Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 1934-5

Length: 60 minutes (film)

Orchestration: piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, tam-tam, Indian drum, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 17, 1993, Enrique Diemecke conducting (Suite)

In 1933 Paul Strand - "the biggest, widest, most commanding talent in the history of American photography," according to Susan Sontag - came to Mexico. Like Copland the year before, Strand was drawn there in large measure by interest in the revolutionary government and its progressive social ideas.

Also like Copland, Strand had an invitation from Carlos Chávez, in his case to photograph images of Mexico for an exhibition. The two soon came up with another project - Redes (Nets), a quasi-documentary film on the struggles for social and economic justice by the Veracruz fishing village of Alvarado. Strand had created the film Manhatta (released as New York the Magnificent) with the painter Charles Sheeler in 1921, and he had been working as a cameraman for newsreels. He planned to do the cinematography, with Chávez writing the score. They added Austrian Fred Zinnemann (the three-time Oscar-winning director of such subsequent films as High Noon, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma!, and A Man for All Seasons) to the production team as co-director with Emilio Gómez Muriel.

But in 1934, while the project (initially titled Pescados) was still being planned, a new government with Lázaro Cárdenes came to power. Chávez was replaced as Director of Fine Arts by Antonio Castro Leal, who approved the project but with the music now assigned to Silvestre Revueltas.

This caused a rather public break between the two leading figures of Mexican music. As a violinist, Revueltas had played recitals with Chávez in the 1920s, before becoming director of his own orchestra in Texas. In 1929 Chávez brought him back to Mexico City as assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra. The relationship between the autocratic Chávez and the perennial outsider Revueltas had already become strained when the Redes change occurred. In the aftermath, Revueltas resigned from the orchestra, and even briefly created and conducted a competing ensemble.

"It is illuminating to contrast the work of Chávez with that of his countryman, the late Silvestre Revueltas, whose vibrant, tangy scores sing of a more colorful, perhaps a more mestizo side of the Mexican character," Copland wrote in 1952. "Revueltas was a man of the people, with a wonderfully keen ear for the sounds of the people's music."

Which served him well with Redes (released in the U.S. as The Wave). Filmed on location with a handful of professional actors and most of the cast made up of untrained fishermen and their families, Redes depicts the hard and inequitably rewarded work of the fishermen.

Revueltas composed much of the score before the film was finished. Strand and Zinnemann had to leave the country before the project was completed, and by the time the final edit was made in 1935, Revueltas had substantially revised and reorchestrated his score.

The film contrasts the labor of the fishermen with the manipulations of a businessman and a politician. Collective action, the fishermen decide, is the only recourse when they are shortchanged once again. They are split, however, and end up fighting each other. In the fracas, the leader of the unionists is shot, and when he dies the fishermen finally unite.

Revueltas' bold score draws on Stravinsky as much as on vernacular Mexican elements. On the popular side there is the music of the fishermen at work, as exuberant a musical fiesta as El Salón México, with an extra wildness and abandon near the edge of hysteria. The austere music for the scene of the child's funeral, on the other hand, creates its uncompromising edge through sharply focused control - of piquantly expressive, often polytonal, harmony; of remorseless rhythm; of rich, sure orchestration.

"All his music seems preceded by something that is not joy and exhilaration, as some believe, or satire and irony, as others believe," the poet Octavio Paz wrote. "That element, better and more pure… is his deep-felt but also joyful concern for man, animal, and things. It is the profound empathy with his surroundings which makes the works of this man, so naked, so defenseless, so hurt by the heavens and the people, more significant than those of many of his contemporaries."

In 1937, Revueltas' profound empathy and concern for progressive social and political issues took him to Spain on behalf of the Republicans. There he found that Redes was the only thing that was known of his work, a situation he corrected with wildly successful concerts in Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona, which often included music from Redes.

In October and November he stopped in Paris, where Redes had its local premiere. There he met an old friend, Juan Marinello, who relates a story about the time he and Revueltas unexpectedly found Redes playing in a sad little theater on the outskirts of Paris, under the title Les revoltés d'Alvarado. Much amused by this unlikely representation of the film, they went in and sat down. Marinello was entranced again by the film, which he already knew. Revueltas, however, did not look at the screen. "He turned to the spectators, meditating in silence," Marinello wrote, "asking me more than once, 'What could they be thinking?'"

-- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.