Saturday, 23 June 2012

Revueltas, the Sharpener

A series of quietly interlocking ostinatos on horns and low woodwinds begins. Over this drowsy backdrop (strongly suggestive of a hot, sultry, summer afternoon) a flute plays a wisp of melody in its highest register then disappears. The drowsy backdrop of interlocking ostinatos continues and a cor anglais enters varying and expanding  the wisp of melody into a fuller melody.The flute joins it and then they both stop. The drowsy backdrop of interlocking ostinatos continues. The flute re-sings its wisp of melody and the cor anglais re-sings its full-blown melody in counterpoint with it. A clarinet joins in. Soon there's a babble of them at it and the music breaks down. New ostinatos weave a new drowsy backdrop and new wisps of melody are spun into a melodies that are set against each other until there's another mêlée. Everyone stops, except for a bassoon who tootles on until realising and then stops itself. The process begins anew and there's an exciting climax where instruments join together to sing a sharply-etched melodic phrase. A pause takes us back to the start as if the piece is beginning all over again. After one-run through two groups of three players play alternating, slightly dissonant chords and the flute plays its high-register wisp of melody one last time adding its last note to the final chord. 

We have been visited by the Sharpener, El afilador - the first masterpiece of Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), the wild man of modern Mexican music. The piece, in its 1929 reincarnation, is for wind septet, though it was written for violin and piano in 1924. The wind-sound of the septet version was to remain a key feature of Revueltas's music throughout his short composing career, until his alcoholism-induced early death. So were the ostinatos, strong rhythms and the memorable melodies - and the humour. Where does the powerful soundworld of El afilador come from? Many places no doubt, some never existing prior to appearing fully-formed in the composer's head. You could say though that there's something of the Prélude à la nuit from Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole about it, albeit severely toughened up by the more acid style of post-Rite Stravinsky (pieces like The Soldier's Tale) or the instrumental innovations of Edgard Varèse (as in, say, Octandre)

Revueltas remains (in the world's eye), along with his one-time friend Chávez, Mexico's most famous composer. He is a rougher, tougher-sounding composer than Chávez and his scores can be dark and exciting. Probably his best-known piece, Sensemayá, evokes chanting during the ritual killing of a snake. Even in its full orchestral version, the sharp wind sonorities help given it that unique Revueltas sound, as do the ostinatos, the strong rhythms and the memorable melodies. Even though the ritual evoked is Afro-Cuban in origin, the music does have something of the character of Chávez's Aztec-style pieces, with percussion to the fore, but Revueltas's ritual is more primitive-sounding, more pungent, more dissonant that Chávez's equivalent pieces. (I wouldn't say scarier though, as the climax of Sinfonia India is one of the scariest passages of music I know). Comparisons are often made to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and they are understandable, but I've long suspected that the aggressive sections of Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin might be a more fruitful comparison. The percussion writing here and in La noche de los mayas doubtless owes something to the example of the composer's friend from the North, Varèse. Just listen to the rhythm established at 1.00 into the French-born American's ground-breaking Ionisation and then re-listen to the start of Sensemayá and I hope you'll see what I'm getting at. (Surely I can't have been the first to spot that?!) Whatever the influences, Sensemayá is a masterly, gripping score. 

As is La noche de los mayasIf it has moments, such as at the very start, where it sounds as if it would make a fabulous soundtrack for, say, a tragic romantic drama set among the ruins of old Mayan temples and a tribe of people still living in same way as their ancient ancestors, well that's precisely how it started out. It's interesting to see the list of the percussion instruments used in the score - 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. (Varèse would surely have been proud of him!) In the course of the music you will hear brooding monumental music interrupted by lyricism, then scherzo-like music in the form of the half-Spanish/half-native Jarana dance followed by a passionate and sensuous slow movement led by the strings interrupted by a sad flute-and-percussion-led Mayan song, and then an increasingly wild closing section as the brass and percussion begin to have a field-day which ends with a sacrificial dance (shades of Sensemayá and the Rite of Spring, of course). The score, like so many by Revueltas, pulses with energy.

Knowing Sensemayá and La noche de los mayas, I happened to listen to a Revueltas string quartet a decade or so ago and got a shock. I think it would be fair to say that the string quartets are not the place to go for easy listening! They are all short and serious in intent. They tend to alternate fierce passages with lyrical ones and, while not being remotely twelve-tone they skirt atonality, especially in the fierce sections. (Presumably this arises out of bitonality or polytonality). They all came in quick succession - Quartet No.1 (1930), Quartet No.2 (1931), Quartet No.3 (1931) and Quartet No.4 (1932). The Fourth Quartet, my favourite, is subtitled 'Musica de Feria' ('Music of the Fair') and contains just about the only Mexican-sounding tune in the whole cycle. Like Bartok (whose spirit seems closest in these works), Revueltas asks his players to use several extended techniques and some of the most attractive moments in the quartets come when they employ ethereal harmonies. The Fourth contains such a passage, which contrasts well with the boisterous, dissonant writing found elsewhere. As for its slightly earlier companions, I'd like to steer you towards the fine Misterioso y fantastico slow movement of the Third Quartet. If you like Bartok's quartets, you'll also like that (I hope).

After all those toughies, it's high time for a duet between a duck and a canary! Dúo para pato y canario for soprano and small ensemble is a delight. Some of the snatches of instrumental melody are typical Revueltas, though the soundworld has traces of Ravel and Stravinsky about it. 

The piece that brought Revueltas to the world's attention was the symphonic poem Cuauhnáhuac, named after a Mexico city, Cuernavaca. This was one of a series of pieces the composer called 'picture postcards', colourful, earthy, vibrant pieces which the phrase 'picture postcards' doesn't do justice to. Here the Mexican folk spirit that is found in other nationalist Mexican pieces and was also to be found in Copland's El Salón México is heard in characteristically rowdy and unairbrushed fashion. Copland surely knew Revueltas's international hit of 1931 when he wrote his El Salón México in 1936. Did it inspire him? Or did the very direct and wholly enjoyable Janitzio of 1933, which sounds remarkably prophetic of more than one famous Copland piece still to come?  The form was something the composer also called a "sound mural", drawing direct parallels with the famous painters of post-revolutionary Mexico. Other "sound murals" include the bracing Ventanas (windows with attitude - and then some!) and the light-hearted and highly entertaining Caminos (another one which might have inspired Copland, and which should be heard far and wide as audiences would love it). 

Diego Rivera, Baile en Tehaunpec
The picture is building up of a complex, first-rate composer, closely attuned to the international modern scene but ready, willing and able to turn a hand at writing music that would appeal to the Mexican (and international) masses. Revueltas was a man closely involved in the post-revolutionary politics of his country and left-wing politics generally, as you might have guessed. He famously went over to Spain to fight against General Franco in that country's civil war. One of his best-known pieces is the Hommaje a Federico García Lorca, written after the poet was shot by members of a Nationalist militia (for reasons and in circumstances that still remain uncertain). If you have never heard it before it's not what you would expect a piece written in such circumstances to be, i.e. it's not a wholly elegiac piece, nor is an angry protest piece. No, it's a fascinating and completely convincing mix of rowdy, cheerful festive music and laments (particularly from a solo trumpet). The outer movements are were the bulk of the celebratory music lies, with the final section sounding not unlike mariachi music, while the central Duelo is the main lament. One of Revueltas's complex ostinati weaves plays a key role here and the movement is marked by a searingly dissonant climax. This is one of the great works of the 20th century - if only most of the world knew it.

A social protest film called 'Nets' was the starting point for another Revueltas classic, Redes. As befits a protest film, the emotions are tugged at by 'a child's funeral' and other such manipulative scenes. Despite such unpromising beginnings, the conductor Erich Kleiber wrung a symphonic poem of great power from the film score. A bossy, brassy opening soon yields to the moving, elegiac funeral march for the starved-to-death child. As you would expect from this composer there is also plenty of energetic music, some with a Mexican flavour. The final section sets up a characteristic ostinato on strings and builds a satisfying, brassy climax over it. 

After Redes something lighter is needed. How about a song about frogs? Ranas is such a song. Brilliant orchestration and touches of true Revueltas gives this Stravinsky-song-like rarity a real lift. And, just as entertaining, the Ocho por radio, a light-hearted Mexican octet, Revueltas-style. Typically, this is no ordinary octet line-up. There are two violins, double-bass, cello, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet...and an Indian drum. 

I hope that will give you a good flavour of this complex, appealing composer. If you want more (and I hope you do), here's some more of the best of Revueltas (and, boy, some of it is going to make your day):

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