Leonard Bernstein and his connection to Silvestre Revueltas

Leonard Bernstein

Allan Warren/Wikimedia

Leonard Bernstein, an iconic American conductor, had a special interest in the music of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. He included the composer’s Sensemayá in some of his concerts, and foremost, in New York Philharmonic’s “A Festival of Stravinsky: His Heritage and His Legacy” in 1966.

But Bernstein’s interpretations of repertoire by Revueltas started long before; when he was 25 years old, on March 30, 1943, for his debut as conductor in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art, he offered Revueltas’ Homenaje a Federico García Lorca together with Paul Bowles’ The Wind Remains, a zarzuela also inspired by the Spanish poet García Lorca. For that concert, as Bernstein reported then in a letter, the orchestra was “wretched — really dumb trombone & oboe & harp,” and his work was continually disturbed because “they hammer up scenery during the rehearsal.”

Later, in the 1960s, Bernstein conducted Revueltas’ Sensemayá with the New York Philharmonic in one of his famous Young People’s Concerts: the one performed on Feb. 9, 1963, and devoted to “The Latin American Spirit.” On that occasion, he also conducted works by Oscar Lorenzo Fernández, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Aaron Copland and his own Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. A month later, on March 8, the concert was broadcast by CBS.

To the audience, Bernstein said that while all Latin American countries have produced “fine, serious composers,” México and Cuba “have been in the lead, possibly because of their closeness to our musical centers, or possibly because they have such great international cities of their own.” Bernstein then presented Sensemayá, a piece that, he reminded his audience, has origins in the former two countries since it was composed by the Mexican-born Revueltas, inspired by a “chant to kill a snake” by the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén:

“This strange and terrifying piece, which is called Sensemayá, combines all the influences we spoke about — African, and Indian and European. You see, it’s the work of a sophisticated composer, with a very advanced technique, like Villa-Lobos, but he’s handling an idea of savage primitiveness. And all that savagery and violence is to be heard in the wild rhythms and shrieks and howls of the orchestra that you will hear — but they are all controlled by the knowing hand of a real artist. It’s much more complicated, more syncopated, more difficult than either of the pieces we have heard so far. You see Revueltas was a real artist, who died tragically young, at the age of 40; to judge by this short but thrilling piece we are now going to hear, he might have achieved true greatness, if he had lived. Here is his African-Indian-Cuban-Mexican poem for orchestra, Sensemayá.”

Bernstein conducted Sensemayá in a few other occasions with the New York Philharmonic: on the Oct. 3, 4, 5 and 6, 1963, subscription concerts paired with works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann and Alberto Ginastera, and later, at the inaugural program of the Stravinsky Festival of 1966, specifically organized to honor the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, then 84 years old and based in the United States since the early 1940s.

That opening concert, devoted to showcase Stravinsky’s influence on American music, was held on June 30 and also on July 5, 1966, and included Sensemayá by Revueltas, Capricorn Concerto by Samuel Barber, Dance Symphony by Copland and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. All were preceded by Stravinsky’s arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner.

Bernstein’s selection of Sensemayá for this program revealed his appreciation for the piece. It was one more example of the relationship that is often traced, not without controversy, between some music of Revueltas and Stravinsky’s compositions. Back then, a critic for the New York Times suggested that Sensemayá was among those pieces the one with the closest relationship to The Rite of Spring.

Also, the inclusion of Sensemayá among “American compositions” influenced by Stravinsky for the opening of that large, ambitious festival (it had 10 different programs and ran for almost a month) suggested that for Bernstein, as for many conductors, composers and instrumentalists before, Copland included, American music was not circumscribed to compositions and composers from the United States but also consisted of Latin American repertoire. That pan-Americanism does not necessarily exist today, at least with the same emphasis.

This is an English-language excerpt of the book Silvestre Revueltas del Otro Lado by Jesús Del Toro. The book is available at Amazon. Reprinted with permission.