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Revueltas - Sensemayá


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guest54
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« on: May 04, 2014, 11:26:10 am »

Well, for this new section the first work I have selected - almost at random - from our archive is the Sensemayá by the short-lived Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899 to 1940). Here it is: http://artmusic.smfforfree.com/index.php/topic,595.msg3654.html#msg3654

Its duration is just under seven minutes. Mr. Lebrecht describes it as written "for voice and orchestra" in 1938; but our version is for orchestra alone, so that is the first puzzle. But Mr. Morris clears that up, and tells us much more: "His best-known work, and the most effective of the scores for full orchestra, it is a work of primitivism and ritual, originally a vocal and orchestral setting of a poem by the Cuban poet Nicholás Guillén, describing the ritual killing of a snake, but reworked in purely orchestral form." Mr. Morris continues: "Reminiscent of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in its relentless drive and repetitive blocks working towards a great climax, it musically reflects the onomatopośic nature of the original poem, gradually thickening in texture, its polyrhythms getting more complex, its dissonances piling up."

Really there is little to add to that description. Stravinsky's influence is obvious from the start, with the persistent drum and bassoon ostinato throughout. Seven-eight time according to Grove. Taken up by tubas and trumpets. Whether for good or evil the music of the Rite reverberated throughout the twentieth century, and there is not a single passage in this Sensemayá that cannot be traced back to something therein. The same can be said of the music of Varčse. There is more than a touch of Ravel's Bolero as well I find. Except for a tiny pause at the half-way mark, the piece is loud throughout, and the rhythm becomes more and more jagged until - of course - it all ends in "an orgiastic climax" (Grove).

How exactly the snake comes in is not immediately evident from the music; but I have now found this primitive translation of the poem:

    Chant to kill a snake

    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    The snake has eyes of glass
    The snake coils on a stick
    With his eyes of glass on a stick,
    With his eyes of glass.
    The snake can move without feet;
    The snake can hide in the grass;
    Crawling he hides in the grass,
    Moving without feet.
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Hit him with an ax and he dies;
    Hit him! Go on, hit him!
    Don't hit him with your foot or he'll bite;,
    Don't hit him with your foot, or he'll get away.
    Sensemayá, the snake,
    sensemayá.
    Sensemayá, with his eyes,
    sensemayá.
    Sensemayá, with his tongue,
    sensemayá.
    Sensemayá, with his mouth,
    sensemayá.
    The dead snake cannot eat;
    the dead snake cannot hiss;
    he cannot move,
    he cannot run!
    The dead snake cannot look;
    the dead snake cannot drink;
    he cannot breathe,
    he cannot bite.
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Sensemayá, the snake . . .
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Sensemayá, does not move . . .
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Sensemayá, the snake . . .
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Sensemayá, he die!


Well that should convey the general idea. Here is another description, of the music, rather better than mine:

"The work begins with a slow trill in the bass clarinet as the percussion plays the sinuous, syncopated rhythm that drives the work. Soon a solo bassoon enters playing an eerie but rhythmic ostinato bassline. The tuba then enters playing the first of this work's two major themes, a muscular, ominous motif. Other brass join in to play the theme, growing louder and more emphatic, but rigorously yoked to the underlying rhythm. Eventually the horns blast as loudly as they can, with obsessive trills on the low clarinets far underneath, and the strings enter with the slashing second theme. The brass take up this new theme and bring it to a climax, after which the music returns to its opening texture. This recapitulation brings with it a mood of foreboding. The rhythm becomes even more obsessive, and finally the music reaches a massive climax during which both themes are played, overlapping, sometimes in part and sometimes in whole, by the entire orchestra in what sounds like a musical riot."

Now I must seek out a recording of the vocal setting!
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« Reply #1 on: May 29, 2014, 09:33:32 am »

Well, for this new section the first work I have selected - almost at random - from our archive is the Sensemayá by the short-lived Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899 to 1940). Here it is: http://artmusic.smfforfree.com/index.php/topic,595.msg3654.html#msg3654

Its duration is just under seven minutes. Mr. Lebrecht describes it as written "for voice and orchestra" in 1938; but our version is for orchestra alone, so that is the first puzzle. But Mr. Morris clears that up, and tells us much more: "His best-known work, and the most effective of the scores for full orchestra, it is a work of primitivism and ritual, originally a vocal and orchestral setting of a poem by the Cuban poet Nicholás Guillén, describing the ritual killing of a snake, but reworked in purely orchestral form." Mr. Morris continues: "Reminiscent of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in its relentless drive and repetitive blocks working towards a great climax, it musically reflects the onomatopośic nature of the original poem, gradually thickening in texture, its polyrhythms getting more complex, its dissonances piling up."

Really there is little to add to that description. Stravinsky's influence is obvious from the start, with the persistent drum and bassoon ostinato throughout. Seven-eight time according to Grove. Taken up by tubas and trumpets. Whether for good or evil the music of the Rite reverberated throughout the twentieth century, and there is not a single passage in this Sensemayá that cannot be traced back to something therein. The same can be said of the music of Varčse. There is more than a touch of Ravel's Bolero as well I find. Except for a tiny pause at the half-way mark, the piece is loud throughout, and the rhythm becomes more and more jagged until - of course - it all ends in "an orgiastic climax" (Grove).

How exactly the snake comes in is not immediately evident from the music; but I have now found this primitive translation of the poem:

    Chant to kill a snake

    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    The snake has eyes of glass
    The snake coils on a stick
    With his eyes of glass on a stick,
    With his eyes of glass.
    The snake can move without feet;
    The snake can hide in the grass;
    Crawling he hides in the grass,
    Moving without feet.
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Hit him with an ax and he dies;
    Hit him! Go on, hit him!
    Don't hit him with your foot or he'll bite;,
    Don't hit him with your foot, or he'll get away.
    Sensemayá, the snake,
    sensemayá.
    Sensemayá, with his eyes,
    sensemayá.
    Sensemayá, with his tongue,
    sensemayá.
    Sensemayá, with his mouth,
    sensemayá.
    The dead snake cannot eat;
    the dead snake cannot hiss;
    he cannot move,
    he cannot run!
    The dead snake cannot look;
    the dead snake cannot drink;
    he cannot breathe,
    he cannot bite.
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Sensemayá, the snake . . .
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Sensemayá, does not move . . .
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Sensemayá, the snake . . .
    Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!
    Sensemayá, he die!


Well that should convey the general idea. Here is another description, of the music, rather better than mine:

"The work begins with a slow trill in the bass clarinet as the percussion plays the sinuous, syncopated rhythm that drives the work. Soon a solo bassoon enters playing an eerie but rhythmic ostinato bassline. The tuba then enters playing the first of this work's two major themes, a muscular, ominous motif. Other brass join in to play the theme, growing louder and more emphatic, but rigorously yoked to the underlying rhythm. Eventually the horns blast as loudly as they can, with obsessive trills on the low clarinets far underneath, and the strings enter with the slashing second theme. The brass take up this new theme and bring it to a climax, after which the music returns to its opening texture. This recapitulation brings with it a mood of foreboding. The rhythm becomes even more obsessive, and finally the music reaches a massive climax during which both themes are played, overlapping, sometimes in part and sometimes in whole, by the entire orchestra in what sounds like a musical riot."

Now I must seek out a recording of the vocal setting!

While it is music of a different character, does the repititous style of Ravel's Bolero come to mind for anyone here.
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« Reply #2 on: May 29, 2014, 10:48:10 am »

Well, for this new section the first work I have selected - almost at random - from our archive is the Sensemayá by the short-lived Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899 to 1940). Here it is: http://artmusic.smfforfree.com/index.php/topic,595.msg3654.html#msg3654

Its duration is just under seven minutes. Mr. Lebrecht describes it as written "for voice and orchestra" in 1938; but our version is for orchestra alone, so that is the first puzzle.

A great piece. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensemayá adds some more info.

No puzzle: the appalling Lebrecht has got it wrong - there was never a voice part. The version which Sydney links to is a bit on the slow side compared with many.

Quote
does the repititous style of Ravel's Bolero come to mind for anyone here
. Not really. It's more like someone deputising for Varčse's Latin American big band commission.

I arranged it for 4 pianos and percussion 30-odd years ago. Must dig it out.
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guest54
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« Reply #3 on: May 29, 2014, 12:20:57 pm »

. . . there was never a voice part. . . .

Well I don't know, Mr. Autoharp - English musical life holds many mysteries, and one of the most mysterious mysteries is why Mr. Lebrecht is treated as he so often is. But let's set him aside for a moment, and consult:

1) Robert Stevenson in Grove's: "The much played Sensemayá – a vocal and orchestral setting of the poem by the Afro-Cuban revolutionary Nicolás Guillén about the killing of a tropical snake, later transcribed for orchestra alone – illustrates his superb rhythmic drive in 7/8 (occasionally 7/16) to an orgiastic climax."

and

2) Mark Morris in his Pimlico Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Composers: "Sensemayá, a work of primitivism and ritual, originally a vocal and orchestral setting . . . "

So they too were misinformed were they?

Anyway, I have now found a better - or at least clearer - recording of the work, played by the Acapulco Orchestra, which I will upload over the coming days . . . And I (and I am sure many others) would be thrilled to hear your own arrangement, if a suitable recording exists.

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« Reply #4 on: May 29, 2014, 02:21:39 pm »

Thanks for that, Sydney. One would certainly have thought that the author of a Grove article would have the facts right (but that's not always the case). I note that your quote is from the 1980 Grove: if that is indeed an error, it would not unlikely for the error to be repeated elsewhere. If it's the truth, then many others apart from myself will be red-faced!

Here's an article which most of us will be unable to view beyond the first page - I'll examine the rest at some point soon. The first page at least offers some enticing info about the text.
http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/779988?uid=3738032&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21104085889187

Stevenson's Grove article lists 2 Canciones (1937) of which one of the texts is by Nicolas Guillen (author of the Sensemaya text).
http://imslp.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Silvestre_Revueltas lists both songs as having texts by Guillen and the original version of Sensemaya as being for large chamber group (which has been my understanding). Rather confusingly, another reference reveals the second of the Canciones as being titled Caminando (which appears to be correct), but which is listed separately in the work-list above.

It may be that the confusion has been caused by such accounts as "Sensemayá is an orchestral composition by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. It was originally composed in 1937 for a small orchestra and then revised in 1938 for a full orchestra including 27 wind instruments, fourteen percussion instruments and strings. It is a setting of a poem of the same name by the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. The poem is based on Afro-Cuban religious cults, and it evokes a ritual chant performed while killing a snake" - having your cake etc.



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« Reply #5 on: June 04, 2014, 02:14:11 pm »

From the Wikipedia article:

Quote
Sensemayá is based on Afro-Cuban religious cults, preserved in the cabildos, self-organized social clubs for the African slaves. African religions were transmitted from generation to generation. These religions, which had a similar but not identical structure, were known as Lucumi or Regla de Ocha if they derived from the Yoruba, Palo from Central Africa, Vodú from Haiti, and so on. In this poem we meet an adept known as the mayombero. He is knowledgeable in the area of herbal medicine, as well as being the leader of rituals. In Sensemayá, the mayombero leads a ritual which offers the sacrifice of a snake to a god, perhaps Babalu Aye. This god, popularized as Babalu in the United States by Desi Arnaz, is the Afro-Cuban spirit who has the power to heal, or spread pestilence. One of the main motives in Sensemayá is based on this word mayombero. This chant "mayombe, bombe mayombé", is an example of Guillén's use of repetition, derived from an actual ceremony.

It is not infrequently described as a setting of Guillen's poem (hence the confusion in some quarters that it was originally a vocal work): not in the traditional sense however - it is purely instrumental - and "the music is drawn from and related to the structure and semantic content of the poem". In other words, there are rhythmic musical motifs which are derived from a syllabic setting of the text. This can be seen in this analysis which is in Spanish - don't let that put you off - just scroll about 5/8s of the way into the text and you'll see musical examples of motifs with words from the text underneath.

http://repository.eafit.edu.co/bitstream/handle/10784/1456/JuanGabriel_AlarcónCarreńo_2013.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y



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« Reply #6 on: June 04, 2014, 02:30:04 pm »

http://www.sendspace.com/file/1l09f6

This is an arrangement of Sensemaya made for performing arts students in 1984 for pianos (probably 2 pianos 8 hands) and tuned and untuned percussion. Neither a great recording nor performance, but considering there are only one or two who actually studied percussion, they didn't do too bad a job.
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guest54
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« Reply #7 on: June 05, 2014, 08:07:31 am »

Many thanks, Mr. Autoharp, for the information, and for posting that; it conveys the same hypnotic effect - also in places the wriggling effect - of the orchestral work. A lot of work, I would think, to arrange it . . . but it is a good way to get to know all the details.

And here is yet another version, from the Acapulco orchestra:

http://www28.zippyshare.com/v/22716510/file.html

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