Notes from Mexico – March 27, 2015

Click here for the Spanish translation of the program notes.

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940): Sensemaya

Born on New Year’s Eve, 1899 in Santiago Papasquiaro in the northern state of Durango in Mexico, Revueltas studied violin as a youth. He came to the United State three times, for study in Chicago and Austin, Texas and for work as a theater musician in Texas and Alabama. He returned to Mexico City in 1929 to become assistant conductor to Carlos Chavez and the newly founded Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico. After seven years, differences with Chavez led to the founding of Revueltas’s own ensemble, the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional.

Revueltas wrote music steeped in the traditions of his country, without actually quoting folksongs as such. “Why should I put on boots and climb mountains for Mexican folklore if I have the spirit of Mexico deep within me?” he said.

Revueltas died of pneumonia in 1940. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians blames his early death on “exertions and irregular life.”

His last orchestral work was Sensemaya, composed in 1938 from a song for voice and small orchestra he had written the year before. It was introduced by the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico on December 18, 1938.

The title is a word meaning ritualistic popular rhythm or song. The work was inspired by a poem by the Cuban poet Nicolas Guillén subtitled “Chant to Kill a Snake.” The poem begins:



The snake has glassy eyes

The snake comes and coils itself around a tree

With its glassy eyes around a tree

With its glassy eyes around a tree.

The work is in three sections, each main tune separated by huge climaxes. The considerable percussion section includes timpani, piano, xylophone, claves, maracas, raspador, gourd, small Indian drum, bass drum, tom-toms, cymbals, gongs, glockenspiel and celesta.

Carlos Chávez (1899-1978): Piano Concerto

Born near Mexico City on June 13, 1899, Chávez was composing at the age of nine, producing his first symphony at twenty. Though he would later study harmony with Manuel Ponce, he was entirely self-taught in composition. After several tours of the United States, he returned to Mexico in 1928 to found the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico, which he conducted for twenty years.

The Piano Concerto was commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation in 1938. The work was introduced on January 4, 1942 at Carnegie Hall. Eugene List was the pianist, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the New York Philharmonic.

In his liner notes to Jorge Federico Osorio’s recording, Elbio Barilari writes: “The concerto’s monumental first movement is an exhaustive sample of Chávez’s mature musical language: sharp angles; strong rhythms; abrupt changes from one block of sound to another, often without any transition or preparation; and the use of native scales, grooves, and timbres–especially the intensive use of percussion and flutes with accents on the piercing sounds of E-flat clarinet and piccolo.”

In the second movement, “Chávez…offers a chamber-like sound with the piano striking strong chords in the lower register and the harp echoing those strokes. The double reeds introduce a short theme associated with indigenous sounds. What happens after that is very minimalist: a skillfully played game among these few elements and a progressive crescendo that dissolves into nothingness without offering the easy relief of a resolution.

“Despite its apparently calm title, the last movement…ranges from nervous to frenetic. It is not as demanding in its proportions or instrumental chemistry as the first movement. Even so, its whimsical nature, with passages at breakneck speed, demands a display of uncommon virtuosity which, if realized, will awaken the audience to an ovation that shakes the walls of the most massive orchestral hall.”

José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958): Huapango

Born in Guadalajara, Moncayo studied composition with Carlos Chávez, played jazz piano in local cabarets, and eventually became the conductor of the Mexican National Symphony Orchestra. He was one of the “Group of Four” Mexican composers who were dedicated to promoting a national music. He and another member, Blas Galindo, once visited the town of Alvarado in the state of Veracruz to collect folk music. There they encountered a dance called the “huapango.” Depending on the source, “huapango” is a corruption of the word “fandango,” or a word from the Náhuatl language meaning “the site where the wood is placed,” namely, the wooden planks for dancing.

Moncayo used three of these huapangos in an orchestral work first performed on August 15, 1941 by Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico, conducted by Carlos Chávez. It has become a second Mexican national anthem. A lyrical central section with solos for harp and winds is flanked by more rhythmic parts. In the last section, trumpet and trombone engage in a kind of musical duel.


~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2015.