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Inside the Music

Four Things to Know About Sensemayá

A black and white portrait of Silvestre Sensemayá, superimposed on a blurred image of string players from the Sphinx Virtuosi performing on a stage.

On February 1-3, the Sphinx Virtuosi join the Minnesota Orchestra with a unique program including six works by Black and Latin composers inspired by contemporary concerns, particular geographies and cultural traditions. The concerts close with the innovative work Sensemayá by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who was a figurehead of classical music in his native country. Quietly revolutionary in its colorful orchestration and subject matter, Sensemayá is a gripping sonic journey depicting a violent religious ritual—music evocative enough that it even captured the imagination of a young Leonard Bernstein.  

Here are four essential things you need to know about this piece before you hear it for yourself at Orchestra Hall:

1. Poetic beginnings

Sensemayá is based on a poem by Afro-Cuban poet and writer Nicolás Guillén that was published in a collection called West Indies, Ltd., in 1934. Based on the traditional Afro-Cuban Palo Monte religion—which has roots in the Bakongo diaspora and emphasizes nature in its practices—the poem is a depiction of a ritual sacrifice of a snake.

Guillén and Revueltas first met in 1937 as members in the Congreso de Escritores y Artistas (Congress of Writers and Artists) formed by the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios or LEAR, a collective of artists who sought to create art for the masses, promote Communist ideals and champion social causes of the time. In 1937, the pair traveled to Spain with other members in a show of solidarity with the Spanish Republic after the outbreak of that country’s civil war in 1936.

In preparation for that trip, LEAR convened in Guadalajara, Mexico. Scholar Helga Zambrano writes that “[A]ccording to Eugenia Revueltas, daughter of Silvestre Revueltas, the members would gather at La Casa Kostakowski—a social space where Revueltas would gain the inspiration to compose Sensemayá after listening to Guillén recite [his poem].”

Hear Guillén read Sensemayá below:

A recording of Nicolás Guillén reciting "Sensemayá."

2. A Minnesota connection 

The first version of Sensemayá was written in 1937 for chamber orchestra and featured sparser textures than the full orchestra version that the Sphinx Virtuosi and Minnesota Orchestra will perform, which was created in 1938. In 1967, Frank Bencriscutto—director of bands at the University of Minnesota for 32 years—gave the premiere of his own wind ensemble arrangement with the university’s concert band in 1967. That version was published in 1980. 

3. Another Rite? 

Since its premiere, Sensemayá often draws comparison to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and for good reason. In each work, the creator sought to depict traditional religious rituals—and the ways nature, brutality and spirituality interconnect. Musically, both feature alternating compound time signatures—changes in the music’s pulse from measure to measure—layers of complex rhythmic activity and a sinister sense of foreboding. In the traditions that Sensemayá is based on, snakes were representative of renewal, growth and fertility, just as the Chosen One is sacrificed in The Rite of Spring to celebrate the arrival of that ever-important season. After its premiere, one critic wrote of Sensemayá:

[T]he obsessive rhythms, the slithering, pictorial wind writing, and the threatening brass all combine to create a raw evocation of the ceremony, comparable to what Stravinsky did for pagan Russia in The Rite of Spring.

4. It made Revueltas famous…after his death 

Despite his fame at home, Revueltas and his music didn’t gain much notoriety outside Mexico until 1947, nearly a full decade after his death. That attention came thanks to Leopold Stokowski, who made a recording of Sensemayá in December 1947.

But it was Leonard Bernstein who sustained that interest in Revueltas’ music. Bernstein was a huge proponent of Revueltas and his peers, and conducted Sensemayá several times, including two notable occasions: on a February 1963 Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic, and the opening concert of the first Stravinsky Festival in New York City in 1966—with Stravinsky in attendance. Each work on that program was selected to showcase Stravinsky’s influence on American music, an inclusion that, according to author Jesús Del Toro, signified “American music was not circumscribed to compositions and composers from the United States but also consisted of Latin American repertoire.” 

Listen to Bernstein’s recording of Sensemayá with the New York Philharmonic:

A 1962 recording of "Sensemayá," performed by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein.

Still want to know more? Check out this in-depth analysis by Olivia Cantrell, published by our colleagues at the Houston Symphony. 

Get your tickets now to hear the ritual for yourself when the Sphinx Virtuosi returns to the Minnesota Orchestra on February 1-3!