Finding the “sense” in Silvestre Revueltas’ 'Sensemayá'
Explore how Silvestre Revueltas’ 'Sensemayá' — which will be performed by the UMKC Conservatory Wind Symphony on April 26 — reflects the dynamic political and artistic landscape in which it was written.
Author Anya Pogorelova is a pianist, percussionist, and music educator pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Wind Conducting at UMKC Conservatory.
Based on a 1934 poem of the same name by the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, the evocative Sensemayá is one of Silvestre Revueltas’ most famous compositions. The 6-minute work was 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. The title of Guillén’s poem, “Sensemayá: canto para matar una culebra,” translates to “Chant for Killing a Snake” and depicts a folkloric Afro-Cuban ritual of killing and sacrificing a cunning snake with glass-like eyes.
Beginning with a series of continuous 16th notes, Revueltas conveys the snake’s winding movement with a faint sacrificial dance rhythm in the undercurrent. This repetitive rhythm, combined with unexpected accents and dissonant harmonies, rushes towards the snake’s imminent doom - almost invoking, in its own way, the famous “Dances of the Young Girls” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
Many musicians and listeners accept this programmatic, tone-painting interpretation - but there is so much more at play. Silvestre Revueltas was a multifaceted cultural leader, serving as the president of Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR; League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) in the years 1936 and 1937. During this time, he met Nicolás Guillén and attended one of his poetry readings. Take a listen to Guillén reciting his own work, paying particular attention to the ostinato rhythm from the very start and the strings after rehearsal marking 10 (roughly the 1:35 minute mark):
Guillen’s poetry is unmistakable in the melodic m’yombe - bombe - mayombé chant and the rhythmic sen-se-ma-yá cadence, as seen in the figures below. Reading the poem on paper may have led Revueltas to create an entirely different setting - but pairing the music with the spoken word highlights the historic and personal relationship between the poet and the composer.
Not convinced yet? Simply a coincidence? Take a look at Revueltas’ first handwritten draft and the notes found below the music.
You can hear Sensemayá performed by the UMKC Conservatory Wind Symphony on Tuesday, April 26.
What: UMKC Conservatory Wind Symphony
Where: White Hall (Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry Street)
When: April 26, 7:30 p.m.