Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection: Silvestre Revueltas

By Fleisher Collection RSS Wed, January 3, 2018

Saturday, January 6, 2018, 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

  • Silvestre Revueltas (1899–1940). Janitzio (1933)
  • Revueltas. Redes, Suite from the film (1935), arr. Erich Kleiber
  • Revueltas. La noche de los Mayas, Suite from the film (1939)

In the cold of the new year, Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection finds warmth in the music of the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. A fascinating, sad figure, he was a composer of reputation when he died at age 40 of pneumonia attributed to alcoholism.

He seemed always on the verge of gaining traction in his life that would always elude him. Born into an artistic family in an agricultural town, he studied music in Mexico City, Texas, and Chicago. He returned, soloed as a violinist, and was then appointed by Carlos Chávez as assistant conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) of Mexico. He married, divorced, and remarried, and after an apparent falling-out with Chávez, Revueltas left the NSO for another orchestra.

He joined the anti-fascist League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists and went to Spain in 1937 during its civil war. Mexico, one of the few countries to take sides officially, supported the Republican (anti-Nationalist) forces and gave refuge to Spanish artists and intellectuals. With General Franco's Nationalist victory, Revueltas returned to Mexico, but his career had stalled in the interim. Impoverished and failing in health, he continued to compose, but died on the very day a children’s ballet of his, The Wandering Tadpole, premiered.

The music of Silvestre Revueltas is infused with the sounds of Mexico, whether actual or only imagined. It is islands, fishermen, life and death, gaiety and sadness, contemporary dances, and ancient Maya. He was keenly aware that capturing a culture is a difficulty rising to impossibility.

Recognized melodies and popular rhythms are signposts, but the danger in relying on them lies in cliché. Revueltas joked about Janitzio: "Janitzio is a fishermen's island in Lake Pátzcuaro. Lake Pátzcuaro stinks. Romantic travelers have embellished it with verses and music of the picture-postcard type. Not to be outdone, I too add my grain of sand (in an infinite yearning for glory and renown). Posterity will undoubtedly reward my contributions to tourism." He knew this kind of nationalism sold well. He also reached back to ancient Indian peoples, but well knew composing his "savage" or violent music could also be a cartoonish way of describing a culture.

So he upped the ante and threw everything into the pot. Urban, peasant, Indian, Spanish, mestizo, dancing, and death all play a part in the lively, brutal, moving, and lyrical music of Silvestre Revueltas. Perhaps that is why the flexible palette of film music was so congenial to him. The Suite from Redes (Nets) is in two sections: the fishermen going out to sea and their return with one dead. The four movements of The Night of the Maya include gorgeous romanticism, a quick dance, a Maya tune, and a night of enchantment. Revueltas mixed in all the disparate elements of his country, and in doing so, he may not have summed up a culture, but he did create himself.

Listen to Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection the first Saturday of each month from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on WRTI 90.1 FM Philadelphia, 97.7 Reading, 97.1 Allentown, WJAZ 91.7 Harrisburg, 90.7 York, WRTL 90.7 Lancaster Ephrata Lebanon, WRTY 91.1 Mount Pocono, 94.9 Wilkes-Barre, 99.1 Pottsville, 106.1 Scranton, WRTQ 91.3 Ocean City, WRTX 91.7 Dover, and on the web at Hosted by Kile Smith, former Curator of the Fleisher Collection, and Jack Moore, Program Director of WRTI. Encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series can be heard every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. on WRTI-HD2 and you can explore the archives of the radio program essays dating back to 2002.

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