Revueltas’ Night of the Mayas by Michael Curry

Program Notes

Villa-Lobos: Uirapurú
Dvořák: The Golden Spinning Wheel
Revueltas: La noche de los mayas (The Night of the Mayas)

Return to concert page


Heitor Villa-Lobos

Uirapurú (The Magic Bird) 

Work composed: 1917
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, soprano saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, celesta, chimes, côco, cymbals, floor-tom, glockenspiel, réco-réco, tamborim, tam-tam, tubular bells, xylophone, 2 harps, piano, violinophone, and strings
Estimated duration:14 minutes

When Heitor Villa-Lobos was still a teenager, he traveled into the Amazon rainforest to immerse himself in the music and culture of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. Villa-Lobos also absorbed the African and Portuguese/Spanish influences in the contemporary pop music he heard on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Essentially a self-taught composer, Villa-Lobos both recognized and celebrated the extraordinary range of sounds, instruments, and styles he discovered in the diverse music of his native country. More than any Brazilian composer before or since, Villa-Lobos made all these sounds, styles, and influences a fundamental component, not simply a colorful add-on, of Brazilian art music.

In 1917, Serge Diaghilev brought the Ballets Russes to Rio. Inspired by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the 30-year-old Villa-Lobos composed a ballet of his own. Uirapurú, a word from the Tupi language, refers to a family of songbirds found deep in the rainforest. Villa-Lobos transcribed the song of the uirapurú-verdadeiro, also known as the musician wren, quadrille wren, or organ wren, for solo flute (later soprano saxophone).

Villa-Lobos created the ballet’s plot from several Amazonian indigenous myths. In the jungle, a group of young men seek the magic Uirapurú, also known as the King of Love, whose song has the power to enchant all who hear it. In his own program notes, Villa-Lobos wrote, “[the search] for the elusive Uirapurú is witnessed by all the members of the nocturnal animal and insect kingdoms – glow worms, crickets, owls, enchanted toads, bats, and crawling things. A beautiful maiden appears … Armed with bow and arrow, she catches up with the Enchanted Bird, piercing its heart, whereupon the Singing Bird is immediately transformed into a handsome young man …” The youth is killed by an old man, also by an arrow through the heart. The maiden, joined by the original group of young hunters, carries the body to a nearby fountain, where it transforms into a beautiful bird who flies away into the jungle, its magical song fading away into the forest silence.

The orchestra features several indigenous Latin American percussion instruments: côco (two halves of a coconut shell struck together); tamborim (a 6-inch round Brazilian frame drum), tambor surdo (large Brazilian drum), and réco-réco (also known in Spanish-speaking Latin America as a guiro, or scraper). Additionally, Villa-Lobos features an unusual stringed instrument, the violinophone: a standard violin amplified by an attached resonating horn.


Antonín Dvořák

The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109 

Work composed: 1896
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, and strings
Estimated duration:26 minutes

Czech poet-folklorist Karel Jaromír Erben holds a place in Czech literature analogous to that of the Brothers Grimm in German-speaking countries; in both cases, these men collected and published the folktales and myths of their respective cultures. Erben’s 1853 anthology of Czech tales, A Bouquet of Folk Legends, helped solidify Czech national and cultural identity at a time when the Czech people lived under the often-oppressive rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As an ardent patriot and champion of the Czech language, Antonín Dvořák was strongly attracted to Erben’s work. The folk ballads Erben included in the Bouquet feature macabre, Gothic plots à la Edgar Allan Poe, which also fired Dvořák’s musical imagination. Dvořák created four symphonic poems from Erben’s ballads: The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Wild [Wood] Dove, and The Golden Spinning Wheel. In setting these tales, Dvořák hewed closely to the details of plot and narrative; he also replicated the linguistic rhythm of the ballad’s verses in specific instruments of the orchestra. Dvořák’s compatriot, composer Leoš Janáček, described this technique admiringly as “speech tunes,” or “the direct speech of the instruments.”

A youthful king rides into the forest and encounters the beautiful Dornička, with whom he instantly falls in love. The king asks Dornička’s stepmother to send the girl to his castle to become his bride, but the wicked woman instead proffers her own daughter, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Dornička. Despite their similarities, the king refuses the stepmother’s daughter and returns to his castle alone.

The stepmother and daughter follow him with Dornička. En route, the two women murder and mutilate Dornička, cutting off her hands and feet and gouging out her eyes. Leaving the slain girl’s body in the forest, the daughter marries the deceived king, who then departs to lead his men in battle.

Back in the forest, a magician discovers Dornička’s body and determines to avenge her death. Knowing the stepmother and daughter cannot control their greed, the magician sends his grandson to the castle with an offer: give me back Dornička’s missing body parts and I will give you a magical golden spinning wheel. The women agree, the magician replaces Dornička’s limbs and eyes, gives her a magic potion, and voila! she revives. Meanwhile, at the castle, the false bride welcomes her husband home and shows him her new wheel. He asks her to spin a golden thread and she complies; as the wheel turns, it sings of recent past events. Enraged, the king exiles stepmother and daughter back to the forest, where they are torn to pieces by a pack of wolves. The king finds his magically restored Dornička and triumphantly escorts her to the castle, where they wed at last.

Throughout the story, beginning as an accompaniment to the king’s opening horn theme, we hear the cellos quietly and insistently repeating a triplet rhythm – the spinning wheel – that becomes more prominent and insistent as the story progresses.


Silvestre Revueltas

La noche de los mayas (The Night of the Mayas) 

Work composed: 1939
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (both doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, bongos, caracol, snare drum guiro, huehuetl, Indian drum, snare drum, sonajas, tam-tam, tenor drum, tom-toms, tumbadora, tumkul, xylophone, piano, and strings
Estimated duration:35 minutes

Silvestre Revueltas composed most of his music in the decade before his death, at the age of 40, of alcoholism-related pneumonia. Before he turned his attention to composition, Revueltas played violin and conducted in Chicago, San Antonio, and Mobile, Alabama. In 1929, Revueltas’ friend and colleague Carlos Chávez offered Revueltas a post as assistant conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, a job Revueltas held until 1935. In 1937, Revueltas left Mexico to join the Loyalists fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. After Franco’s victory in 1939, Revueltas returned to Mexico disconsolate, and gradually drank himself into poverty and despair. He died a year later.

Revueltas’ music celebrates the rhythms and folk melodies of Mexico’s diverse geographic regions. In 1939, he was asked to write a score for a film titled La noche de los mayas, directed by Chano Urueta. By all accounts, the film was mediocre at best, but Revueltas’ music lives on, thanks to a 1960 orchestral arrangement by the Mexican conductor José Ives Limantour.

In these concerts, designer Michael Curry and the Oregon Symphony present a re-imagined story for Revueltas’ music, featuring narratives, characters, and sets created by Curry and his production team. “This [collaboration] is driven by the music,” says Curry. “Being a film score, it’s all over the place: the breadth of style has been really fun because some is folkloric, and some is bombastic movie music.”

Curry immersed himself in research, and became obsessed by the beauty and sophistication of Maya culture, particularly their art and graphic designs. “The beauty and strength of Maya artwork and its paintings are driving the aesthetic, to the point where some of the music sounds blue and orange to me, because I’m reacting to the Maya artwork,” he explained enthusiastically. “The bas relief carvings I’ve seen on the ceremonial columns at Chichen Itza or Copán are more fascinating to me than paintings.”

Due to conflicting theories regarding the collapse of Maya history and culture, there is no agreed-upon explanation for what happened to this once-powerful civilization. “Maya history is truly misunderstood,” says Curry. “There’s a lot of conjecture and arguments among archaeologists and historians about [why the Maya civilization disintegrated].” For Curry, the lack of consensus gives him what he calls “license to be creative.” Curry points out that Revueltas also did not limit himself exclusively to indigenous Maya music in his film score, probably for similar reasons. “The only thing that Revueltas got right regarding ‘authentic Maya’ is in the percussion sections where traditional Maya instruments are used.” (Note: Maya civilization collapsed over a period of centuries, and had largely disappeared by 900 CE Today, descendants of the Maya continue to live in areas of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and Guatemala.)

Curry’s story takes place in different times and realms. “In the first act, we begin in the year 578 CE, the zenith of Maya culture, with a jaguar god-king. The second act features a modern Maya man disconnected from his ancestral traditions. In an effort to rediscover his culture, he ventures into the jungle every day to leave offerings to the old Maya gods. One day, he has a dream – or is it real? – where he journeys to the Maya underworld and interacts with the gods there. The underworld is dangerous and creepy and unpredictable – a bit of a scary exciting adventure. The man doesn’t know if he’ll be harmed or if it will end in a voyage of discovery.”

“I’ve been unintentionally drawn into a more filmic technique than I’d originally planned,” Curry continues, “because I want to do point of view changes, closeups, and distant shots that you can only do with film. I’m also using more cameras and screens in tribute to the fact that this was originally film music.” The characters portrayed by the two human actor/dancers – Steve Gonzales, artistic director of the acclaimed Jefferson Dancers, and local hip hop dancer/teacher Mariecella Devine – are also represented by 14" puppet counterparts, fully articulated at the joints so they can dance and move like their human iterations. These smaller versions allow Curry to play with scale and perspective. Cameras mounted on both human and puppet characters provide constantly shifting points of view and perspective, as they project images on mounted screens.

Curry’s creations can trick both the mind and the eye. The scales on the snake goddess have a silky feel and look, as if they were actual reptile scales. Masks worn by the human actors are extremely elaborate, all painted by hand with subtle gradations of coloring that lend perceptions of depth and detail. Some masks encompass the entire head in an elaborate headdress, like that of the Toucan, whose enormous size and color will amaze and delight.

“The present-day man is somebody trying to gain entry into the truth of the ancient past, but he’s lost his connection to it. Eventually, via a filmed projection of a snake dancer (Gonzales), the present-day Maya is invited to join the ancient cultures in the underworld,” Curry continues. These mythological spirits are summoned by a battery of indigenous percussion instruments prominently featured in the third and fourth movements. “You’ll hear them four or five times at least,” says Curry. “Listen to the music and see if the images I came up with match what you hear.”


© 2020 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media.