Indigenous People vs. the Island People

Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chavez: two Mexican composers known for their iconic compositions.  How are they different?  How are they the same?  There are many ways to compare these two musicians. I have chosen to focus on two of their orchestral works (written around the same frame) for a musical comparison: Janitzio and Sinfonia India.   What are some commonalities and differences we can observe between these two works?

As we begin comparing these two composers, both were born the year 1899, Chavez near Mexico City on June 13 and Revueltas in Durango on December 31.  Chavez’s primary instrument was the piano and Revueltas began as a violinist.  Both were involved with the National Conservatory in Mexico City and the Mexico Symphony Orchestra.  Both men continued composing and growing as musicians but unfortunately Revueltas’s life was cut short by difficulties with pneumonia in 1940.  Chavez later died in 1978. Janitzio

Janitzio, a piece composed by Revueltas in 1933, later revised in 1936, is a symphonic poem named after an island in Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico.  When translated, Janitzio can mean dry corn or the place where it rains.  At first one would think he composed this piece as an homage to the island but from what I understand, Revueltas thought Janitzio was filthy and infested by tourism which distracted it from its original beauty.  The instrumentation for this piece consists of woodwinds (two of each), four horns, two trombones, tuba, strings, side drum/bass drum and the tamtam.

Janitzio is a one movement piece, written in a three-part structure (fast, slow, fast).  The piece starts off with low brass and trumpets in what appears to be a triple meter.  The waltz feel is evident from the very beginning.  The first “happy” theme is played by the strings and then later returns with the clarinet and French horn.  It seems Revueltas liked to use two instruments playing the same melody a minor 2nd apart which is demonstrated in Janitzio.  In the middle section of the piece the character changes to a more somber and slow tempo.  A “sad” theme is introduced in this section, sounding very legato.  But soon enough the first theme returns with fortissimo brass and a trill in the woodwinds which reintroduces us to the first happy theme with a tamtam hit.

Sinfonia India is also a one movement piece written in a three-part structure (fast, slow, fast).  Chavez started to compose this work during his first tour in the United States in 1935 and completed it in 1936.  Right from the start it is evident that Chavez uses a variety of percussion instruments in comparison to what Revueltas used in Janitzio.  But just like Janitzio, Sinfonia India embodies the same roadmap: beginning with festive melodies using all instruments, then changing character in the middle to a soft and slow tune played by woodwinds and then making a full circle back to the beginning motifs.  In the conclusion, the first themes return as the tempo accelerates and the meter changes (Chavez used a mixture of 5/8, 2/4, and 3/4 meter, more complex than Revueltas’s piece).  The piece concludes with fortissimo brass.     yaq-venado

As far as the themes are concerned, Revueltas used the “sound of the people” as his main motifs.  He wanted Janitzio to have “sones Michoacanos” and preferred to use the music of the people as his main melodies (folk tunes, the use of the waltz in this case).  Chavez on the other hand used several melodies originating from native American tribes from northern Mexico.  These tribes include the Huichol, Seris and Yaqui people. His grandfather was of Aztec decent and as a child Chavez was exposed to indigenous music.  This would explain his brilliant use of these melodies and drumming in Sinfonia India.

After reviewing these two works I am left wondering if Chavez or Revueltas knew of the others composition?  Though the pieces are different in theme matter (folk tunes verses indigenous melodies) they both follow the same structure and sound very Mexican (use of brass and percussion rhythms).  I am certain that Chavez and Revueltas must have eventually heard the others composition but did they know they were writing them around the same time?  And if so, who “copied” who?  My guess is that the intent was not to copy one another for this style of writing that has been around for quite some time (sonata form).  But it is fun to imagine what their reaction might have been when hearing the others works.

-Laura Aguirre

Brennan, Juan Arturo, “Obras Maestras – Silvestre Revueltas II,” Musica en Mexico, September 5, 2015, Accessed March 19, 2017,

Brennan, Juan Arturo, “Sinfonia India – Carlos Chavez (1899 – 1978)” Musica en Mexico, September 9, 2015, Accessed March 19, 2017,

Britannica Academic, s.v. “Sinfonía india,” accessed March 21, 2017,

Velazco, Jorge. “The Original Version of “Janitzio,” by Silvestre Revueltas.” Latin American Music Review / Revista De Música Latinoamericana 7, no. 2 (1986): 341-46. doi:10.2307/780220.


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