The Legend of Musical Showdown: Carlos Chávez vs. Silvestre Revueltas

This article explores the lives and works of Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas, the two most important Mexican composers of the 20th century. It highlights significant moments and facts, providing readers with valuable insights to better understand and appreciate these great composers.

The Legend of Musical Showdown: Carlos Chávez vs. Silvestre Revueltas
Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas are the two most important Mexican composers of the 20th century. Images by Cultura and INBA

Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas are the two most important Mexican composers of the 20th century. However, due to time, business circumstances, and other factors, a struggle has arisen between their supporters and detractors, who have attempted to pit the two composers against each other based on their notable differences. Despite this, with time, the true value of each composer's work has become clear, and their reputations are no longer burdened by unfounded rumors and falsehoods. In fact, along with Manuel M. Ponce, these three composers have the most recordings in Mexican concert music. This article will explore the lives and works of Chávez and Revueltas, highlighting significant moments and facts. Readers can use this information to better understand and appreciate these two great composers.

Carlos Chávez and the Mexican School of Composition

The Mexican School of Composition emerged in the early 1900s and represents a search for a distinct musical identity that transformed and expanded artistic expression and technical possibilities. Carlos Chávez, born in Mexico City in 1899 and died in 1978, is a pivotal figure who embodied the ideals of José Vasconcelos, the former rector of the University and Secretary of Education, who promoted a cultural mystique of national redemption that shaped Mexican nationalism for the next fifty years.

Chávez is regarded as a "triple redeemer" who serves as an instructor, living text, and artist. He teaches by example, demonstrating the superior life to which people should aspire and using art to purify society and transform cruelty and wickedness into creation. This movement brought Mexican music into the contemporary world, paving the way for future generations of composers.

Carlos Chávez was a prominent cultural promoter in Mexico in the 20th century. He collaborated with Salvador Novo and Xavier Villaurrutia on the Ulises Theater project, established the School of Dance, which later became the Department of Dance in 1950, and the opera of Bellas Artes in 1948. Chávez strengthened the connection between various art forms while emphasizing a distinctly Mexican character by supporting the work of national dancers, singers, and composers. He founded and led the Symphonic Orchestra of Mexico (OSM) for two decades and mentored the Group of the Four (Daniel Ayala, Blas Galindo, José Pablo Moncayo, and Salvador Moreno) in promoting nationalism.

Additionally, Chávez held administrative positions such as the directorship of the National Conservatory from 1928-1933 and head of the Department of Fine Arts from 1933-34. He also founded the National Institute of Fine Arts and served as its director from 1947 to 1952. In 1930, José Gorostiza described Chávez's tireless work ethic, noting that he was not only the conductor of the symphonic orchestra but also oversaw agreements, correspondences, essays, magazine publications, conferences, articles, and debates.

According to José Antonio Alcaraz, Carlos Chávez created more than just a school, but a movement - the Nacionalista - which influenced musicians who weren't necessarily his students. As a teacher, Chávez mentored the Grupo de los Cuatro and the Generación del Taller, among others. He believed that music should be taught not just in theory, but also through practice, and preferred workshops over schools.

Despite his busy schedule as a guest conductor for prominent orchestras in the US and Europe, Chávez continued to compose. He also served as an advisor to the Secretary of Education in 1973 and the President of the Republic in 1977. Chávez had a clear vision of promoting Mexican art on a global scale while maintaining its unique identity. He believed that an emphasis on national art should not hinder the recognition and appreciation of other forms of art. In his view, the State had three primary functions regarding art: to develop national art, to acknowledge universal art, and to protect national art.

Carlos Chávez was a highly influential composer and administrator who received a National Tribute shortly after his death. With over eighty works in his catalog and a discography spanning one hundred discs, Chávez merged the roles of official and musician. Though strict, methodical, and viewed by some as intolerant and dogmatic, Chávez possessed exceptional rigor and discipline. In the 1960s, Juan Vicente Melo remarked that Chávez was the only Mexican composer who remained grounded, truly understood what it meant to be a musician, and had not lost touch with the essence of Mexican music.

Over the past decades, the music industry has become more professional, with many composers prioritizing their careers over their artistic expression. Carlos Chávez faced criticism for using his official position to promote his work, a practice that is now widely accepted, though not openly discussed by creators in administrative positions.

During a conversation with the renowned Sergio Celibidache, orchestra conductor Sergio Cárdenas mentioned that if the Mexican government had allocated the funds given to Chávez for self-promotion to musical education, Mexico would be the world's leading exporter of music today. While this statement may seem exaggerated, critic José Antonio Alcaraz argues that it depends on the type of musical education Mexico desires. Moreover, Chávez was not naive and had a clever response to Antonio Rodriguez's criticism: "if Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint the walls of the National Palace, he wouldn't call Jose Clemente Orozco to do it."

Yolanda Moreno Rivas notes that Carlos Chávez recognized the need for a cultural transformation to achieve a new vision of Mexican art, successfully introducing the works of Stravinski to the working class. Chávez viewed this achievement as part of a cultural renaissance that had been progressing since 1921. As a conductor, Chávez's repertoire favored impressionist and contemporary composers.

Over 21 seasons, the Symphonic Orchestra of Mexico played works by 33 Mexican composers, including 14 presented for the first time in Mexico and 62 with their world premiere. Chávez also programmed composers he did not necessarily like, such as Bartok and Schoenberg. Along with Rodolfo Halffter, Chávez founded the magazine Nueva Música (1946-1952) and maintained that the public should be taught to appreciate music rather than simply given what they ask for.

According to José Antonio Alcaraz, Carlos Chávez's contributions include his refusal to succumb to sentimentalism, a prevalent trait in Mexico's popular song, poetry, and consumer cinema. Chávez's formal esthetic position changed over time, with modernity becoming an imperative in his later works, such as Pirámides, which features magnetic tape.

The critic highlights two seemingly contradictory tendencies in Chávez's work - his respect and innovation of classical forms, demonstrated in his symphonies, sonatinas, and concertos, and his non-repetition approach, wherein each material leads to the invention of the next, eschewing traditional development and thematic manipulation.

Chávez understood the challenges of art based on myth and acknowledged that nationalism, which had served a meaningful function in the 1920s and 30s, was becoming dangerously close to empty invocation, exoticism, or virtuosic display by the 1940s. Nonetheless, Chávez remained a highly influential figure in Mexico's cultural scene, with his administrative legacy still shaping the industry today.

Carlos Chávez, 1899-1978, Iconografía (CNCA/INBA, 1994, 167 pp.) highlights the composer's coexistence with some of the most important artists of his time, receiving recognition from many of them. Darius Milhaud, in his book Notas sin música, praised Chávez for forming a flexible and disciplined orchestra capable of playing contemporary music, showcasing works by Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Milhaud under the direction of their authors in just six weeks.

Despite his achievements, no Mexican composer has received the honors and official tributes that Chávez deserved, not even Silvestre Revueltas. The latter's case is unique, as he is perhaps the most talented composer born in Mexico and the only one, some dare to say, with a true genius.

Pianist and orchestra conductor Carlos Chávez.
Pianist and orchestra conductor Carlos Chávez. Credit: Cultura

The Talented Mexican Composer Silvestre Revueltas

Silvestre Revueltas (Santiago de Papasquiaro, Durango, December 31, 1899; Mexico City, October 5, 1940) faced difficult years of study, living away from his family and attending various schools in Mexico City, Austin, and Chicago between 1916 and 1924. He was a visionary who sought to express music through different means, even dreaming of music that could not be transcribed by known graphic characters. His love for the mountains, horizons, and remote countries stemmed from childhood memories of traveling and exploring.

Revueltas was introduced to music at a young age, listening intently to a village orchestra and becoming cross-eyed from the experience. He preferred to play drums in a bathtub as a boy and dreamt of becoming a missionary, preacher, and musician. Despite his father's fears that music would not provide him with enough financial stability, Revueltas continued to pursue his passion and made his first public appearance at the Teatro Degollado in Guadalajara when he was only eleven years old.

His father, a poet, instilled in him a love for art and poetry, but also made him study other subjects such as bookkeeping and arithmetic to no avail. Nonetheless, Revueltas continued to pursue music and went on to become one of Mexico's most talented and influential composers.

Revueltas also wrote the Diary in the Sanatorium (1939) while surrounded by insane women, where he was the only man who witnessed and intervened in their violence. Despite this, he found a hint of tenderness in each face, which he looked forward to every day. Loneliness was a constant companion, which had haunted him since childhood and followed him during his trip to Spain. The diary, written to his third wife Angela Acevedo, reveals his struggle with the conflict between his overflowing emotions and the harsh realities of life.

Revueltas was critical of the art world, which he believed to be a partisan struggle over people rather than ideas. He also believed that art criticism should contain clarity, honesty, knowledge, and fairness to be beneficial. In his personal life, Revueltas was often lonely and struggled with his emotions. He wrote letters to his third wife Angela Acevedo expressing his feelings of loneliness, longing, and frustration. Despite this, he recognized the problems in the world and did not want to complain excessively. In one letter, he expressed his love for Angela and the joy he felt receiving letters from her. In another letter, he wrote of his desperation and asked her to sleep in his heart.

Carlos Chávez is remembered as a calculating and influential musician, a friend of the elite of his time, while Silvestre Revueltas is seen as the great inspired, bohemian, lacking in technique. Despite this, both composers have made significant contributions to the Mexican repertoire. Revueltas, in particular, is viewed as an uncomfortable and annoying composer who is critical of the system and a socialist. He is not an official composer, which is seen as a virtue by his followers.

Revueltas was a prolific composer who wrote about 50 works in the last decade of his life, marked by alternating periods of great creativity and depressive episodes in which he drowned his sorrows in alcohol. In his writings, he bemoaned the noisy, tumultuous society he saw around him, longing for human connection in a world of endless rain and excuses. He spoke of his impatience with life, seeing only silence and shadows marking the passing minutes, and viewed only the timetable of pain as a reliable guide. His struggles with alcoholism landed him in Dr. Falcón's sanatorium, where he wrote his poignant Diary, filled with reflections on life, love, and the human condition.

Eugenia Revueltas recalls that Silvestre's reputation as a talented yet undisciplined musician grew between 1933 and 1934, despite his rigorous training in the United States and previous experiences as a performer. It was during this time that he began his relationship with Carlos Chávez, who had offered him a teaching position at the National Conservatory of Music in 1928.

Silvestre permanently moved to Mexico a year later and performed with the newly-formed OSM, playing Mozart's Concerto in B minor under Chávez's direction. In addition to his performances, Silvestre also taught violin and chamber music at the Conservatory and served as the sub-director of the Symphony Orchestra until October 1935.

Silvestre Revueltas conducts an orchestra.
Silvestre Revueltas conducts an orchestra. Photo: Mediateca INAH

The Chávez-Revueltas Rivalry

Chávez and Revueltas worked together to fight against the conservative, mediocre, and kitschy musical culture in Mexico. In the early days of Musical Mexico, Chávez, who Revueltas called the "iron musician," took charge of organizing musical activities and production in the country. The group was small but motivated, including individuals such as José Pomar, Luis Sandi, Eduardo Hernández Moncada, Francisco Agea, Ricardo Ortega, and Candelario Huízar. With a strong desire to bring new musical expressions to the public, they organized concerts for children and workers, and soon, a more open-minded and larger audience began to appreciate their efforts.

As time passed, two symphony orchestras emerged, the Mexican Symphony Orchestra led by Chávez and the National Symphony Orchestra led by Revueltas. Despite their differences, both orchestras shared the same goals of paving the way for the future and seeking improvement in the music industry. Their work stimulated musical creativity in Mexico.

Revueltas was a strong opponent of the system, which earned him many enemies among conservatives and followers among the radicals. His famous text "Sombras de sombras" portrays his critical views:

Shadows follow shadows, endlessly. Our music scene is composed of shadowy figures playing their violins, without rhyme or reason... This darkness may seem impenetrable to some, but it is clear as day to my new eyes, as I see the reality of our musical life.

The conflicts between Chávez and Revueltas stemmed from professional jealousy, but other factors also contributed to their estrangement. These included clashes of personal and aesthetic temperaments, Revueltas' indiscipline and Chávez's demands, the founding of the ephemeral Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional by Estanislao Mejía as competition to Chávez, and the incident with Paul Strand's commission for the film Pescados. The rupture between the two composers was also influenced by an anecdotal incident in which Revueltas was supposed to appear as a soloist in the OSM but failed to show up. Later, large posters announced Revueltas as the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Chávez reflected on his relationship with Revueltas, stating that his position as the leader of the opposing side was not a matter of loyalty or rivalry, but rather a fact. He also acknowledged that their estrangement had started when he left the Conservatory, and he never saw his "friends" again. He noted that while they praised Revueltas and placed him on a pedestal, he insisted that Revueltas work on improving his compositions, as he found them beautiful but lacking in interest.

There has been a legend of rivalry between Chávez and Revueltas, but Chávez denies any rumors of envy or forcing Revueltas to drink. Chávez tried to keep him away from drinking as much as possible. At the premiere of La madrugada del panadero, Revueltas swayed through the aisles and apologized to Chávez for his behavior, expressing his love for him and his intention to meet again, but that moment never came. Chávez had nothing but affection for him and although he doesn't like all of his music, he recognizes some of his works as magnificent.

Carlos Chávez: Sinfonia No.2, "Sinfonía India" (1935/1936)

The Complex Relationship Between Chávez and Revueltas

The relationship between Chávez and Revueltas has a long and controversial history. Shortly after Revueltas' death, Chávez responded to an article in the New York Herald Tribune, denying that their collaboration had ended due to a personal dispute. According to Chávez, Revueltas did not consider himself a composer and had not written anything for orchestra until 1931, when he presented his first orchestral composition. Chávez praised Revueltas' works "Colorines" and "El renacuajo paseador" as his best scores.

In his letter, Chávez denies any personal dispute with Revueltas and deplores the lack of openness from his friend. However, he also notes that Revueltas never sought him out again and that he had settled into his orchestra with the support of official power. Chávez states that he never made an issue of the matter and that they occasionally met, but there was no reason to actively seek each other out. He also emphasizes that if anyone was far from having support from official power, it was Revueltas.

Creators' images are shaped not only by their talent and the quality of their works, but also by the movements and strategies of their cultural environment, both local and external. Socio-historical circumstances also play a role. The process of establishing a creator's prestige is complex, and even seemingly simple factors like maintaining a personal archive can influence it.

For example, only Chávez had the opportunity to organize his personal and professional archives in Mexico in a way that contributed to his status as the country's only universally recognized musical genius for the next century. He has been successful in international forums and has left his fellow Mexican composers in the shadows. This observation was made by American musicologist Robert Stevenson.

As time passes, the most significant works of artists remain above institutions. While canons are important in preserving traditions, they are rooted in the world views of their time and individuals. The music of Chávez and Revueltas speaks to their stature as artists beyond anecdotes and testimonies about them.

Silvestre Revueltas - Sensemayá (1937) {Bernstein}

Full citation: Roberto García Bonilla, Carlos Chávez y Silvestre Revueltas, la leyenda de una pugna, Correo del Maestro. Núm. 43, pp.43-52.