An interesting facet of music is the way in which composers represent visual imagery through sound. Often, composers are inspired by landscapes, expansive vistas, and the majesty that is nature. From Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 6) to Alan Hovhaness' Symphony No. 60 "To the Appalachian Mountains", composers utilize the world around them as inspiration. This is certainly true of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas and two of his symphonic poems, Cuauhnáhuac and Janitzio.
Cuauhnáhuac was written in July of 1931 when Revueltas was staying in Cuernavaca. Originally, Revueltas wrote the piece for string orchestra, but then immediately revised it for full orchestra twice, eventually settling on the third edition in December of 1932. The premiere of the final version was given by the Orquesta Sinfónica de México on June 2nd, 1933 with Revueltas conducting the orchestra. The orchestra size for Cuauhnáhuac was expanded from the traditional orchestra of pairs of winds and brass. Revueltas wrote his work for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English Horn, E-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, and strings.
The term "Cuauhnáhuac" is a Nahuatl word which means "near the forest" and was the name given by the Tlalhuicas (a people ethnically related to Aztec people) to the capital of their province of Tlahuican. When the Spanish invaded in the 16th century, the name was deformed into "Cuernavaca", meaning "cow horn." It was in Cuernavaca that Hernán Cortés, the commander of the Spanish conquistadores, deposed Moctezuma II and built a large stone fortress in the main square to make the city the administrative seat for his estate, the Marquisate of the Valley of Oaxaca. Cuernavaca was described by many 19th and 20th century travelers as a "land of eternal spring" or "paradise."
Cuauhnáhuac uses chromatic motion and dissonance to evoke a primitive sound, much in the way Stravinsky used those techniques in Rite of Spring for the same reasons. Even though there are three distinct sections to the work, Cuauhnáhuac relies on constant change to convey the city and its ancient peoples.
When Cuauhnáhuac was first premiered, it received a lukewarm reception. The trend in Mexican music criticism was one of nationalism--meaning using musical ideas the related to popular music of Mexico at the time--and not one of looking back to pre-Colombian or pre-Colonial music. Revueltas' work was seen as a parody on Indigenous music, not an exact celebration of it. Many critics and musicians agree that Cuauhnáhuac marks a turn in Revueltas' style; a turn that would be associated with Revueltas' mature, personal style.
You can listen to Cuauhnáhuac below. For part 2 of this post, click here.
Post written by Dr. Kevin Eberle
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