A half century ago, Carlos Chávez (1899-1978)—a protean force as composer, conductor and cultural missionary—embodied “Mexican music.” By comparison, fellow composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) blazed a short and disordered trail. Tortured by creative demons, he composed for days on end without food or drink and died before his career reached its zenith. In today’s shifting musical landscape, Chávez’s modernist pedigree matters less, while Revueltas has become at least as dominant a figure and worthy of consideration as one of Mexico’s most notable 20th-century composers.
The legacy of both composers was the subject of “Two Faces of Mexican Music: Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas Revisited,” a week-long festival held March 11-16. The free, public event, which featured concerts, films and a symposium, was sponsored jointly by the Library’s Music, Hispanic and Rare Book and Special Collections divisions; the Mexican Cultural Institute; The Mexican Ministry of Culture; the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; and the Department of Film Programs at the National Gallery of Art.
“It was an extraordinary and vibrant celebration of Mexican music and culture,” said Music Division Chief Susan H. Vita, “and a product of cooperation and collaboration.”
Hispanic Division Chief Georgette Dorn characterized the event as “a high point in our long-standing association with the Mexican community.”
The opening event on March 11 was hosted by the Mexican Cultural Institute. The Post-Classical Ensemble under music director Angel Gil-Ordoñez, performed Chávez’s “Xochipilli,” commissioned in 1940 to commemorate a Mexican art exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art. Barbara Tenenbaum, Mexican cultural specialist in the Hispanic Division, discussed the exhibit and Mary Kay Vaughan from the University of Maryland at College Park spoke of music and nation-building in Mexico during the same time period.
The National Gallery of Art hosted the closing event—the screening of “Redes” and “¡Vamonos con Pancho Villa!”— two films made in 1936 that feature music by Revueltas. Revueltas also appears as the bar’s piano player in the latter film.
For its part, the Library of Congress hosted a series of concerts, lectures and a symposium. The Library’s Coolidge Auditorium was a fitting venue for the concerts. Chávez and Revueltas were mutually acquainted with American composer Aaron Copland, well-known for “Appalachian Spring,” a work commissioned for Martha Graham by the founder of the Library’s concert series, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. With her support, the Coolidge Auditorium opened in 1925, and since that time has remained the venue for world-class performers and numerous world premieres of Library commissions. Less known is the fact that Mrs. Coolidge also commissioned a ballet from Chávez, titled “Dark Meadow,” which was not completed in time for the performance. It is from that ballet that he derived his Third String Quartet.
On March 12, Leonora Saavedra of the University of California at Riverside joined Tenenbaum in a pre-concert lecture on the life and work of Chávez. The concert featured a debut performance by Camerata Interamericana, the newly-formed resident ensemble of the organization of American States. With Mariano Vales conducting, the group performed Chávez’s String Symphony No. 5 (commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation). Vales also included works that are in the Library’s collections: the “Saraband” from “Dark Meadow” and two pieces by Mexican composer Alberto Nepomuceno.
The following evening, prior to a concert by Cuarteto Latinoamericano, quartet member Aron Bitran and Revueltas scholar Roberto Kolb-Neuhaus from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México joined Joseph Horowitz, artistic director of the Post-Classical Ensemble, in a pre-concert lecture on the string quartets of Chávez and Revueltas. The Cuarteto then performed Revueltas’ Complete String Quartets along with Chávez’s Third String Quartet.
In his program notes, Kolb-Neuhaus expressed his appreciation for “the rare opportunity to hear their music together, particularly their string quartets, which open a window onto their innermost selves, unadorned by symphonic pomp and unconcerned with popular applause—[making] the meaningful links that unite these two Mexicans clearly audible.”
On March 14, Kolb-Neuhaus and Horowitz joined Gregorio Luke, former director of the Museum for Latin American Art in California, and special guest Eugenia Revueltas, daughter of the composer, for a pre-concert discussion. The concert featured the Post-Classical Ensemble with vocalist Eugenia León.
The Library’s day-long symposium was held on March 15. The morning session featured a lecture by Kolb-Neuhaus titled “The Four Voices in Silvestre Revueltas.” It was followed by a lecture by James Krippner on the film “Redes.” Krippner, associate professor of history at Haverford College, is the author of a forthcoming book on Paul Strand, the cinematographer of “Redes.”
Attendees were then treated to a tour of the Library’s exhibition “Exploring the Early Americas” led by Arthur Dunkelman, curator of the Library’s Jay I. Kislak Collection. The exhibition features selected items from the Kislak Collection. (See Information Bulletin, January/February 2008). These include rare books, maps, paintings, and other materials relating to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
The afternoon session featured lectures titled “The Unknown Chávez” by Saavedra, and “Chávez and Revuletas: The Cultural Context” by Luke.
The week-long celebration of the two composers was enthusiastically received. Referring to Revueltas’s quartets, Washington Post reviewer Robert Battey wrote, “The music tickled the ear, as one’s mind grasped at imagined or real influences. But Revueltas’s undeniable originality left the strongest impression… . [The final concert] showed that Revueltas could create sophisticated absolute music that was completely self-contained, without need for any cultural message or referent.”
Carlos Chávez, left, ca. 1937, was born on June 13, 1899, near Mexico City. As a child he studied piano and began composing elebaorate works in his teens. In the early 1920s he traveled to France, Austria and German, where he became acquainted with modern musical developments. After living in New York City for several years, he returned home in 1928 to found the Mexico Symphony Orchestra. That same year he was appointed director of the National Conservatory in Mexico City. During the six years he held that position, he spearheaded projects to collect aboriginal folk music. From 1947 to 1952, Chávez was director general of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and for many years maintained a busy, international touring schedule. He died in Mexico City in 1978.
Silvestre Revueltas, left, ca. 1935, was born in Durango, Mexico, on Dec. 31, 1899. He studied violin at the National Conservatory in Mexico City, St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and the Chicago College of Music. In 1929, he was invited by Carlos Chávez to become assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1935. With Chávez, he did much to promote contemporary Mexican music. It was around this time that Revueltas began to compose in earnest, including film scores. He died in 1940 of pneumonia, complicated by alcoholism.
Tomás C. Hernández, a senior producer for “Concerts from the Library of Congress” in the Library’s Music Division, contributed to this article.