Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas Sánchez (1899-1940) was the musician in a family of artists that included several siblings who became painters, writers, and an actress. After music study in Mexico and the United States, he caught the eye of another notable Mexican composer, Carlos Chávez, who invited Revueltas to become his assistant conductor at the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico in 1929. It was at this juncture that his composition career began in earnest as well, with nearly 70 pieces to follow over the remaining 11 years of his life. He was also a committed advocate of contemporary Mexican music, and as such he composed a series of Mexican national symphonic poems, the most famous of which is Sensemayá (1937). He died in 1940, succumbing pneumonia accelerated by heavy drinking and cold weather. Read more about him at Wikipedia, Naxos, and The Famous People.
Tres Sonetos is a chamber work in three movements that is based on poems by Revueltas’s contemporary Carlos Pellicer. He wrote each movement in a day during a 3-day span of February, 1938. All three have a dark and melancholy character. Each movement is titled with a line of Pellicer, all three of which seem to come from some version of the Cuatro canciones de horas de junio (Four songs of hours of June) – different collections seem to collect them in different ways, and no version I have found seems to contain all three poems. This performance by the University of Hawaii Wind Ensemble, the only performance currently available on YouTube, features recitations of each poem over the music:
While Revueltas does not seem to have left behind any direct clues about his thoughts regarding this piece, one can infer that the poems related to each movement provided their inspiration. Each of the links below goes to the full Spanish text and, in the first and last case, a reading by the poet – astute listeners will notice that he changes words here and there. These are absolutely essential listening for a full understanding of this piece. Many thanks to Dr. Ana Laura González for her indispensable English translations of the Spanish, appended below.
The first, “Vuelvo a ti, soledad, agua vacia,” (I return to you, loneliness, empty water) is a fantastical ode to loneliness (soledad) that uses imagery from the body, the landscape, and poetry itself to isolate the speaker. The second, “Junio me dió la voz, la silenciosa musica de callar un sentimiento, ” (June gave me the voice, the silent music of concealing a feeling) is in some versions a continuation of “Vuelvo…” – it is a statement of loss that ends with the similarly despondent line “(Here the voice breaks up and the horror/of such immense solitude fills the days)”. The final movement, “Era mi corazón piedra de rio,” (My heart was a stone from the river), imagines the water rising around said river stone because “someone moved something,” obscuring the idyllic view from the riverbed. While I read this as either a message of strength and constancy or one of being overwhelmed by forces beyond one’s control, Revueltas seems to have interpreted it as the latter. Certainly, given the other poems’ clear theme of loneliness, one could argue that Revueltas meant to gather poems that were all related to that subject, lending further credence to that interpretation. Dr. González adds: “I could also see a relationship between the pace of the words (evidenced in Pellicer’s monotone voice) and the repeated, almost hammered notes in the music.”
I return to you, loneliness…
I return to you, loneliness, empty water,
Water of my imagery, so dead,
Cloud of my words, so deserted,
Night of the unspeakable poetry.
Through you the same blood –yours and mine-
Runs to nobody’s soul always open.
Because of you, the anguish is shadow of the door
That remains closed day and night.
I follow the childhood in your prison, and the game
That changes deaths and resurrections
Lives blind from one image to the next.
The wind, the sun and the sea of the journey cry out.
I devour my own hearts
And play with the landscape’s eyes
June gave me the voice, silent music of concealing a feeling.
June gave me the voice, silent
Music of concealing a feeling.
June takes away now like the wind
The sweetest and most spacious hope.
I withdrew the clean rose from my voice.
The only eternal rose of the moment.
Love did not take her, the wind did
And the soul uselessly feasted.
One year after dying everyday
The fruit of my voice said so much
And withheld so much, that some days
They lived the shadow of such song.
(Here the voice breaks up and the horror
Of such immense solitude fills the days).
My heart was a stone from the river
My heart was a stone from the river
Without knowing the reason for its peaceful shelter,
It was the boy from the water, it was the restful
Leaves and clouds and glimmering cold.
Someone moved something, and the river rose.
Oh pitiful depth always calm!
And the washed stone and the shelter
Embraced in shadows of obscure splendor.
To look up at the sky, what an effort
The murky eyes had to make, always low.
Are they starts or traces of starts?
My heart was a stone from the river.
A stone from the river, one of those
Things of an impossibility between you and me.