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The Greatest Film Score You’ve Never Heard

Silvestre Revueltas’s Redes is one of the greatest of all film scores. That it remains virtually unknown is a function of Revueltas’s own neglect and the neglect of the 1935 film itself, an iconic product of the Mexican Revolution. Unlike such renowned film scores of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Virgil Thomson’s The Plow that Broke the Plains, the music of Redes is so organic to the film that it does not register as a concert suite. You have to see the movie.

And the movie is a mixed bag. Its cinematography, by Paul Strand, is unforgettable: visually, Redes is a poem of stark light and shadow, of clouds and sea, palm fronds and thatched huts, with Strand’s camera often tipped toward the abstract sky. Metaphor abounds: a rope is likened to a fisherman’s muscled arm. Pregnant, polyvalent, the imagery invites interpretation equally poetic: music. For a child’s funeral, Revueltas furnishes more than a dirge: his throbbing elegy combines with Strand’s poised, hypersensitive camera to fashion a transcendent tableau. The recurrent visual motif of nets (“redes”) that catch fish subliminally suggests the confinement of rural fishermen: a metaphor underlined by the musical motif of massive tolling brass. At every turn, Strand and Revueltas elevate the film’s simple tale to an epic human drama. But the script is weak and so are the actors – with few exceptions, actual fishermen filmed onsite in Alvarado (near Veracruz).

While the ultimate significance of Redes may be considered political (both Revueltas and Strand were activists on the far left) or photographic, for me it is first of all an essay in marrying sound to the moving image. The film completes the music.

That is: Revueltas’s astonishing score partly comprises a series of set pieces applied to silent footage: the weary processional of the child’s funeral; the surging exhilaration of the season’s first catch; the epic thrust of a final act of proletarian rebellion. The last of these, in particular, is as powerful a swath of musical cinema as was ever conceived. Revueltas’s score is here shaped by the pulsing oar-strokes of the fishermen, storming the hacienda where they’re underpaid and undervalued.

Because music rarely overlaps dialogue, it becomes possible to screen Redes with live orchestral accompaniment – a revelatory opportunity. It’s been done by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, by the Santa Barbara Symphony, by my own PostClassical Ensemble – and most recently (last week) by the Louisville Orchestra, conducted by Jorge Mester, as part of the NEH’s “Music Unwound” consortium.

In Louisville, Redes ignited a standing ovation. Next season, the Austin Symphony, the North Carolina Symphony, and PostClassical Ensemble (again) present Redes with live symphonic accompaniment. PostClassical Ensemble will also record Redes for a Naxos DVD that will once and for all make the film widely available with a proper soundtrack (the 1935 Mexican sound recording is execrable).

Sooner or later, Revueltas will be widely revealed as a major twentieth century composer. He far eclipses his compatriot Carlos Chavez. He bears comparison with his precise contemporary Aaron Copland (who drew inspiration from Mexico, and from Redes). Meanwhile, we will have to suffer the increasingly popular Noche de los Mayas, passed off as a four-movement Revueltas symphony by Gustavo Dudamel and other enthusiasts. This vulgar film score, for a vulgar film, was in fact never turned into a symphonic composition by the composer; what we hear in the concert hall is a concoction by another hand, created long after Revueltas’s death in 1940. It does Revueltas a disservice – and so (alas) does the Redes Suite created by Erich Kleiber, and increasingly performed in the concert hall.

Would that for every half dozen presentations of Alexander Nevsky or Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights with live music we could see and hear at least one Redes performance. Assuredly, Revueltas is a composer whose time will come.


  1. J. Theakston says

    Must disagree with you on one point, Joe. Modern accompaniment for classic films (silent films excluded) is walking a fine line, not only because of the jarring change in fidelity between dialog and sound effects clashing with the score, but because ultimately, the intent of the original composer’s work is compromised on several different levels. You’re replacing it with THE recording that set the record for audiences when the film was released, thereby compromising the authenticity of the historical experience of viewing the film. No matter what, you’re putting the music ahead of the film, and the result SHOULD be that they are in harmony.

    Also, as has been proven time-and-again with re-recordings of classic film scores, the interpretation of the music ranges from spot-on to extremely derivative. This can mean that while the conductor might pull off an interpretation of the score that is faithful to the original, another presentation may be compromised by a poor or different interpretation.

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