a playlist including some of this great music! This list is by no means exhaustive, as there are a myriad of high-quality recordings of incredible works of music by hispanic composers available through Naxos, and further research and listening (either independently or with the assistance of the Music Library) is highly recommended.