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Composed: 1937-38
Length: 7 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolos), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 4 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet, 4th = bass), 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, timpani, piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: September 29, 1991, Enrique Diemecke conducting

Sensemayá was the work that brought Silvestre Revueltas to international attention. It was through a recording of the work made by Leopold Stokowski in New York in December 1947 that widespread audiences outside of Mexico began to get an idea of Revueltas’ music.

Revueltas had died in 1940 from complications of chronic alcoholism, his music virtually unknown outside of Mexico, some performances given during a trip to Spain in 1937 notwithstanding. The last decade of his life had been devoted to music, with Revueltas active as a composer, teacher, and conductor in Mexico City. Between 1928 and his death, Revueltas had composed roughly 60 works, including orchestral, chamber, vocal, and theater pieces, as well as a handful of film scores, such as Redes (released in English as The Wave, 1936) and La noche de los mayas (The Night of the Mayans, 1939).

Revueltas had a varied and useful musical education, comprised of a fair amount of practical experience. After three years 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. He returned to Mexico in 1929, when Carlos Chávez, one of the country’s foremost composers and musicians, invited him to become assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1935.

These experiences combined to make Revueltas a sensitive and insightful writer for orchestra and a composer with an intrinsic ability to express Latin-American culture musically. Sensemayá first materialized in a (still unpublished) version for chamber ensemble in 1937. Revueltas based the work on a poem that describes the ritual killing of a snake from Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén’s collection West Indies Ltd., published in 1934. The atmosphere of the poem, which pits life against death, the snake against its ritual executioners, is ideally captured by Revueltas in his brief, vibrant musical work, even more so in the version for full orchestra premiered by the composer with a pick-up orchestra at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City on December 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, comparable to what Stravinsky did for pagan Russia in The Rite of Spring.

— John Mangum