From The Volunteer, the journal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives , June 10, 2016
Encountering Silvestre Revueltas in his own words, I found him a colorful and entertaining writer. He is passionate and somewhat rigid in his beliefs about music, and when he has something to say he does not pull his punches. He clearly does not care about pleasing or alienating anyone with his words. This seems to be the bedrock that his personality sits on, as he expressed the same about his music (quoted by Carol Hess in her article “ Silvestre Revueltas in Republican Spain”): “It’s incredible, the disdain I feel for my fame and glory as a musician.” Just as humor, irony, and sarcasm essential to his musical language, they are also quite prevalent in his writing. Elsewhere in her article Hess mentions the poet Alberti, who met Revueltas and heard his music in Republican Spain, and felt that the satire and humour that Revueltas brought to the anti-fascist fighters when he toured Spain and presented concerts of his music in the 1930’s were absolutely necessary to the fight, in the use of culture as a weapon. This would have pleased revueltas, who Nicholas Slonimsky described as “a fervent believer in the political functon of music.”
Reading Revueltas’ comments on the state of Mexican Music in his “Notas y escritos teoricos” is a bit like reading George Bernard Shaw’s musical criticism; the writing is intelligent, funny, often sarcastic or facetious. Revueltas bemoans a musical culture where a composer thinks himself great just because he has composed a cheesy gavotte. He calls the music teachers in Mexico “shadows” in their pale imitations of what music should be, and their students shadows of shadows, going on to say(my translation): “Friendly noise that feeds the shadow!!! The shadows have gotten comfortable with the gestures of their shadow. Their shadow goes at the same pace. The shadows dream that they are shadows, and compose gavottes, and wear good haircuts, and march sideways rather than marching straight. And the Shadow drifts and drifts through the shadows, and advises the shadows and guides them; and the shadows make more shadows,more and more shadows and never reach the Shade.”.
Here is another example of his writing (again, my translation): “All serious men are born comics and always act with a charming gravity; their acts are measured and harmonious, their voice becomes deep with the responsibility of the transcendental words and their attitude has the touching grace of a grandmother’s bedtime fable with its flowery language.” And one of my favorites: “In the second concert Bach was performed. Some respectable people assert that we don’t know Bach. We hope that they would be pleased to give us an introduction. A Beethoven Sonata was played by Miguel Bautista and Elena Sanchez Acuna, violinist and pianist respectively. The violin of Bautista sounded like a violin and not like a trombone; from there we heard little enough fine work to feel defrauded. With regard to the interpretation of the work, the players confessed to having a conference with the composer, who in his typical friendliness revealed to them all the mysteries of the composition. I don’t think it’s possible to doubt the faithful interpretation of these young musicians.”
The personality revealed by these words helps to explain the mystery of why Revueltas has always been somewhat marginal to the 20th century musical canon. He shows himself to be a somewhat difficult person ( though Slonimsky described him as “jovial” which could mean that some of his inflection is lost in print, or that he was jovial as long as his wit was not aimed in your direction). He was not willing to go along with any program he didn’t believe in, and also clearly had high standards and considered it his duty to let others know when they fell short. Roberto Kolb, the well- known musicologist and musician from UNAM who lectured here at University of Texas El Paso over the past week, also asserts that Revueltas’ main artistic concern was to give voice to the common people of Mexico, and that these were the people he sought acceptance from. Like so many Mexican artists, Revueltas was deeply disappointed that the goals of the Mexican revolution had not been achieved, and supremely dissatisfied with the moderate government that took power after the revolution. From this posture of the disappointed and dyspeptic revolutionary he made it his business unleash his cynicism and sarcasm on the ignorance, self- importance, falseness and cheesiness he perceived in Mexican culture, even when it came from his own hand. Of his composition Janitzio he said:“Surely posterity will reward me for this contribution to the tourist industry.” (Quoted in the liner notes by Jose Antonio Alcaraz for “ Musica Mexicana de Galindo, Chavez, Moncayo, Revueltas, Marabak” Forlane UCD 16688/16689, shared by Carol Hess in the article mentioned above.)
The only place Revueltas seemed to lose his dyspeptic cynicism was in Republican Spain. There he played for workers and soldiers, and seemed philosophically satisfied that he was accepted by them, and was making his contribution in the fight against fascism. The information that Hess shares in her article seems to indicate that whether or not he was understood aesthetically didn’t really concern him. Though he spoke in a letter to his wife about the terrible emotional toll that living in a war zone exacted from him, he did not want to leave Spain. In the same letter (again, with thanks to Hess’s article) he says: “I can’t quite get used to the idea that perhaps I’m leaving Spain forever. It can’t be possible. It’s imperative that someone help me to return…” By the end of 1937 he was back in Mexico, having been away for about 6 months. On seeing the Mexican cultural scene with the “new eyes” of one who has been away, he returned to his task of righting Mexico’s cultural wrongs with renewed cynicism, sarcasm, and dyspepsia.
Alcaraz, Antonio. Musica Mexicana de Galindo, Chavez, Moncavo, Revueltas, Marabank ( Liner Notes). Forlane UCD 16688/16689
Hess, Carol A. “Silvestre Revueltas in Republican Spain: Music as Political Utterance.” Latin American Music Review / Revista De Música Latinoamericana 18, no. 2 (1997): 278-96. doi:10.2307/780398.
Revueltas, Silvestre. Por el Mismo: Apuntes autobiograficos, diarios, correspondencia y otro escritos de un gran musico. Mexico, D. F.:Ediciones Era,1989.
Slonimsky, Nicolas. Music Since 1900. New York: Schirmer Books,1994.