The Guardian (London)
Sixty years after his death, Silvestre Revueltas is finally getting the acclaim he deserves. Andrew Clements discovers one of the greats of Latin music
A modern mariachi.
Michael Nyman and the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen are among Silvestre Revueltas' biggest fans. And yet, apart from a handful of discs and the occasional appearance in concert programs, his music is hardly known on this side of the Atlantic. In the US and his native Mexico, however, Revueltas' reputation is slowly being consolidated. His centenary - he was born on New Year's Eve 1899 - has given the cause a decisive push. The recent Revueltas festival in Santa Barbara included no fewer than 18 of his works alongside other pieces from Latin America, plus screenings of three films for which Revuletas wrote the soundtracks, a puppet show and an exhibition of manuscripts.
The connection between Revueltas and the Californian city is conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor, the Uruguayan-born musical director of the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra, who has fervently championed his cause for years. It's entirely due to Ben-Dor's energy and enthusiasm that the Revueltas festival took shape: she planned and conducted all the programs, and brought in the Revueltas scholar Roberto Kolb-Neuhause from Mexico City to prepare new editions for some of the works. It was a real labour of love for all involved, and endlessly fascinating and revealing for those like me who arrived knowing barely a handful of Revueltas' pieces.
It turns out that the man was as colorful as the music he wrote, and that the few of his pieces that are known - the orchestral Sensemaya, the abrasive Ocho por Radio, the naggingly compulsive Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca - are by no means just inspired flashes in the pan. In the 30s, the decade in which Revueltas composed all his major works (he died of alcoholism and pneumonia in 1940), he was a consistent and distinctive voice in contemporary music. He work, like that of all true originals, remains obstinately unclassifiable.
He's been called a Mexican Charles Ives, but that's a misleading parallel. Ives regularly introduced popular songs and hymn tunes into his scores as points of reference, but he regarded himself as a high-art composer. Revueltas' intentions were very different: he was aiming for a genuine synthesis between popular Mexican music and the Western art-music tradition. The bright, brittle sound of his scoring, the complexity of his rhythms and the acid tang of his harmonies owe as much to the mariachi bands of northern Mexico as they do to the modernist world of Stravinsky, Varese and Bartok, who seem to have been his major European influences. His body of work has a real radical agenda; Revueltas was a revolutionary, and the barriers he sought to break down were musical as well as social.
Born in the Mexican province of Durango, Revueltas trained first as a violinist. He studied in the US and remained there to earn his living conducting and playing in theatre bands. During that time he composed very little; the pieces that he did write have a vaguely French flavour and, apart from the odd flash of sardonic humour, neither show individuality nor hint at the music to come. A little piano study from 1924 has no claim to distinction apart from its title, Tragedy in the Form of a Radish, which pokes not-so-gentle fun at Erik Satie.
It was only after Revueltas returned home in 1929 to become assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra that his creativity exploded and the first distinctive pieces began to appear. With his fellow conductor-composer Carlos Chavez and painters like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, he championed the cause of a nationalist Mexican art. When a left-wing government was elected in Mexico in 1934 he began writing socialist realist music for the state-sponsored cinema. Some of the films haven't aged well, but Redes (one of Fred Zinnemann's early successes as a director) was screened in Santa Barbara with Revueltas' wonderfully paced, humane score played live by the SBSO under Ben-Dor.
In the next five years Revueltas wrote another nine film scores and a stream of concert works; in 1937 he travelled to Spain to join the fight against Franco. He was an alcoholic and possibly a manic depressive, yet his music retained its ebullience to the end of his short life. It'' in the clashing mariachi-isms of Ocho, the busy, almost dangerously vapid outer sections of Homenaje, framing a heart-felt lament for Lorca, and the gentle, rather surreal humor of the children's ballet The Wandering Tadpole.
Revueltas' pieces, their sound world, their collage-like patterning of themes and essentially non-developmental forms, are products of a genuinely modernist sensibility. He often relies on three-part, fast-slow-fast structures, but within that simple shape the ordering of events and the shifts of perspectives have their own logic, sometimes almost a constructivist basis.
Occasionally the language clings too closely to the models: the recently rediscovered children's entertainment Once Upon a Time There Was a King, from 1940, is heavily mortgaged to Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, while the string-orchestra version of Cuauhnahuac (1931) sounds more like Bartok than Revueltas. But a work like Planos (1934), with its sensuous superposition of independent rhythmic and melodic layers, or the explosive, virtuostic Toccata (without a Fugue), a condensed, one-movement violin concert from 1933, or the Two Little Serious Pieces for wind (1940) which are anything but conventionally serious, could only have been written by Revueltas.
Establishing the boundaries of that creative identity was the Santa Barbara festival's aim. The programmes were sometimes too long (prefacing the screening of Redes with the US premiere of Villa-Lobos's interminably rambling Tenth Symphony was a mistake) and the performances weren't always perfect: this is music that requires rhythmic tautness of a very special order, and the kind of technical expertise that makes the hardest passages seem effortless. They they demonstrated inescapably that this is important, devastatingly endearing music. There's no doubt that alongside the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, and (on a good day) the Brazilian Villa-Lobos, Revueltas is the most considerable figure that Latin American music has yet produced.