In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Silvestre Revueltas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Collections
  • Work Catalogues and Bibliographies
  • Digital Archive
  • Early Critical Assessments
  • Recent Critical Assessments
  • Revueltas and the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists
  • Revueltas and the Spanish Civil War
  • Revueltas and Nationalism
  • Silvestre Revueltas’s Writings
  • Literary Homages
  • Other Artistic Portrayals: Fiction, Poetry, Music, Theater, Film, Painting, Sculpture, and Photography

Music Silvestre Revueltas
Roberto Kolb-Neuhaus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0313


The career of Silvestre Revueltas (b. 1899–d. 1940) as primarily a composer lasted only a decade at the end of his life. For long defined as a nationalist and/or modernist, the publication of his writings in 1989 has led to a change in perspective. He defines himself there transparently as a political composer, critical of both institutionalized nationalism and Eurocentric modernism. One can speak of two creative periods characterized by contrasting aesthetic approaches. The first (1930–1936) is marked by a decolonial Latin American avant-garde locus, with three targets in mind: the continued Eurocentric cultural colonialism perpetuated at the conservatory where he was employed; the strong emergence of an invented tradition, an artificial, essentializing definition of Mexicanness institutionalized by the state and sponsored by the private radio and press at the time; and, arguably, the aspirations of the local cultural intelligentsia at home, seeking international recognition and acceptance through a cosmopolitan modernism. His early works build on various forms of montage accumulation, incorporating large numbers of musical subjects, juxtaposed synchronically and diachronically, always varied, and discerned by resorting to metric, harmonic, and color contrasts. These alternate with compositions best described as stridently disruptive satirical collages or complex discontinuous music that has few precedents in history and was intended to target both nationalist and cosmopolitan aspirations. Slightly overlapping with the first, the second creative period started in 1935. Not fortuitously, it coincides with historical changes in Mexico and beyond: locally, the coming to power of the socialist Lázaro Cárdenas, which enabled the composer to assume his leftist political beliefs more openly, and, internationally, the outbreak of the Civil War in Spain, which the Mexican government supported along with the Soviet Union. The Spanish cause, combined with Revueltas’s participation as a leader in the local League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, led to compositions that pursue a political message more overtly. These include program music, such as the late-romantic Redes and Itinerario, as well as a few battle songs. Most compositions of this second phase, however, transcend socialist realism, returning to a more avant-garde stance, linking social with artistic transformation. Among them is his best-known work, the Sensemayá montage (1937 and 1938), which has, until recently, been systematically misread as self-exoticizing primitivism.

General Overviews

Various aspects linked to Revueltas’s life had a defining impact on his historicization. The first was his unexpected death of pneumonia at age forty, after a brief career of only ten years. At the time, in 1940, only one work had been published. Most of his compositions had to wait decades before they became accessible. His writings, which are fundamental for the understanding of his music, were published almost half a century after his death and only in Spanish. Last but not least, Revueltas was averse to any form of professional self-promotion, evident in the notorious scarcity of correspondence with peers in Mexico and abroad. In the case of other composers, such correspondence has been very informative regarding their aesthetic stances. It is for these reasons that, until recently, the portrait of Revueltas has tended to reflect the reception predominant during his life and decades thereafter, as a composer presumably concerned above all with the sounding of Mexicanness. This is clearly the case in Stevenson 1952 and, to a lesser degree, Malmström 1974. Surprisingly, this reception seems to also mark later overviews contributed by historians, such as Estrada 1984 and Miranda and Tello 2011. Only more recent overviews, including Cortez and Ruiz Ortiz 2002, Kolb and Vilar-Payá 2005, Paraskevaídis 1992–2010, Estrada 2012 (cited under Recent Critical Assessments), and Carredano and Eli 2015, recognize his critical stance regarding nationalism, his decolonial aesthetics, and his motivations as a political composer. Paraskevaídis 1992–2010, to this day the most comprehensive overview, also contains a selected discography and bibliography, music examples, and a listing or Revueltas’s compositions drawn from Kolb, Contreras Soto, Miranda, Revueltas, and Vilar-Payá, the compilers of the Foro virtual Silvestre Revueltas (cited under Collections).

  • Carredano, Consuelo, and Victoria Eli. “Sintonías, desencuentros y pérdidas.” In Historia de la música en España e Hispanoamérica. Vol. 8. Edited by Consuelo Carredano and Victoria Eli, 123–175. México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2015.

    This general history of music in Spain and Hispanic America includes a detailed review of Revueltas’s music and personality, highly recommendable because it reflects recent research and analyses, freeing him of the traditional nationalist branding and recognizing not only his satirical stances regarding past and present-day nationalism, but also his political activism, his links to an early avant-garde surrealism, and his programmatic music related to developments such as the Civil War in Spain.

  • Cortez, Luis Jaime, and Xochiquetzal Ruiz Ortiz. “Revueltas, Silvestre.” In Diccionario de la música española e hispanoamericana. Vol. 9. Edited by Emilio Casares Rodicio, with Victoria Eli Rodríguez and Benjamín Yépez Chamorro, 140–149. Madrid: Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, 2002.

    An extremely rich and well-informed biography of the composer, including many literal quotations of his writings that underscore both his enduring political motivations as well as his critical stance regarding nationalist practices and expectations predominant at the time. This extensive biographical account contrasts with a very brief approach to his music, which unfortunately does not contribute insight into this composer’s unorthodox aesthetics. A rich bibliography is included.

  • Estrada, Julio. “Técnicas composicionales en la música mexicana de 1910 a 1940.” In La música de México. Vol. 4, Período Nacionalista. Edited by Julio Estrada, 119–161. México, DF: Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1984.

    This encyclopedic approach to the history of Mexican art music includes a volume dedicated to the “nationalist period,” consisting of five chapters by different authors. Estrada approaches mainly one work by Revueltas, Sensemayá, through essentially formal analysis. He links this work to Chávez’s Sinfonía India, interpreting both as primitivism and classifying them as “nationalist indigenous music.” This analysis has been criticized, since there are no local indigenous elements to be found in Sensemayá.

  • Kolb, Roberto, and Luisa Vilar-Payá. “Revueltas, Silvestre.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d rev. ed. Personenteil, Vol. 13. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 1598–1602. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter Verlag, 2005.

    A very brief biography of the composer that includes an introductory survey of his aesthetics. In spite of its brevity, this entry is revealing regarding the official nationalism criticized and sounded by Revueltas as a target. Revueltas’s recurrent montage and collage aesthetics are used constructively to sound a hybrid culture that should not be artificially singularized, or satirically to counteract Eurocentric teleology such as still championed by the preceding generation of composers. Published online in 2016. Published by Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler.

  • Malmström, Dan. Introduction to Twentieth Century Mexican Music. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University, 1974.

    A rather well-documented assessment of Revueltas’s music, despite the scarce information available at the time. A brief but accurate survey of his compositional techniques. Although still taking for granted a presumed nationalist stance, Malmström offers hints that invite questioning in this respect. He is among the very few who recognized early on the importance of a political motivation behind the composer’s words and actions. A Spanish edition was published by Fondo de Cultura Económica in 1993.

  • Miranda, Ricardo, and Aurelio Tello. La música en Latinoamérica. México, DF: Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, Dirección General del Acervo Histórico Diplomático, 2011.

    Revueltas is very briefly mentioned in this book in the context of musical nationalisms in Latin American music. This contribution overlooks the composer’s many signs of irony, both in the work’s titles, accompanying texts, and satirical gestures in the music itself, targeting precisely the nationalist intent expected of composers at the time. The interpretation of Revueltas’ music has only recently started escaping from the straightjacket of nationalism.

  • Paraskevaídis, Graciela. “Revueltas, Silvestre.” In Komponisten der Gegenwart. Vol. 8. Edited by Hanns-Werner Heister and Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer, 3–23. Munich: Edition Text und Kritik, 1992–2010.

    By far the most detailed overview, unique in its comprehensive approach to the composer’s works beyond biographical considerations. It transcends previous concerns, mostly limited to the discussion of the composer’s stance regarding nationalism. The composer’s anti-academic humor, humanity, political commitment, decolonial locus, and an aesthetic affinity to the local Stridentist avant-garde are acknowledged here. Access to more recent literature would have informed how such stances are inscribed also in his compositional procedures. Online version published 2007, updated August 2010.

  • Stevenson, Robert. Music in Mexico. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1952.

    A very basic and still scarcely informed introduction to the figure, life, and music of Revueltas.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.