Chavez vs. Revueltas: Don’t judge a piece by its instrumentation

Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas were major contributors to Mexico’s music scene in the 20th century. Without these two men, Mexico and its music culture would not be what it is today. They both had very different compositional styles that established them as major Latin American composers. Even with these differences, their works contain some similarities, such as their use of unconventional combinations of instruments to create new and unique timbres. Chavez’s and Revueltas’s music demonstrates the tendency to stop writing for traditional instruments and combinations and how they went beyond the conventional treatment of instrumentation.

Unusual instrumentation was nothing new to composers of the time. However, I think it was a little easier for Mexican composers to create these irregular combinations of instruments because they made use of Mexico’s native Indian instruments as well as instruments found in popular and folk music. Carlos Chavez became famous for incorporating Indian instruments into the modern orchestra setting and these pieces later 350px-Aztec_drums,_Florentine_Codex.became known as his major works. A great example of this is his Sinfonia India which calls for several Indian percussion instruments: jicara de agua, guiro, cascabeles, tenabari, a pair of teponaxtles, tlapanhuehuetl, and grijutian. Although these instruments are rare, Chavez requested that they be used whenever possible. The presence of these instruments contribute to the overall sound of the symphony and demonstrate Chavez’s nationalistic style. Not only did he use indigenous instruments, but he composed chamber works that have interesting instrumentation. One that specifically caught my eye was Xochipilli Macuilxochitl, scored for piccolo, flute, Eb clarinet, trombone, and six percussionists. At first glance, it is expected that it would sound unpleasant or this combination wouldn’t work, but as the saying goes, “don’t judge a book by its cover” or in this case, don’t judge a piece by its instrumentation. This unconventional combination works really well together and in its own way, is pleasing to listen to. The list of works with these types of combinations goes on and each one adds something entirely new to the music world.

Silvestre Revueltas on the other hand, never used indigenous instruments in his works because he portrayed his idea of nationalism in a different way. He did, however, write pieces with similar concepts about instrumentation like Chavez. He composed a septet entitled El afilador (The Knifesharpener) for flute, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, and two horns. As with Chavez, Revueltas uses this combination of instruments to create unique tone colors and utilizes the different timbres to invent new sounds that are unusually pleasing to listeners. Another example goes by the title 2 pequeñas piezas serias for piccolo, oboe, trumpet, clarinet, and surprisingly baritone saxophone. I find his use of the baritone sax very clever as it acts as the bass voice of these other soprano voices.

Both of these very creative Mexican composers used instruments to not only demonstrate their different ideas of nationalism, but to also create new and unique colors from timbres that had rarely been combined before. The sounds that Chavez and Revueltas were able to create through these works are somewhat refreshing and they surprisingly work, making them enjoyable to listen to. At first glance they seem odd and perhaps it’s because these effects are not part of our canon when it comes to ensemble instrumentation. These ingenious men had a deep understanding of timbre and how different instruments are able to interact and complement each other in new and exciting ways that helped to bring Mexico’s music into the 20th century and available for the rest of the world to enjoy.

-Katy Andrade


Malmström, Dan. Introduction to twentieth century Mexican music. Uppsala: Akad. avh. Uppsala univ., 1974. Pg. 42-72, 95-102.

Mayer-Serra, Otto. “Silvestre Revueltas and Musical Nationalism in Mexico.” The Musical Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1941): 123-45.

Sadie, Stanley, John Tyrrell, and Margot Levy. The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians. 2nd ed. Vol. 5. Canon to Classic rock. New York: Grove, 2002. Pg. 544-548.

Weinstock, Herbert. “Carlos Chávez.” The Musical Quarterly 22, no. 4 (1936): 435-45.


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