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La noche de los mayas

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Silvestre Revueltas
© Richard Freed
Revueltas composed his score for Chano Urueta's film La noche de los mayas ("The Night of the Mayas") in 1939. Some twenty years after the composer's death, his compatriot José Ives Limantour went through this score and edited portions of it to form the concert suite, which was given its premiere by the Guadalajara Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ives Limantour, on January 30, 1961. A stunning cadenza for the expanded percussion in the final movement was added by Enrique Arturo Diemecke, the conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México, about fifteen years ago, with the permission of the Revueltas family. It is the Diemecke edition that is used in this week's performances, the first given by the National Symphony Orchestra since Leonard Slatkin introduced the work into the orchestra's repertory in a percussion festival in October 2001, with performances at home on the 5th and 6th, and at Carnegie Hall on the 13th.

The score calls for 2 flutes doubling piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 B-flat clarinets doubling E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, 2 snare drums (one without snare), bongos, Indian drum, tom tom, deep conga, caracol (conch shell), guiro, metal rattle, tam-tam, tumkul (2 deep woodblocks of different pitch), xylophone, piano, and strings. Duration, 32 minutes.
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Revueltas lived the sort of life on which romantic fiction is built. He was an impulsive, idealistic, tragic figure, with a classic disregard for practicality or materialism. His family was poor and constantly on the move, and yet he was able to begin serious musical training when he was eight years old and to pursue his studies on increasingly higher levels in both Mexico and the United States. He entered the National Conservatory in Mexico City before he was 15, and went from there to St. Edward College in Austin, Texas, and the Chicago Musical College (where one of his teachers was the composer, conductor and critic Felix Borowski). On a second sojourn in Chicago, in his early twenties, Revueltas continued his violin studies under the visiting European masters Otakar Ševcík and Paul Kochánski, and later in the same decade he was in the U.S. twice again, playing in a theater orchestra in San Antonio and conducting one in Mobile, Alabama. In 1928 Mexico's pre-eminent musical figure Carlos Chávez, who had accompanied Revueltas in his Mexican recitals, invited him to return as assistant conductor of the newly created Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México, and Revueltas shifted his performing emphasis from violin to conducting. It was during his six seasons with Chávez's orchestra that he became a composer and was drawn into political activism.

After teaching at the National Conservatory, conducting its student orchestra, and making an unsuccessful attempt to establish a new professional orchestra in Mexico City, Revueltas followed his anti-fascist sympathies to Spain during that country's civil war, to work in the Loyalist government's cultural section. His various commitments drove him to alcoholism and left him exhausted, physically, emotionally and financially. His ballet for children, El renacuajo paseador ("The Strutting Tadpole"), received its premiere on the night he died. Some 36 years later his remains were moved, with a fitting ceremony, from their original modest resting place to the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres in Mexico City.

Revueltas did not respond to conventional forms. Although he did write string quartets early in his early years, symphonies and concertos do not figure among his compositions. He excelled in brief descriptive pieces--the best-known being his orchestral fantasy Sensemayá, based on the Cuban poet Nicolás Giullén's verses on the ritual killing of a snake--and in music for the movies. He was one of the earliest composers to distinguish themselves in the creation of film scores, and his music for the Mexican government's 1936 documentary Redes ("Nets," also known as "The Wave," the subject being fishermen) became one of his most successful concert works in the form of the suites arranged by the famous Viennese conductor Erich Kleiber (the father of the late Carlos Kleiber). This was perhaps Revueltas's happiest métier; he composed six more film scores after Redes, and it was his penultimate effort in that genre that gave us, in a posthumous arrangement by another Mexican musician, the closest thing we have to a symphony by him, the colorful and impactive suite that concludes this week's concerts.

The decade of the 1930s was a remarkable one for all the arts in Mexico. Chávez was busily solidifying and expanding the foundations of the country's musical life, the work of the painter Diego Rivera was everywhere (like Rivera, Revueltas's short-lived younger brother Fermín was a muralist), and the country's film industry was one of the most active and adventurous in the world. La noche de los mayas, directed by Chano Urueta in 1939, was built around the idea that the Mayans, a morally and intellectually superior people, were confidently awaiting a sign from their gods to rise up and reclaim their ancient land for the benefit of all its inhabitants. While the film itself has been written off as a failure, the score Revueltas provided for it proved to be one of Mexico's musical treasure.

The suite assembled by Limantour stands as the largest in scale of all Revueltas's concert works, and the closest of them to a symphony. Its four-part structure also offers a sort of parallel to the similarly proportioned one Virgil Thomson produced from his own score for Pare Lorentz's 1937 documentary The River--a parallel in the sense that neither of these suites is a mere pastiche of fetching fragments, each being nothing less than a full-scale descriptive symphony, faithful both to symphonic structure and to the dramatic sense of the music's original function. The four movements of Revueltas's "posthumous symphony" may be summarized as follows:

I. NOCHE DE LOS MAYAS (Molto sostenuto) is an atmospheric piece, mysterious, brooding, suggesting perhaps mighty powers now dormant, images of volcanoes and pyramids. The middle section is brighter and lyrical, but the movement ends as it began.

II. NOCHE DE JARANAS (Scherzo, "Night of Revelry"). Jarana is not only a Spanish term for "revelry," but in Mexico the name of a particular dance form in which Spanish and native influences are blended. Experts in such matters suggest likenesses to the huapango, the jarabe and the son. This scherzo fairly bursts with activity and stunning colors, and is filled with surprising and frequently humorous turns. It is quite a workout for the orchestra, and for the large percussion section in particular.

III. NOCHE DE YUCATáN (Andante espressivo). The "slow movement" alludes to the Yucatán peninsula as home to the Mayans in their magnificent second period. This nocturne is not so much mystical as straightforwardly voluptuous and impassioned. The strings carry the main burden, with imaginative support from clarinets, horns and tuba. Less voluptuous but more touchingly intimate is an interlude in which a solo flute, accompanied by an Indian drum and rattle, introduces the gently melancholy tune of a Mayan song still sung in parts of Yucatán, the Xtoles, a paean to the day's end and twilight. When the strings resume the opening material they are muted, and this passage leads without pause to the final and most elaborate movement.

IV. NOCHE DE ENCANTAMIENTO (Theme and Variations, "Night of Enchantment") begins in an atomosphere of heightened tension and anticipation. After about a minute and a half comes the aforementioned cadenza devised by Enrique Diemecke, based on various works of Revueltas: material for guïro (a notched gourd, of Cuban origin) and native tambourine, recognizable as having come from the second movement of this suite; a drum figure from the Homenaje a García Lorca; a xylophone motif from Sensemayá. Once the variations get under way, the music becomes increasingly charged and frenzied. The listener is not likely to notice the transition from one variation to the next, but rather to be swept up in the almost frightening momentum and abandon of the music, as the brasses give out primordial chants and the percussion become more and more assertive, not merely punctuating the rhythm but driving the whole unstoppable and ever expanding force of the wild celebration--a grand sacrificial dance, perhaps, which, like the one at the end of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, does not so much come to an end as simply exhaust itself.