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“The Great Composer You’ve Never Heard Of” — and how he was suppressed by Carlos Chavez

“The Great Composer You’ve Never Heard Of” – the most recent “PostClassical” broadcast via the WWFM Classical Network – spends two hours exploring the astounding achievements of Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940). The show also reveals how Revueltas’s colleague Carlos Chavez – a lesser composer, but with more institutional clout – suppressed Revueltas’s music. It’s all here.

As readers of this blog know, Revueltas is the composer most championed by my PostClassical Ensemble in DC. He’s also the main topic of “Copland and Mexico,” the NEH-funded “Music Unwound” program I produce around the US.

In many respects, Revueltas bears comparison with George Gershwin: a self-invented composer of genius who mines the vernacular without apology or discomfort. And just as Gershwin was the victim of a “Gershwin threat” that pigeon-holed him as a dilettante interloper, so it was with Revueltas. Gershwin’s influential detractors included Aaron Copland. Revueltas was dismissed as a gifted amateur by his one-time colleague Chavez.

Copland’s view of Revueltas was comparable: he expressed wary admiration for Revueltas’s native gift: “Unfortunately, he was never able to break away from a certain dilettantism that makes even his best compositions suffer from sketchy workmanship.” Chavez chose to patronize Revueltas as a fallen disciple. If Copland mainly neglected Gershwin, he increasingly appreciated ingredients of incipient greatness. Chavez, by comparison, actively excluded Revueltas from the many Mexican programs he influentially curated in Mexico and the United States.

The writer/editor Herbert Weinstock, a Chavez friend and supporter, felt impelled to write to him on November 25, 1940, to beg an explanation: “Time and again, [I find] myself in the position of having to defend you against the charge of being jealous of Revueltas, of deliberately trying to smother his reputation by ignoring him.” Revueltas, who had just died, seemed to Weinstock “a musician of something approaching genius.” Citing Goddard Lieberson, for decades a key American advocate of twentieth-century composers, Weinstock reported that “many musical people here” struggled with the perception that Chavez “spitefully failed to do justice to his most important compatriot.”

Thirty-one years later, on October 8, 1971, Chavez delivered a lecture on Revueltas at a Mexico City conference on “La Musica en Mexico.” He complained that the “construction” of Revueltas’s compositions, “instead of showing development, was repetitive.” He continued:

“Although he showed great talent in the beginning, abrupt and impressive, his creative capacities never managed to mature, his metier was not perfected, and his style did not evolve. All his compositions are essentially similar in procedure, in expression and in style. Once or twice, after he started composing, I warned him, in conversation, about the issue of renewing oneself — renew yourself or die — and he understood this in theory. But it was easier for him to repeat his early works, the unending ostinati, the explosive contrasts, the piangendo melodies, etc, etc.”

The Revueltas scholar Roberto Kolb (to whom I am indebted for the Weinstock letter and Chavez lecture) comments: “I find a number of prejudices here. The first is the implicit definition of a ‘mature’ composition, one that incorporates evolutionary ideals such as development and organicity. This is something that Revueltas rejected, because he openly declared his intention to seek a different concept of time and agency — one inspired, for instance, by vernacular sources such as street cries. . . . Revueltas tends to base his compositions on the principle of montage and collage, dialectic or symbolic. This is linked to semantic goals, politically motivated. I find it extraordinary that this did not even occur to Chávez. He only evaluates Revueltas’s music from a formal point of view.”

Revueltas’s reputation is lately on the upswing – his music will be far longer remembered than that of Chavez. Among his peak achievements is the score for the 1935 film Redes, an uneasy partnership with Paul Strand and Fred Zinnemann. The former – like Copland, like John Steinbeck and Langston Hughes – sought inspiration from Mexico’s artists on the left. The latter – later the Hollywood director of  High Noon — was in flight from Hitler’s Europe. The “nets” of the title ensnare both fish and poor fishermen. The resulting film is as epic and iconic, flawed and unfinished as the Mexican Revolution itself.

Aaron Copland wrote of Redes: “Revueltas is the type of inspired composer in the sense that Schubert was the inspired composer. That is to say, his music is a spontaneous outpouring, a strong expression of his inner emotions. There is nothing premeditated . . . about him. . . . His music is above all vibrant and colorful. . . . the score that Revueltas has written for [Redes] has very many of the qualities characteristic of Revueltas’s art.” When these words wound up in the New York Times, Copand felt the need to explain to Chavez: “I suppose you must have wondered how I happened to write that piece for the N. Y. Times on Silvestre. As a matter of fact I had no idea the Times would use it . . . I did it rather hastily . . . “

Redes — with Revueltas’s galvanizing score performed live — is one of three PostClassical Ensemble Naxos DVDs featuring classic 1930s films with “restored” soundtracks. On “PostClassical,” we audition Redes with commentary. We also sample a wide variety of other astonishing Revueltas scores, as recorded in terrific live performance by Angel Gil-Ordonez and PostClassical Ensemble. You can judge for yourself whether “all his compositions are essentially similar in procedure, in expression and in style.”  And as usual I have occasion to mercilessly harangue Bill McGlaughlin with my opinions and enthusiasms. Here’s an overview of the broadcast:

Music from the film Redes (1935), beginning at 19:20

3:50: Son
10:10: Baile
17:11: Duelo
28:40: Sensemaya (in the original chamber version)
34:56: Carlos Chavez suppresses Revueltas
38:30: Two political songs, setting Langston Hughes and Nicolas Guillen
49:34: Planos
59:00: Revueltas as an “unfinished” composer, in parallel with Ives and Gershwin

By the way, Noche de los mayas — the “Revueltas” score championed by Gustavo Dudamel and so many others — wasn’t composed by Revueltas. It’s a kitsch confection created by Jose Limantour after Revueltas’s death, cannibalizing Revueltas’s score for a film of no distinction. Stick with Redes.


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