The music of Silvestre Revueltas – "Sensemaya" and "Night of the Mayas"

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I discovered the Mexican composer Sivestre Revueltas in the early 90s in London, England. I was moved by his passion and rhythm.
I bought a Catalyst CD titled “The Night of the Mayas” with, among others, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by another great Mexican musician, the conductor Eduardo Mata.  
Revueltas sounded almost out of this world. I stress the word “almost”. His sound is the sound of the jungle, that has come to town and then decided to return to its origins. In this respect, he is extraordinarily different from Vila Lobos, even though they share the Latin American cultural background. It is unfortunate that Revueltas died in poverty of pneumonia at the age of 40.
Revueltas’ two major works are Sensemaya and the Night of the Mayas. 
Silvestre Revueltas
 
Sensemaya is a poem by Cuban poet Nicolas Guillén. The poem evokes a ritual Afro-Caribbean chant performed while killing a snake:
 
Sensemaya
(Chant to kill a snake)
 
¡Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
¡Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
¡Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
The snake has eyes of glass;,
The snake coils on a stick;,
With his eyes of glass on a stick,
With his eyes of glass.
The snake can move without feet;
The snake can hide in the grass;
Crawling he hides in the grass,
Moving without feet.
¡Mayombe-bombe-mayombe.!
Hit him with an ax and he dies;
Hit him! Go on, hit him!
Don’t hit him with your foot or he’ll bite;,
Don’t hit him with your foot, or he’ll get away.
Sensemayá, the snake,
sensemayá.
Sensemayá, with his eyes,
sensemayá.
Sensemayá, with his tongue,
sensemayá.
Sensemayá, with his mouth,
sensemayá.
The dead snake cannot eat;
the dead snake cannot hiss;
he cannot move,
he cannot run!
The dead snake cannot look;,
the dead snake cannot drink,;
he cannot breathe,
he cannot bite.
¡Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
Sensemayá, the snake . . .

Translated by Willis Knapp Jones. Spanish American Literature in Translation: A Selection of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama since 1888. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1963.

(You may recall Sensemaya from the soundtrack of “Sin City”.)

La noche de los Mayas

Revueltas composed his score for Chano Urueta’s film La noche de los mayas (“The Night of the Mayas”) in 1939.

La noche de los Mayas is the closest Revueltas came to a full-fledged symphony. Had he lived the additional ten years he wished for, he might have composed symphonies that would have rivaled those of his colleague, Carlos Chavez.

Washington’s Kennedy Center, gives us the following quick look of the work.

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.