Silvestre Revueltas’ Cuauhnáhuac

Notes by TŌN violist Katelyn Hoag

Silvestre Revueltas’ Cuauhnáhuac is a fascinating fusion of pre-Colombian Mexican musical traditions with European modernism.

A renowned violinist, conductor, teacher and composer, Revueltas was one of the most significant Mexican musicians of the 20th century. He composed Cuauhnáhuac in 1931 at the age of 31 while working as the assistant conductor of Mexico’s National Symphony Orchestra. Today, you will hear the first version of Cuauhnáhuac, which was written for strings alone. Revueltas later composed two more versions of the piece, culminating with his conducting the National Symphony in the final version’s 1933 premiere.

Cuauhnáhuac was the pre-Columbian name of the Mexican city of Cuernavaca before the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century. In the aboriginal Nahuatl language (an Aztecan dialect still spoken today by 1.7 million people in central Mexico), Cuauhnahuac means “near the forest.”

Despite the title’s clear reference to the age of the Aztecs, the piece does not clearly fit within one musical tradition. Written during a turning point in Mexican society following the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), artists emphasized “Indigenism,” or a search for ethnic and nationalistic roots. In the two decades before composing Cuauhnáhuac, composers such as Revueltas idealized the pre-Colombian era and incorporated elements of it into their work. It should be noted that most, if not all, of these elements were fictitious, since no one actually knew what Aztec music sounded like. In the final version of Cuauhnáhuac, for example, one hears the indigenous influence with Revueltas incorporating the huehuetl (Indian drum) as a means of “nationalist propaganda.”

By the time Cuauhnáhuac was composed in 1931, however, populism was more fashionable than Indigenism. Due to this cultural shift, Revuletas is less obvious with his use of Indigenism in Cuauhnáhuac than in earlier works. Instead of basing the piece entirely on pre-Colombian musical elements, Revueltas uniquely blends these techniques with those of European modernists Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky to create a distinctly modern Mexican sound.