GISÈLE BEN-DOR , conductor

Silvestre Revueltas :


Born on the last day of 1899, Silvestre Revueltas was a child of the twentieth century, not the nineteenth. His life's work was revolutionary - so much so that it tended to be overlooked, particularly after his tragic death, which came far too soon, at the age of forty.
This was longer than the lives of Schubert or Mozart, but, like Mussorgsky, alcoholism cut him off in his prime, when he when he and his compatriot Carlos Chavezwere jointly creating a modern Mexican music from two very different points of view. Chavezliked to evoke the essentially lost music of Mexico's pre-Columbian past, the ancient, even prehistoric world of the Mexican landscape and people. Revueltas lived very much in the present and drew upon the music heard in the plazas of the cities.
He eagerly absorbed folk and popular traditions, the music of the streets, the sounds of the twentieth century, both in terms of musical language and the sheer speed and volume. The tunes in his works, though seldom literal quotations, bear a popular imprint; they are enriched with bold, high-contrast instrumentation and dissonant harmonies or doublings (often in parallel sevenths).
The piercing trumpet and parallel melodic thirds are part and parcel of this traditional Mexican popular music. Revueltas avoids smooth, carefully crafted transition, too, as contrary to the style of the plaza; rather, a sudden pause and a lurch into a new beginning takes listener and player from one theme to another.
It cannot be a surprise that he was particularly inspired by Stravinsky (who, of course, had done much the same thing with Russian folk elements in his most influential works. The suggestion of popular source material, the sometimes deliberate roughness of his music, its refusal to create graceful links and plush sonorities, has reminded some listeners, especially in the United States, Charles Ives. But Revueltas remained always fundamentally Mexican.

Though Revueltas' talent appeared early, he came late to the realization composition would be his principal professional activity. He was trained from age eight as a violinist, studying first in his native Durango.
Between 1913 and 1916 he studied in Mexico City with Tello (composition) and Rocabruna (violin), Then he went to St. Edward College in San Antonio, Texas (1916-1918), followed by two years at the Chicago Musical College, where his violin teacher was Sametini and his composition teacher Felix Borowski. But after graduating, he made his living almost entirely as a violinist and conductor.
He composed, but the works of the 1920s are still largely romantic in conception and do not yet reveal the revolutionary composer of the 1930s

In the fate '20s Revueltas worked mostly in the United States, playing violin in theater orchestras in San Antonio and conducting an orchestra in Mobile, Alabama.
His friend Chavezcalled him back to Mexico City in 1929, to take the post of assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra. About this time, too, Revueltas began to realized that the life of the creator was to be his lot, and he began to turn out a number of works of a novelty that would astonish one who knew only the earlier music.
The "new" Revueltas really appeared in the four string quartets, all composed between June 1930 and March 1932.

For a few years, Chavez and Revueltas jointly promoted the cause of modern Mexican music, but relations between them became strained and led to a break about 1935.
No doubt several reasons for this development. Revueltas always remained a political and social radical, while Chavezincreasingly represented the establishment.
This gives rise to the common, if somewhat facile, juxtaposition viewing Revueltas as a man of the people and Chavezthe bourgeois and authoritarian figure. On top of this, Revueltas was a very difficult man to deal with on a social level, however courageously he clung to his artistic ideals.
The alcoholism that killed him was almost certainly brought on by a manic-depressive syndrome against which he struggled without avail. Yet of the two conductors, Revueltas - the second in command - was more popular with the players in the Mexico Symphony Orchestra.

And, as if to put the cap in the situation, there was the Redes affair. In 1934, a year before the breaking of their friendship, Chavez had invited filmmaker Paul Strand to Mexico with the aim of making an ethnographical documentary about a fisherman's village, for which Chavezwould compose the score. The film in question was to be Redes (Nets). Before it was finished, politics intervened. For the first and only time in recent Mexican history, a leader of the left, Làzaro Càrdenas was elected President in 1934, with the result that virtually all office-holders of the previous administration ost their jobs.
The filming of Redes was allowed to go ahead, since its focus on the lives of simple fishermen was appreciated by the new government; but the new Secretary of Education reassigned the composition of the score from Carlos Chavezto Revueltas, known to have views that accorded favorably with those of the government.
Chavez on the other hand, saw a compositional plum torn from his grasp and handed over to his former friend.

The score of Redes was a major accomplishment for Revueltas and marked not only the beginning of important creative activity in the world of cinema, but also the beginning of his last phase, in which he develops his own fusion of the polyrhythms of Stravinsky, the thematic styles and rhythms of Mexican urban music, and the colorful, assertive styles of mariachi and other popular genres. He writes music that, in the words of Peter Garland, "totally obliterates the boundaries of classical and popular musics."
In the last five years of his short life, Revueltas turned out a large proportion of his most important works, including Sensemay? and the homage to Lorca, all of his film scores, the best of which certainly transcend the medium for which they were composed to become significant scores purely for listening,

During these years, too, he went to Spain and fought on the Republican side against Franco; he tried to keep his family, including three much-Ioved daughters, together despite the increasing darkness of his inner world which led to periods of hospitalization and tormenting returns to the bottle that he hated but could not avoid.
His agonizing death for pneumonia, aggravated by his alcoholism, came, ironically, as his delightful ballet The Wondering Tadpole was just reaching the stage.

Following Revueltas' death, his music passed for a time into oblivion.
There were admirers, among them Leonard Bernstein, who found in Sensemay? a showpiece that suited his temperament. And gradually researchers began to trace the lines of his life and to clarify the situation with the music.
Foremost among these is Roberto Kolb Neuhaus (many passages in the present group of essays have been improved or even made possible by several of his articles and a telephone conversation).
The most significant studies of Revueltas in English are by Peter Garland and are gathered together in the volume In Search of Silvestre Revueltas published in 1991.

As so often happens, it takes a centennial to draw attention to a nearly forgotten composer of the past, even one so highly regarded by knowledgeable specialists and a certain "underground" cadre of admirers. Many times the centennials come and go, the composer's music is briefly brought to light, and then returns to its position in the shadows.
But the breadth and energy of the Revueltas revival bids fair to last, and it would not to be too bold a prediction to suggest that, one hundred years after his birth and sixty after his death, this composer's time has come.

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© 2011 Gisele Ben-Dor. All rights reserved.