Composer Silvestre Revueltas is the unanimously recognized leader of twentieth-century Mexican music. He was also an orchestra conductor and an artist politically committed to the defense of minorities.
For his tremorous Sensemayá, Revueltas was inspired by a story by the Cuban writer Nicolas Guillén.
Guillén published in 1934 a series of 17 poems with the title West Indies Ltd. One of them, “Sensemayá” (song to kill a snake), was discovered by Revueltas when he heard it from the poet’s voice. Revueltas immediately felt the cadence and rhythm that the initial chorus possessed: Mayombe-bombe-mayombé! Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
The poem “Sensemayá” is based on Afro-Cuban religious cults, preserved in the cabildos, self-organized social clubs for the African slaves. In this poem, an adept called the mayombero, is leading the rituals. The ritual offers the sacrifice of a snake to a god. This god is the Afro-Cuban spirit who has the power to heal or spread pestilence.
One of the main motives in Sensemayá is based on the word mayombero. The chant “mayombe, bombe mayombé” is an example of Guillén’s use of repetition, derived from an actual ceremony. And as we will see, the rhythm and repetition form the base for Revueltas’ composition.
The original version from 1937 was for chamber orchestra, and was in fact subtitled “Indigenous song for the killing of a snake“; a year later he decided to reorchestrate the work for a large orchestra.
Nicolás Guillén in 1942
There is nothing postcard-like in this piece. It’s built with refined skill exploiting the hypnotic rhythms, the asymmetries, the wild percussion of the ethnographic heritage.
The rhythms of the words in the poem are translated into the score: the opening bars, for instance, can be mapped to the word Sensemayá, with the accent on the yá emphasized by the claves.
Silvestre Revueltas: an analysis of Sensemayá
A section (first theme)
From a structure point of view, it’s an A-A1 plus a coda. Inside the A section, we find 3 different sub-sections or blocks.
The piece opens with a rhythmic base in 7/8 played by the tom-tom and the bass drum and a pedal in pianissimo of the bass clarinet
on this pedal and rhythm is grafted the ostinato of the bassoon. The off-accent on the last beat is underlined by the claves
On measure 9, the first theme – muscular and ominous – makes its appearance played by the tuba
and answered by the horn
The first theme is repeated by the English Horn, the tuba, and the trumpet. Texture and dynamics intensify progressively
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