The terrific Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble is noted for creative and provocative programs bridging art forms and cultures, incorporating folk song, dance, film and poetry into its performances in order to engage and inform. Here they present an hour of music by the remarkable Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, with Mexican pop diva Eugenia Léon and the Cuarteto Latinoamericano as partners. Complex and colorful, these pieces make the case for the composer as a major figure in 20th century music. For an introduction to his work and to this broadcast, take a look at Revueltas scholar Roberto Kolb’s essays on this site, describing the composer as “at once an adamant cosmopolitan and a sentimental Mexicanist,” shaping his nation’s cultural identity with “a declaration of an aesthetic and political credo: music for music’s sake, but nevertheless profoundly imbued with social meaning.”
Post-Classical Ensemble: Founded by conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez and musicologist Joseph Horowitz, the Post-Classical Ensemble made its Kennedy Center debut in 2005 in "Celebrating Don Quixote." In association with the American Film Institute and Naxos Records, the group has performed and recorded two classical documentaries.
Angel Gil-Ordóñez: Born in Madrid, Mr. Gil-Ordóñez has conducted symphonic music, opera and ballet throughout Europe, the United States and Latin America, with such orchestras and organizations as the American Composers Orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Munich Philharmonic and the Bellas Artes National Theatre in Mexico City.
Joseph Horowitz: Joseph Horowitz has long been a pioneer in classical music programming. As Executive Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, he received national attention for festivals exploring the folk roots of concert works. Now an artistic advisor to various American orchestras, he has created more than three dozen interdisciplinary music festivals since 1985.
Cuarteto Latinoamericano: The Cuarteto Latinoamericano, formed in 1982, is known worldwide as the leading proponent of Latin American music for string quartet. This award-winning ensemble from Mexico consists of the three Bitrán brothers—Arón Bitrán, second violin; Alvaro Bitrán, cello; Saúl Bitrán, first violin—with violist Javier Montiel.
Eugenia León: Eugenia León is one of Mexico’s most prominent artists, with the distinction of winning the Agustin Lara Medal. In addition to her vocal performances, she appears in her own television program and is featured on a weekly radio program, “Meeting Eugenia León.”
James Demster: James Demster is the musical director of the Compañía Mexicana de Zarzuela “Domingo-Embil,” founded by the parents of Plácido Domingo, and is the artistic director of the Coro de Madrigalistas de Bellas Artes of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City. He is a professor at the Escuela Superior de Música.
All works by Revueltas
Quartet No. 4 (“Música de Feria”) 
Interview with Saúl Bitrán
Canción de cuna (1938/39)
Homenaje a Federica Garcia Lorca (1936)
Canto a una muchacha negra (1938)
Song Texts and Notes
Revueltas: Magueyes (Agaves)
A song for drinking and for love, Magueyes, named for the Agave plant from which tequila is derived, is a traditional Mexican song from Jalisco.
I pray to heaven that the Magueys wither and die
For those magueys have been my downfall:
I’m a drunk and don’t like anything at all
For the woman I loved so will not be mine.
I order a glass and drink it with pleasure,
Then order a second, which I like, then another.
I go out onto the street and let out a cry,
For the woman I loved so will not be mine.
Revueltas: Song for a Dark Girl
Translated into Spanish by Xavier Villaurrutia from the original poem by Langston Hughes. Revueltas set Canto a una muchacha negra to music in 1938.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my dark young lover
To a cross roads tree.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.
Revueltas: Canción de Cuna (Lullaby)
Revueltas’ song Canción de cuna is based on poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, a tragic play in which a young bride runs away with another lover and is subsequently killed by her husband.
Wife: Sleep, clove pink. / The horse won’t drink.
Mother-in-law: Sleep, rose tree. / The horse will weep.
(Translation, Michelle Suderman)
Nicolas Guillén’s Afro-Cuban snake-killing ritual poem is the inspiration for this wordless symphonic poem by Revueltas. The sound of the poem’s text has been musicalized in the complex rhythmic structure of the piece.
Sensemayá is popularly known in its 1938 large orchestra form, featuring 27 winds, a full string complement, and 14 different percussion instruments. The Sensemayá heard on this program, however, is the rarely-performed chamber version, written in 1937 for eight winds, three strings, three percussionists, and piano.
Excerpts from The Four Selves of Silvestre Revueltas
Essay by Roberto Kolb, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Trying to find common traits that would allow us to approach Silvestre Revueltas’s oeuvre in an orderly fashion is a futile enterprise. This Mexican composer could experiment with the most advanced grammars of his time one day, jump back to writing a romantic tone poem the next, and then mix the old with the new the day after. One moment he was satirical, and a moment later, he was dead serious. He claimed to compose for the common people of his country, but his language was strident and complex. He was at once an adamant cosmopolitan and a sentimental Mexicanist. He defended the educational virtues of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, while at the same time using it to provoke and ridicule its audience. One cannot speak of a clear beginning or a logical sequence or an end in the erratic unfolding of his compositional practices. Hence, we will follow his example and begin at the end.
Against the Ancestral Apathy and Cavernous Obscurity of Academic Musicians
Sometimes one needs to be far from home in order to define oneself. While in Republican Spain in 1937, visiting the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, Revueltas was called upon to do just that:
Carlos Chávez, the iron musician—which is what I used to call him when we were working together—organized Mexico’s musical activity and production. We were a small group with a common drive and a lot of destructive energy. … Our fresh and joyful impetus fought against the ancestral apathy and cavernous obscurity of academic musicians. We washed, cleaned, swept out the old Conservatory which was crumbling under the weight of tradition, termites and glorious sadness. The Orquesta Sinfónica de México was founded, and Stravinsky, Debussy, Honegger, Milhaud and Varèse startled millenary professors who cultivated termites and audiences anesthetized by a Beethoven that was prescribed to them every other year and the year after … with ghastly performances that were nonetheless well-liked by the docile listeners.
This is the voice of a modernist enfant terrible. It is also the voice that can be heard on and off in pieces composed early (or not so early) in his career. It could first be heard in the music Revueltas composed while working as a violinist in silent movie theaters in San Antonio and Mobile. It was there that he concocted an initial experiment, which he gave the enigmatic name of Batik (1926). Contrary to what one might expect, there is nothing exotic about the music: if anything, it points to the modernity of composers such as Milhaud and Auric, whose works Revueltas had performed a year earlier in a concert of new music that Chávez had organized in Mexico City.
The National Self and Its Representations
When Revueltas launched his career as a composer, he was confronted with an audience that demanded music that was recognizably Mexican. Many artists defined themselves as either nationalist or modernist—as if such stances were mutually exclusive. Revueltas refused to get caught up in this false dilemma. He was proudly Mexican as well as modern. His choice of local sources and the way they appeared in his works revealed his varying viewpoints regarding the problem of the national self and its representation.
In order to prove and define their local filiation, composers chose symbols strategically. The older Romantic generation tended to incorporate music from the past, often derived from the Spanish folklore that had profoundly marked Mexican culture as a result of so many years of colonization. Younger composers turned to Mexico’s many ethnic groups in search of symbols that were free of colonial stigma. Revueltas’s choices reflected the avant-garde aesthetic and political vindication of "low" culture, infusing his compositions with the coarse mestizo music associated with urban "soundscapes": the music that could be heard in Mexico City’s cantinas, and which came mainly from the region known as Los Altos de Jalisco.
One such tune was the love and drinking song "Magueyes" (named for the plant from which both pulque and tequila are derived), which falsely posed as the leitmotif for Revueltas’s Second Quartet. Revueltas’s interest in this song, however, could not have been more personal. It comes from Jalisco, as did most of his favorite Mexican music. Moreover, Revueltas was already becoming known for his fondness of alcohol, and it is probably no coincidence that he chose, perhaps satirically, a drinking song as a kind of personal signature. The folklore of Los Altos has since become very famous. It drew the interest of Juan Rulfo—born in Sayula, Jalisco—whose world-renowned novels display an expert knowledge of the region’s rural culture. Among the samples of folklore that Rulfo collected was the text of the picaresque "El gavilán" ("The Sparrowhawk"), recently set to music by the young Mexican composer Marcial Alejandro.
Two years after writing 8 x Radio, Revueltas mysteriously turned his back on his mischievous antinationalist provocations, composing two straightforwardly nationalistic pieces. They are contained as movements of his popular Homenaje a Federico García Lorca (Homage to Federico García Lorca, 1936). The draft of the first movement, "Baile" ("Dance"), bears the subtitle "cuasi [sic] indio" ("quasi-Indian") but there is nothing to suggest an ironic intent here or in the music itself. Not unlike Chávez a year earlier in his Sinfonía India (Indian Symphony), Revueltas draws melodic and rhythmic inspiration from surviving ethnic melodies which were presumed to have pre-Hispanic origins.
The main theme flows forth without a trace of Revueltas’s usual harshness and strident contrapuntal noise. In essence, we hear an often repeated and only slightly varying tune in a setting of very Petrushkian ostinato textures. The third movement—"Son"—employs one of Revueltas’s favorite signs of local identity: the popular musical genre from Los Altos de Jalisco named son. It is presented here as a dominant, pervasive theme, leaving behind an unquestionable Mexicanistic taste and assuring the corresponding applause.
How can we explain such a radical change of heart regarding the representation of the National Self? Had Revueltas joined enemy ranks? Homenaje was composed and performed for an entirely different listener: first performed at a political rally organized by the League of Revolutionary Artists and Writers (lear) in collaboration with the Communist Youth of Mexico and the Republican Frente Popular Español, and soon after, in representation of lear at the government-sponsored Congress of National Writers and Artists, which had a much broader political platform. It was also performed during Revueltas’s visit to Republican Spain in 1937. These were audiences of political peers that needed to be seduced rather than provoked.
A desire to meet their nationalistic expectations—which seemed to be the same for both the Right and the Left—is easily understandable. The strange combination of the two nationalistic styles—"Baile" and "Son"—with the "Duelo" ("Mourning") forced into their midst (thus appealing to the audience’s sympathy with the Republican cause) mirrored the political identity of the rally’s participants: a marriage of convenience.
The Black Poets
Whatever the balance between nation-building and emancipated cosmopolitan modernity in Revueltas’s music, its interest clearly cannot be reduced to the presence and role of Mexican symbols. For one thing, he also resorted to the popular music of other cultures, such as the Blues and Afro-Cuban rhythms. He did so not in order to paint other landscapes, but to represent political concerns. These played a much more important role than the issue of musical patriotism in his life and his music.
Political concerns surface in most of his compositions, from his first one in 1924—"The Knife Sharpener," for violin and piano—to his last, the ballet music for La Coronela, heroine of the Mexican Revolution. The subjects of Revueltas’s political passion are usually represented by the voices of the poor street vendor or musician, but on occasion by others as well, such as the slaves in colonial Cuba or the black girl "way down south in Dixie." It might come as a surprise that America’s famous black poet Langston Hughes spent some time south of the border during his childhood and returned there to teach English in 1920.
As a poet, he became quite popular in Mexico during the 1930s, and several of his poems were translated and published in an important modernist journal, Contemporáneos. This might have been Revueltas’s inspiration when he chose a translation of Song of a Dark Girl to compose his heartbreaking Canto para una muchacha negra in 1938. Revueltas, for his part, might have coincided with Hughes in Spain, where the latter worked as a newspaper correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American. Although nothing is known about an actual encounter between poet and composer, the chances of it are hardly remote.
But the work of another Black poet left an even deeper impression on Revueltas than that of Hughes. In January of 1937, the celebrated Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén had been invited to participate in a congress organized in Mexico by the previously mentioned lear, headed by Silvestre Revueltas at the time. This encounter led to a solid friendship, further deepened by their joint travels to Republican Spain. During Guillén’s stay in Mexico, he wrote his collection Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas ("Songs for Soldiers and Sones for Tourists"), which contains not only the poem "Fusilamiento" ("Execution"), dedicated to Revueltas, but also "No sé por qué piensas tú, soldado…" ("I don’t know, soldier, why you think…"), which the composer set to music in a number of different versions.
Around the same time, Guillén must have introduced Revueltas to his earlier collection, West Indies Ltd., written in Cuba in 1934, soon after the Batista coup. While remaining faithful to the Afro-Cuban language that the poet had distilled from mulatto rhythms and traditions, this collection of poems took a significant turn into the domain of the political. The combined expressive format—a poetry drawn from music and imbued with social significance—must have appealed to Revueltas’s political side. He set a first poem from West Indies Ltd—"Caminando" ("Walking")—to music in two versions: one for voice and piano and another for voice and small orchestra, the latter dedicated to the poet. Perhaps significantly, Revueltas scored the orchestral version so that the voice could be omitted: thus poetry that had been derived from music would be returned again to its original medium.
Three months later, Revueltas musicalized a second poem, "Sensemayá"—this time leaving out the words altogether. Guillén’s poem has been interpreted as an allegory for the need for and means of definitive liberation. The act of liberation is played out by two characters: the snake-charmer and the snake, presumably representing imperialism and the oppressed. The music also brings two actors face to face, each one represented by an identifying musical code. The sense of "struggle" is quite evident throughout the piece, as is the defeat of the "snake" at the end.
Last Updated: 01/26/2010