Silvestre Revueltas, La noche de los Mayas

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Symphonic Mexico, performed on Nov 17, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The life of Silvestre Revueltas was tragically short, but certainly not uneventful. He was born in Mexico and spent several years studying and working in the United States as a violinist, conductor, and composer. He was a revolutionary both in his modernistic approach to music and in his political views. In 1937, he traveled to Spain to devote his talents to the Republican cause in the Civil War (he made the trip as a member of a delegation of Mexican artists that also included the poet Octavio Paz). After his return from Spain, Revueltas became increasingly prone to depression and self-doubt. He died as a result of alcoholism at the age of 40. Pablo Neruda wrote a beautiful poem in his memory that he read at the funeral.

The uniqueness of Revueltas’s music lies in his original combination of Latin American popular music with progressive twentieth-century techniques. As composer-musicologist Peter Garland has observed in an essay on Revueltas, popular music does not merely appear as quoted material within an essentially European musical language; rather, the popular and the classical elements “dance and clash with each other in complete simultaneity in Revueltas’s music.”

Revueltas had a great interest in film music throughout his career and wrote scores for six Mexican films between 1935 and 1940. The suites derived from these innovative film scores have proven to be highly effective concert pieces.

The Redes [Nets] suite comes from a movie entitled La Ola [The Wave], which made history with the way it portrayed the struggle of a group of poor fishermen against their exploiters. In its present form, it was assembled from the film score by the great conductor Erich Kleiber. One of its emotional high points is the funeral of a child who has died of starvation, placed at the end of the first of two movements. The second movement represents the struggle of the workers and their eventual triumph.

The suite from La noche de los mayas [The Night of the Mayas] consists of four movements. In the first, a solemn fanfare alternates with a lyrical second melody. The second, “Noche de jaranas” [Night of Merrymakers] is a scherzo based on the rhythm of the son, a type of folk music known throughout Latin America. The third movement, “Noche de Yucatán” [Night of Yucatán], is marked, at various points, “espressivo,” “appassionato,” and “intenso,” which just about sums up the character of the music. There is a brief middle section in a faster tempo, for solo flute and percussion, inspired by another folk melody. The last movement, “Noche de encantamiento” [Night of Enchantment], opens with a haunting oboe melody followed by a set of variations featuring the large percussion section (there is even a cadenza where each percussionist improvises freely on a given rhythmic pattern).