From Mexico, composer Silvestre Revueltas

Nearly a decade after his untimely death, Sensemayá brought Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas to international attention through a recording by Leopold Stokowski in 1947.

Based on a 1934 poem by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, Sensemayá is perhaps Revueltas’ most famous work. (The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under James Gaffigan, will perform it in concerts Oct. 19-24.) Originally written initially for a small chamber orchestra in 1937, expanded into a full-scale orchestral work in 1938 and later transcribed for wind ensemble in 1980, Sensemayá begins with a series of continuous 16th notes, in which Revueltas conveys a snake’s winding movement against a sacrificial dance rhythm. The full title of Guillén’s poem translates to “Chant for Killing a Snake” and depicts a folkloric Afro-Cuban ritual of killing and sacrificing a snake with glass-like eyes.

Before Revueltas died in 1940 from alcoholism, his music was virtually unknown outside Mexico. He had devoted his last decade to composing. Between 1928 and his death, Revueltas had written 60 works, including orchestral, chamber, vocal and theater pieces, as well as a few film scores, such as “Redes” (1936) and “La noche de los mayas” (1939).

After early studies in Mexico City (1913-1916), Revueltas traveled to the United States, where he studied violin and composition in Austin and Chicago. In the late 1920s, he played violin in a theater orchestra in San Antonio and conducted an orchestra in Mobile, Alabama. In 1929, he returned to Mexico, when Carlos Chávez invited him to become assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1935.

Guillén’s poem, which pits life against death, and the snake against its executioners, is ideally captured by Revueltas, even more so in the version for full orchestra premiered by the composer at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City on Dec. 15, 1938. “The obsessive rhythms [the work is in 7/8 and occasionally 7/16 time], the slithering, pictorial wind writing, and the threatening brass all combine to create a raw evocation of the ceremony,” writes one critic, “comparable to what Stravinsky did for pagan Russia in The Rite of Spring.”