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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

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Mexican music had been dominated in the 19th century by opera, its indigenous composition consisting largely of operas based on Italian or French models. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 brought massive social and cultural change, and gave the impetus to composers to draw on their country's own folk and popular traditions, and create a nationalist music. The father figure of this movement was Manuel Ponce (1882-1948), who collected popular and folk ideas, and integrated them into his own essentially European idiom, influencing other Mexican composers of the period. But it was the next generation, in particular Carlos Chávez (1899-1978) and his exact contemporary, Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), who in the 1930s used indigenous music as the starting point of composition, the former looking to ancient Indian models, the latter to contemporary popular cultures. Their lead was taken up by other composers, many of whom were pupils of Chávez, and Chávez's contacts in the U.S.A. ensured that this music was heard and appreciated outside Mexico.

The reaction to nationalism was led by Rodolfo Halffter (born 1900), a Spanish composer who had left Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War, and by his pupils, influenced in the 1950s by neo-classicism, and since the 1960s increasingly by 12-tone, serial, and European avant-garde techniques. Mexico had already produced a herald of these movements, and a figure of innovative interest and influence. Starting his experiments in the late 1890s, Julian Carillo (1875-1965) developed by the 1910s and 1920s a system of micro-tonality he called `sonido trece' (`13th tone'). He had micro-tonal instruments made, and continued to write microtonal works until his death.

It was again Chávez who was responsible for so much of the vitality of Mexican contemporary music-making. In 1928 he founded the Orquesta Sinfónica de México (Mexico Symphony Orchestra), directed it until 1948, and introduced not only contemporary Mexican music but also major modern works from abroad. The orchestra has continued to play a leading role in Mexican musical life, and in disseminating Mexican music beyond its borders. In the same year (1928) he was appointed director of the National Conservatory, and through its influence continued to promote the cause of modern music. While it is invidious to single out one figure, it is nonetheless extraordinary how involved Chávez was, whether through teaching or encouraging other composers by introducing their works or giving them orchestral, conducting or teaching positions. This influence, it is interesting to note, extended beyond Mexico. The similarities between the music of the Mexican nationalists and that of Aaron Copland has often been noted. But it was only after Copland had conducted Chávez's nationalist music in Mexico that he himself turned from experimental and jazz-orientated works to the style that has become so quintessentially American. It can be argued that Mexican music was the progenitor of that style.











CHÁVEZ Carlos (Antonio de Padua)

born 13th June 1899 at Calzada de Tacuba, near Mexico City

died 2nd August 1978 at Mexico City


If Manuel Ponce was the father of modern music in Mexico, it was Carlos Chávez who developed in his compositions a truly nationalistic musical language, and as a conductor, writer, and organizer as well as composer, was instrumental in bringing Mexican musical life firmly into the 20th century. His best known works incorporate popular Mexican and Mexican Indian traditions, but these only form about a third of his output. The rest (written in parallel with the nationalistic music) is the product of an exceptionally inquisitive musical mind, keenly aware of contemporary musical developments in Europe and North America, and always ready to explore and to invent.

His earliest works are mainly for piano - he was an accomplished concert pianist. They look back to the previous century, although an early interest in Mexican folk song is evident in arrangements. But in 1921 (when after a decade of revolution in Mexico a constitutional president was elected, and a period of national fervour began) Chávez produced a ballet, El Fuego Nuevo, that used Mexican Indian themes recalled from his childhood, and Aztec percussion instruments and storyline. It was followed by two other ballets, (Los Cuatro Soles, 1925), also based on an Aztec story, and the much more successful Caballos de Vapor (Horsepower, usually known as H.P., 1926-1931) that startlingly combined popular Spanish-Mexican folk elements and dances (including a tango) with the latest in motoric and mechanistic music. Characteristic of these nationalist works is the Sinfonia India (1935-1936). Typically, the indigenous elements (here including actual quotations from Indian folk music) are not used merely as colour effects, but integrated into a more contemporary idiom, with complex rhythms (polyrhythms, irregular metres). The orchestration contains a large number of primitive instruments (including a deer-hoof rattle), with a strong sense of hard and contrasting colours, and characteristic use of solo woodwind. The structure is based on variations of repetitive patterns, and effect of the work is far from a mere colourful pictorial representation - it is often lean and thoughtful, and only occasionally flamboyant. Similar traits are found in the Piano Concerto (1938), though he textures are usually dense in a colourful, sometimes perky, but generally uninteresting work, and in the colourful `imagined Aztec music' Xochipilli-Macuilxóchtil, in which a poetic (rather than ethno-musical) realisation of Aztec music is accomplished with copies of ancient instruments. More overtly political were the proletarian Sinfonia Proletaria (Llamadas) for chorus and orchestra (1934) on Mexican revolutionary songs, and Obertura republicana (1935) based on popular Mexican music. In all these works the harmony is based less on a Romantic tradition than on contemporary trends and indigenous effects, with three-note chords that avoid the traditional triad, 7ths, 9ths, and octaves, thus adding to the exotic feel.

Of the many works that do not include nationalist elements, neo-classicalism is heard in the Sinfonia de Antigona (1933), an austere and nobly beautiful work using Greek modes and based on incidental music to Sophocles' play, and in the ballet La Hija de Cólquide (Daughter of Colchis, 1943, revised as a suite 1947), characteristic in its moments of disjointed rhythmic effects, and including the uncharacteristically lyrical flow of the Zarabande for strings alone, often heard on its own. The Violin Concerto (1948-1950) displays Chávez's wish to recast traditional structures. The overall structure of its nine movements is palindromic, and it is an exceptionally virtuoso work, with an orchestra whose role is essentially to accompany, although with some unusual colour effects.

The series of 3 Inventions (for piano, 1958, for string trio, 1965, for harp, 1967) are constructed on

a system of non-repetition: successive ideas are generated by the previous one in a constant stream of linear change. The same concept is an element of the striking and emphatic series of Soli (1933, 1961, 1965, 1966) for various wind ensembles (No.IV for orchestra and four wind soloists) in which a different wind instrument takes the solo in each movement. The Toccata for percussion instruments (1942, written for Cage's ensemble, who could not perform the difficult rolls required) is purely abstract, with contrapuntal writing and an exploration of different timbres in its three movements. Its clarity of tone and colour set against a formal structure has made it one of the most successful pieces of its type. The later symphonies are also abstract: Symphony No.3 (1953) is dissonant and forceful, Symphony No.5 (1953) is for strings, with neo-classical outer movements, and Symphony No.6 (1964), using polytonality and atonality, has a passacaglia finale with 44 variations of the theme. The lighter Symphony No.4 (1953 and extensively revised) is aptly subtitled Sinfonia Romántica. In all these works Chávez shows a consistency of invention that is allied to a truly musical appeal. They would undoubtedly be far more often heard had they not been so overshadowed by his reputation for works with nationalistic colour.

For Chávez's other very considerable contributions to music in Mexico, see Introduction, above. He was director of the National Conservatory (1928-1933 and 1934), director of the National Institute of Fine Arts (1947-1952), and taught at Harvard (1958-1959). He directed the Mexican Symphony Orchestra (1928-1948). His influence on music in the U.S.A., through his contacts and his conducting activities, was considerable (see Copland under U.S.A.)


works include:

- 8 symphonies (the earliest unnumbered: No.1 Sinfonia de Antigona, No.2 Sinfonia India, No.4 Sinfonia Romántica, No.7 unfinished); piano concerto; violin concerto; Cantos de Méjico, Discovery, Elatio, Obertura Republicana (retitled Chapultpec), Resonancias, Soli III and Xochipilli Macuilxóchtil for orch.

- 2 string quartets; 3 Soli and 3 Inventions for various chamber forces; Fuga HAG,C for violin, viola, cello, double bass and other chamber works

- 6 piano sonatas and other piano music

- songs; El Sol for chorus and orch.; La Paloma Azul for chorus and chamber orch.; cantata Prometheus Bound; Sinfonia Proletaria (Llamadas) for chorus and orch.

- ballets Caballos de Vapor (known as H.P.), Los cuatro soles, El fuego nuevo, Hija de Colquide

- opera The Visitors (originally Panfilo and Lauretta, then El Amor propiciado)


recommended works:

ballet suite H.P. (Horsepower) (1926-1931)

Sinfonia de Antigona (Symphony No.1) (1933)

Sinfonia India (Symphony No.2) (1935-1936)

Soli I (1933) for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and trumpet

Toccata 1942) for percussion

Zarabande 1943) for strings from ballet La Hija de Colquide



C.Chávez Musical Thought, 1961

R. Parker Carlos Chávez, 1983


ENRIQUES Manuel (sometimes Enriquez)

born 17th June 1926 at Ocotlán

died 1994


Enriques was the leading Mexican composer of the avant-garde movement. A violinist as well as a composer, he encountered serialism at the Julliard School (1955-1957), and decided that the relative paucity of national Mexican folk-music meant that Mexican nationalism in music was no longer appropriate. His first serial work was the orchestral Préambulo (1961), but after a period in which musical materials are reduced to their smallest essentials (melodic cells, constantly changing instrumental manipulation of short phrases in Tres Invenciones for flute and viola, (1964), he extended his style beyond 12-tone techniques.

He turned to aleatory devices in Reflexiones for violin (1964) and the Sonata for violin and piano (1964), and in a series of mainly chamber works (notably Ambivalencia for violin and cello, 1967, Movil I [Mobile I] for piano, 1969, and in the String Quartet No. 2 (1967) and the String Quartet No.3 (1974), he developed a mixture of predetermined music and carefully arranged periods of aleatoric choice, random chance, or free improvisation. Viols (1969) explored the timbral possibilities of combining strings with electroacoustical effects. At the same time he increasingly relied on complex graphic notation (in itself visually attractive). Following the String Quartet No.2, the manipulation of timbre, and the timbre produced by aleatoric techniques, have been as important as the more determined aspects (pitch, rhythm, etc.). Sonorities pervade the effective septet Tlachtli (1978), in which slow-moving, ritualistic layers of colour are punctuated by wild percussive outbursts and disembodied fragments of more lyrical melody. There is a similar sense of short, sharp events and lyrical moments punctuating denser textures in the atmospheric Piano Trio (1983).

He applied similar techniques to orchestral music (the conductor choosing at random different sonorous units in Ritual, 1973, the soloist randomly selecting segments for himself and for the other players in the virtuoso Él y Ellos [He and Them] for violin and chamber orchestra, 1975). In 1971 he studied electronic music in the U.S.A. and Europe. Enriques was currently Director of the National Conservatory.


works include:

- symphonies; piano concerto; 2 violin concertos; Ixamatl, Obertura Lirica, Preambulo, Si Libet, Transición, Trayectoria for orch.; Él y Ellos for violin and small orchestra; Poema for cello and small orch.

- Palindroma for harp; violin sonata; piano trio; 3 string quartets; Pentamúsica for wind quintet; septet Tlachtli; Tres Formas Concertantes for chamber ensemble


recommended works:

Piano Trio (1983)



born 3rd February 1910 at San Gabriel (now Venistiano Carranza)

died 19th April 1993


Blas Galindo is of Huichol Indian descent, and his earlier music reflects the nationalist idiom of his teacher Chávez and the principles of the `Grupo de los Cuatro' (Galindo, Ayala, Contreras, and Moncayo), formed to promote nationalist Mexican music. Obra para Orquesta Mexicana (1938) used only indigenous instruments, but the Mexican evocation is most brilliantly expressed in the Sones de Mariachi (1940), a highly colourful and attractive orchestral work based on the mestizo folk music of the traditional Mexican mariachi bands. Following a period of study with Copland (1941-1942) he increasingly combined Mexican folk elements (especially rhythms) with a neo-classical style in the 1940s and 1950s, exemplified in the suite Homenaje e Cervantes (1947), in which baroque dance forms are filtered through Mexican colour. He extended his style into music of all types, continuing to use indigenous instruments at the same time as exploring new media (Triptico Teotihuacán for soloists, chorus, wind orchestra and Mexican instruments, 1964, and Letania erótica para la paz for narrator, soloists, chorus, organ, orchestra, and tape, 1963-1965). He was professor at, and then Director of, the National Conservatory, 1947-1961.


works include:

- 3 symphonies (No.1 Sinfonia breve)

- flute concerto; 2 piano concertos; violin concerto; concertino for electric guitar and orchestra; Don Quijote, En busca de un muro, Homenaje a Cervantes, Obertura mexicana, Sones de mariachi, and other works for orch.

- string quartet; quartet for 4 cellos; wind sextet; piano quintet; cello sonata; violin sonata; Tres sonsonetes for wind quintet and electronic sound; Obra para Orquesta Mexicana and Titoco-tico for indigenous instruments and other chamber music

- piano music

-Letania erótica para la paz for narrator, soloists, chorus, organ, orch., and tape, and many other cantatas and choral and vocal works

- 7 ballets including La Manda


recommended work:

Sones de Mariachi (1940) for orchestra



born 30th October 1900 at Madrid

died 14th October 1987 at Mexico City


Although born in Spain (his father came from Germany), Rodolfo Halffter left for Mexico at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, losing some of his manuscripts in his flight on foot, and quickly became both a Mexican citizen and the leading figure in Mexican music after Chávez. Although from a musical family (his brother Ernesto Halffter and his nephew Cristóbal Halffter are composers), he received no formal training, and only began to write music in 1924, becoming a member of the Grupo de los Ocho in Madrid.

His earlier music is restrained in style, neo-classical in feel, and influenced by de Falla, using the latter's form of polytonality created by the natural overtones of a given chord. Although Mexican folk idioms are not an element in his music, the complex rhythms, and sometimes the melodic devices of Spanish folk-music, continued to be an influence after his move to Mexico, as in the otherwise neo-classical comic ballet La Madrugada del Panadero (The Awakening of the Baker, 1940). The suite from the ballet is rather colourless and indistinctive. Halffter's interest in the baroque was evident in the influence of Scarlatti in Homenaje a Antonio Machado (1944) for piano, and in the major work of this period, the Violin Concerto (1939-1940, revised with the violinist Henryk Szeryng, 1953). It is an engaging and rather flighty but sunlit work, full of interesting ideas, with a virtuoso solo part fully integrated into the overall sound, and with the occasional shadow of a Spanish melodic feel behind it. The first movement includes a series of variations using Baroque devices.

With Tres Hojas de Album for piano (1953), Halffter changed his style to embrace 12-tone technique (the first Mexican to do so), suggesting that de Falla's version of polytonality was not suited to further development. Through his teaching, he encouraged a number of other Mexican composers to follow suit. However, the 12-tone influence is very tame, and melodic ideas still have the feel of a tonal centre, exemplified in Tripartita for orchestra (1959), a wiry and rugged piece, sparse in feel in spite of a large orchestra, embodied in contrasting and transparent elements. A similar economy of language is to be found in subsequent works (Piano Sonata No.3, 1967, Pregón para una Pascua Pobre for chorus, brass and percussion, 1968).

Halffter's influence on musical activity in Mexico is considerable. He was a professor at the National Conservatory, teaching many of the next generation of Mexican composers, and was critic and editor of Nuestra Musica. He was manager of Ediciones Mexicanas de Musica, and in 1940 he founded the first Mexican ballet company based on contemporary music.


works include:

- Obertura concertante for piano and orch; violin concerto; Dos Sonatas de El Escorial, Suite, Tripartita for orch.; Tres Piezas for string orch.

- cello sonata

- 3 piano sonatas; Homenaje a Antonio Machado, Tres Hojas de Album for piano

- Pregón para una Pascua Pobre for chorus, brass and percussion; Epitafios for a cappella chorus

- ballets Don Lindo de Almeria, La Madrugada del Panadero (The Awakening of the Baker)


recommended works:

Tripartita (1959) for orchestra

Violin Concerto (1939-1941)



born 3rd April 1943 at Mexico


Mario Lavista represents the most extreme of the Mexican avant-garde composers. After studying with such experimentalists as Henri Pousseur, Stockhausen and Xenakis, his music has been notable for its comprehensive elements of improvisation and chance (he founded the improvisation group Quanta in 1970), and its combination of visual activity and electro-acoustic effects - he has collaborated on musical-graphic works with the painter Arnaldo Coen. Intentional duality has appeared in some of his work: Divertimento (1968) exists in versions for both unconventional and conventional instruments, and for the same instruments with the audience (supplied with noise-makers) added. The famous concept of silence initiated by Cage was taken a stage further in Pieza para dos pianistas y dos pianos (1970) which adds a second piano and pianist, both silent, to Pieza para un(a) pianista y un piano, thus contrasting the received notions of music and silence. The elasticity of concept, and the use of unconventional sound sources, was extended in Kronos (1969), which includes fifteen alarm clocks, and lasts anywhere between 5 minutes and 24 hours. However, his recent output includes the atmospheric and haunting Ficciones (Fictions, 1980) for orchestra, based (via the writer Jorge Luis Borges) on the legendary bird Simurg (which also inspired a piano piece), and suggesting the textural space of Ligeti and the instrumental resources of Lutosławski rather than continuing the experiments of the avant-garde. Lavista is currently Professor of composition and 20th-century music analysis at the National Conservatory, and editor of Pauta since 1982.


works include:

- Ficciones (Fictions and Lyhannh for orch.

- Divertimento for various forces with or without audience participation; Kronos for various unconventional instruments; Continuo for brass, percussion, 2 prepared pianos and strings

- Canto del Alba, Game and Nocturno for solo flute; Lamento for bass flute; Quotations for cello and piano; Dialogues for violin and piano; piano trio; trio for 2 strings and ring modulator; 5 Pieces and Reflections of the Night for string quartet; Antifonia for flute, 2 bassoons and percussion; Divertimento for wind quintet, woodblocks, and 3 short-wave radios and other chamber music

- Diatoria for 1 player, 2 pianos; Espejos (Mirrors) for piano, 4 hands; Pieza para un(a) pianista y un piano for one piano/Pieza para dos pianistas y dos pianos for two pianos; Cluster and Simurg for piano

- Homage to Samuel Beckett for 3 amplified choruses; Monologue for baritone, flute and double-bass; 3 Nocturnes for mezzo-soprano and orchestra; 3 songs on Chinese Poems of the T'ang Dynasty

- film scores Judea, Semana Santa entre los Coras and Maria Sabina, Mujer Espiritu; Antimonia for tape


recommended work:

Ficciones (1980) for orchestra



born 29th June 1912 at Guadalajara

died 16th June 1958 at Mexico City


Moncayo is best known outside Mexico for the colourful and exuberant orchestral Huapango (1941), and in Mexico for the opera La mulata de Córdoba (first performed in 1948). With Ayala, Contreras, and Galindo, he was one of the `Group of Four', formed to promote Mexican nationalism in music and the composers' own works. Huapango is a prime example of Mexican nationalist music, based on genuine sones folk dances, and using characteristic rhythms (3 set against 2). It is very infectious music, colourfully orchestrated in the rhythmic drive of the opening dance (the brass much in evidence), in the harp tones of the lyrical central section, and the whip-like percussion of the close - one of the 20th century's most successful lighter descriptive pieces, guaranteed to give pleasure to almost anyone. The orchestral Zapata - Tierra de Temporal (Land of the Storm, 1949) harks back to the Impressionists (it quotes Ravel) combined with Mexican inflections, and it was followed by two other descriptive orchestral works, Cumbres (1953) and Bosques (1954). The opera La mulata de Córdoba uses a Mexican legend of the black sorceress who was brought before the Inquisition but disappeared before their eyes in a puff of smoke. Moncayo was a member of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra (1932-1946), its director (1946-1947), and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico (1949-1952).


works include:

- 2 symphonies (No.2 unfinished); Sinfonietta

- Simiente for piano and orch. (unfinished)

- Bosques, Cumbres, 3 Piezas and Zapata - Tierra de temporal (Land of the Storm) for orch.

- Homenage a Cervantes for 2 oboes and strings; works for piano

- choral music

- opera La mulata de Córdoba


recommended work:

Huapango (1941)


PONCE Manuel María

born 8th December, 1882 at Fresnillo

died 24th April, 1948 at Mexico City


Manuel Ponce was the first Mexican composer to compose in a recognisable national style, and the concert of his works in 1912 (which included the Piano Concerto, with Mexican themes in the second movement) is generally considered the start of Mexican musical nationalism. However, until 1926, when at the age of 44 he went to Paris and studied under Dukas, his music concentrated on Romantic and salon piano pieces, although he had already started to utilise Mexican folk tunes (Canciones Mexicanas for piano, 1912 onwards), following extensive research into the music of his native land. His experience in Paris, particularly Dukas' ideas of free thematic development, were immediately reflected in the symphonic Chapultec (1929, revised 1934), which combines French Impressionistic orchestral colours and themes with a Mexican flavour. Subsequent works followed a similar pattern. A Romantic and Impressionist base is used for themes that imitate (rather than quote) Mexican folk ideas, although the inspiration itself is often Spanish Mexican (Cuatro Danzas Mexicanas for piano, 1941) or Mexican Indian (Canto y Danza de los antiguos Mexicanos for orchestra, 1933). But the orchestra, and the orchestration, remain European, with increasing tonal ambiguity and occasional dissonant effects that introduced a modernity into Mexican music. An exception is the tone poem Ferial (1940), which uses actual folk-songs and Mexican folk instruments.

The Suite en Estilo Antiguo (1935) introduced a neo-Classical interest, taking its fugue subject from Bach. This influence was developed in the Sonata en Deod (1938) for violin and viola, and is marked in his last major orchestral work, the Violin Concerto (1942), written for Henryk Szeryng. This work, with its neo-classical use of counterpoint pitted against more modern harmonies, and its rather severe first movement, exemplifies the European origin of Ponce's style. Even if the theme of the rather elusive slow movement is based on his immensely popular song Estrilla (1914), itself long mistaken for a genuine folk melody, and the thoroughly neo-Classical finale has a Mexican feel to its rhythms, both seem firmly in the contemporary European tradition rather than Latin American in feel.

Ponce was also an outstanding composer for the guitar, in part through his friendship with the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. His name is most often to be encountered in guitar recitals, where his music follows a Spanish or neo-classical tradition. The Sonata III is the finest of his five solo guitar sonatas, but this is excelled by the Twenty Variations and Fugue on `La Folia de España' (1929), which covers the whole conventional potential of the instrument in music that is thoughtful and intimate, occasionally more flamboyant, harmonically unconventional and consistently rewarding. His ability for pastiche, and his command of early styles, was brilliantly realised in the Suite in A for guitar, which many long believed to be the work of the lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750).

Perhaps his most immediately appealing work combines that European orchestral influence with the guitar - the guitar concerto Concierto del Sur, begun in 1929 but not completed until 1940. It is entirely Spanish in flavour, with southern Spanish rhythms, light and happy rather than profound in tone (and orchestration), its far from conventional middle movement instantly attractive in its touches of Moorish colour, its finale tinged with Flamenco influence - the kind of work critics are wary of, and general audiences thoroughly enjoy.

Ponce taught folklore at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in the 1930s, and taught at the National Conservatory in Mexico (among his piano pupils was Chávez). For a brief period he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra. He was active as a critic, and had a concert hall renamed after him.


works include:

- piano concerto; violin concerto; Concierto del Sur for guitar and orch.

- Canto y Danza de los antiguos Mexicanos, Chapultec, Estampas nocturnas, Ferial and Suite en Estilo Antiguo for orch.

- cello sonata; Sonata en Duo for violin and viola; Pequeña suite en estilo antiguo for string trio; 4 Miniaturas for string quartet; La Folia de España, Suite in A, 5 sonatas and many other pieces for guitar

- Canciones Mexicanas, Cuatro Danzas Mexicanas and many other pieces for piano

- songs and folk song arrangements


recommended works:

Concierto del Sur (1940) for guitar and orchestra

Twenty Variations and Fugue on `La Folia de España' (1929) for guitar



born 31st December, 1899 at Santiago Papasquiaro

died 5th October, 1940 at Mexico City


In a short life (he died at the age of 40 of pneumonia complicated by alcoholism) and an even shorter compositional career (largely 1930-1940), Revueltas established himself, together with Chávez, as the most representative of all Mexico's composers. He studied violin in the U.S.A. (Austin and Chicago) as well as Mexico, and worked as a violinist in a Texan theatre orchestra and as conductor of an Alabama orchestra (1926-1928) before becoming assistant conductor of the Mexican Symphony Orchestra under Chávez (1929-1935). He also taught violin and chamber music at the Conservatory in Mexico City.

Without drawing directly on Mexican folk and popular music, he assimilated their general characteristics (polyrhythms and strong rhythmic drives, particularly 3/4 alternating with 6/8, and the `irregular' quintuple and septuple metres) into an essentially Romantic personal style that is usually full of warmth, humour, and vigour, as well as clashing dissonance. His bright, strongly colourful orchestration has often been compared to the sharp outlines and bold colours of contemporary Mexican painters, especially Diego Rivera, with their parallel nationalist subject-matters. His characteristic structure (as with many Mexican descriptive pieces) is tripartite, using traditional forms.

His first orchestral piece, Cuauhnahuac (1930) described (under its Indian name) the town of Cuernavaca. It established his style (later largely unchanged except for an increasing use of polytonality) and initiated a series of orchestral pieces reflecting different aspects of Mexican life. The symphonic poem Janitzio (1933), with its folk-like melodies, pictured the resort island of Lake Patzcuaro (Revueltas described it as his contribution to "national tourism"), first as a gentle haven, then with the rather pompous abandon of its night-life, complete with an out-of-tune mariachi band competing with the street noise. Caminos (Roads, 1934), with its mariachi style tunes, bouncing feel and rich palette (including orchestral imitations of car-horns and a carnival atmosphere), is only one of a number of works evoking some particular material item in the Mexican landscape (e.g. Esquinas [Streetcorners], 1930, Ventanas [Windows] 1931, Colorines [a Mexican tree], 1932). This series culminated in the very fine but incomplete Itinerarios (Routes, 1939-1940), which has some of the sweep and grandeur of the music of Copland, episodes of polytonality that weave multiple layers in different sections of the orchestra, and a haunting slow section. His humour and sense of fun is obvious in such works as the four-minute children's ballet El Renacuajo Paseador (The Strolling Golliwog, 1936). His left-wing sympathies (in 1937 he went to Spain to work in the music section of the Loyalist government) are evident in the score to the Mexican social protest film Redes (Nets), whose suite (arranged by Erich Kleiber) was first heard in Barcelona in 1937, with a more serious tone and a broader sweep than the Mexican orchestral works, including a relentless and dark ostinato section.

Two of Revueltas' finest pieces are not Mexican reflections. Ocho per radio (8 x Radio, which has the sense of both 8 minutes of radio and 8 musicians on the radio, 1933), for an octet of strings, wind, a trumpet and Indian drum, laughingly distils mestizo folk-like materials through a chamber medium, a Mexican parallel to the filtration of jazz in La création du monde of Milhaud or similar chamber works of Stravinsky. Similarly Homage to Federico Garcia Lorca (1935 - tribute to the living poet, who was killed a year later) uses a chamber ensemble of varied colours with verve and clarity. Again an essentially Mexican idiom is transformed as if by a distorting mirror into rigorous and very dissonant ostinati, transparent ensemble climaxes, haunting crystal textures, and the use of a mournful solo trumpet, before a joyous, rumbustious and intentionally off-key finale. But his best known work, and the most effective of the scores for full orchestra, is Sensemayá (1938), a work of primitivism and ritual, originally a vocal and orchestral setting describing the ritual killing of a snake by the Cuban poet Nicholás Guillén, but reworked in purely orchestral form. Reminiscent of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, in its relentless drive and repetitive blocks working towards a great climax, it musically reflects the onomatopoeic nature of the original poem, gradually thickening in texture, its polyrhythms getting more complex, its dissonances piling up.

It was Revueltas' genius not only to reflect in music the colourful life of the Mexico around him so accurately, but to do it in an idiom that is unmistakably personal while being firmly rooted in the traditions of his country's folk and popular music. This fusion is so complete that, even more than Chávez, he is Mexico's national composer. If, unlike Chávez, he did not write music of a deeper emotional humanity, his verve, his vivid colours, and above all the surety of his complex rhythms, take his music far beyond purely local confines.


works include:

- Alcancias (Money-boxes), Caminos (Roads), Colorines, Cuauhnahuac, Danza Geométrica (full orchestral version of Planos), Esquinas (Streetcorners), Itinerarios (Routes), Janitzio, Sensemayá, and Ventanas (Windows) for orch.

- Homage to Federico Garcia Lorca, Planos (Planes - version of Danza Geométrica) and Toccata sin Fuge for chamber orch.

- 3 piezas for violin and piano; 4 Little Pieces for 2 violins and cello; 2 string quartets; 2 piezas serias for wind quintet; octet Ocho por Radio

- songs including 7 Canciones on words by Lorca

- children's ballet El Renacuajo Paseador (The Strolling Golliwog); ballet La Coronela (completed by Galindo, orchestrated by Huizar)

- music for 7 films including Redes (Nets) and La Nuit des Mayas


recommended works:

Homage to Frederico Garcia Lorca (1935) for orchestra

Itinerarios (1948) for orchestra

Ocho por Radio (1933)

Sensemayá (1938) for orchestra



G. Contreras S.Revueltas: genio atormentado, 1954



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