La noche de los mayas
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (both = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bongos, caracol, drum - with snares, drum - without snares, guiro, huehuetl, Indian drum, sonajas, tam-tam, tom-toms, tumbadora, tumkul, and xylophone), piano, and strings
First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: March 5, 1998, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting
“There is inside me a very peculiar understanding of nature: Everything is rhythm,” Revueltas wrote. “The poet’s language is everyday language. Everyone understands it or feels it. Music alone has to perfect its own language. All of that together is what music is to me. My rhythms are booming, dynamic, tactile, visual. I think in images that are melodic strains, that move dynamically.”
Thinking in images that move dynamically is obviously a productive quality in a film composer, and after perennial outsider Silvestre Revueltas broke with Carlos Chávez and the more institutional Mexican musical establishment, films became the mainstay of his career. After Redes (1935) and the rupture with Chávez, Revueltas scored or contributed music to eight more films before he died in October 1940.
One of the last of these was La noche de los mayas, adapted by the director Chano Urueta from a story by Antonio Mediz Bolio, who was born in the state of Yucatán and became an important advocate for Mayan culture. Shot on location in Yucatan jungles, the film concerns a tribe of Mayans still living in traditional ways and their meeting with the modern world in the form of an Indiana Jones-type explorer. Tragedy ensues, of course, romantic as well as cultural.
Although it received some appreciative reviews in Mexico, the film has been generally neglected, if not scorned. Its music, however, has long attracted notice. In 1960 the composer and conductor José Yves Limantour arranged music from the 36 cues of Revueltas’ score into a four-movement suite. (Paul Hindemith made a two-movement suite of his own, and the composer and conductor Enrique Diemecke later wrote a percussion cadenza – based on motifs from various Revueltas scores – to fill the indicated moment in the final movement of Limantour’s suite.)
This suite has the shape of a symphony. The first movement opens as a powerful ritual, a brooding evocation of rooted history with a gently awakening middle section. The second movement is a dancing scherzo, genial rusticity interrupted by urban sass (“Jarana” indicates both uproarious partying and a type of Mexican dance.) Following is an almost Mahlerian nocturne, with a central interlude for flute and light Indian percussion based on a traditional Yucatan evening song. Following a foreboding introduction, the finale (Night of Enchantment) is a fluid theme and variations, a sacrificial frenzy that exhausts itself in an orgy of percussion.
“All his music seems preceded by something that is not joy and exhilaration, as some believe, or satire and irony, as others believe,” the poet Octavio Paz wrote. “That element, better and more pure… is his deep-felt but also joyful concern for man, animal, and things. It is the profound empathy with his surroundings which makes the works of this man, so naked, so defenseless, so hurt by the heavens and the people, more significant than those of many of his contemporaries.”
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.