Saturday, October 12, 2002 - 8:00 p.m.
Premiered: Mexico City, 1938
At one alarming point in the 1935 movie ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! a firefight breaks out in a bar just as the pianist starts to play La Cucaracha. Seeing the bullets flying, the pianist holds up a card reading “Se suplica no tirarle al pianista” (“Please don’t shoot the pianist”) and wisely ducks behind the piano. The pianist is Silvestre Revueltas, who also scored the movie; he is 36 years old, and looks 65; his chronic alcoholism would carry him away only five years later. The Spanish Civil War, in which Revueltas fought on the Republican side, added the final ingredient of despair to a life already wrecked by chaos and drink. Once a close friend of Carlos Chavez, Revueltas lost his most important friend after a booze-fueled argument over a movie contract, and drifted aimlessly between crises until the furies caught up with him.
Sensemayá was inspired by a poem by the Cuban revolutionary Nicolas Batista describing the ritual killing of a snake. The grimmer parts of Mexico City concealed, among other things, Afro-Cuban cults - the reptilian franchise of Santeria - that actually performed this ritual, singing as they did so the Mayombe-bombe-mayombé chant that lies at the core of Sensemayá. It is impossible not to get the impression of a very exotic, impossibly dark Rite of Spring – Stravinsky’s tribal elders refocused through a shimmer of tropical heat and end-stage delirium tremens, both all too familiar to Revueltas. Sensemayá is his masterpiece, self-expressive and self-revelatory in equal measure. Many have heard the drop of the knife in the final climactic gesture, after all the tension and horror that have gone before; the metaphor and the irony were not lost on Revueltas’ family two years later.
Max Bruch - Violin Concerto in G Minor, Op. 55
Premiered: Prague (now in the Czech Republic), 1890
Written and orchestrated in an astonishing ten weeks, Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony was a determined effort to get away from the gloomy, stormy world of the Seventh, even at the risk of sounding downright cheerful in places. This was not usually the Dvořák way. Indeed, the surviving sketches for the first movement are almost entirely in the cheerful major; the composer appears to have found it not nearly miserable enough – hence the excursions into the minor in the final version. However, Dvořák’s publisher was downright disappointed with all this uncommercial good humor, and paid Dvořák so little for it that the composer was driven into a teaching job at the Prague Conservatory. He and the publisher never spoke again.
After a typically solemn Dvořák opening, all hymnal chords and solemn brass, the flute flutters in with one of many birdsong-like themes that will hover over the work, and we are off into the Bohemian countryside, which Dvořák was determined would be at least musically free of rural Germans (Beethoven in particular). Not even the thunderstorm of the Adagio can disturb the overall serenity of the music, which is so settled that we don’t even wonder why we’re in E flat, a key unrelated to the symphony’s main key. Unless, of course, we’re hearing a few folk tunes in Slavic modes.
For the third movement, Beethoven’s bucolic stomping is replaced by a solid Slavic dumka, oscillating between sad and (sort of) happy, while in the central section we hear simultaneous dark/bright versions of a semi-folksong that has defied identification. The word dumka actually means “thought” – in Dvořák’s hands, a quintessentially Czech thought.
At the Czech equivalent of a hoe-down, revelers are summoned to dance by a fanfare, and so it is in the finale. At first, the solemn main subject looks like it will be churned through an entire sequence of Brahmsian variations, but Dvořák will have none of it; a stomping country dance leads to a final lyrical glimpse of the Bohemian summer before we are treated to a final dose of bucolic bounce. After all those years of playing third viola under Smetana, Dvořák finally showed the older master how to combine national pride with musical solidity