Undesirable Creatures

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Revueltas in 1923.
Revueltas in 1923.

As you probably know, wasps can be unpleasant little sods when they put their minds to it. Some time ago, an ominous-looking wasp nest appeared on a lighting pole in my soi, causing considerable consternation to the guard. At least, its presence encouraged him to stay awake at night. I accidentally discovered another wasp nest in the garden a few weeks ago when I was poking about in a tree with a long stick, trying to dislodge a broken branch. I must have inadvertently poked the nest too. The wasps were not amused. In fact they were absolutely furious as I discovered to my cost.

Have you ever wondered why some wasps are relatively benign while others seem irritable and unreasonably aggressive? Apparently, it’s all to do with the queen wasp who decides what the “mood” of the nest is going to be and then emits a mind-altering chemical called a pheromone. If you are not familiar with this word, it’s not surprising because it coined only in 1959. Pheromones contain complex chemicals that trigger a social response in members of the same species.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Overture “The Wasps”. Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra cond. Isaiah Shim (Duration: 09:55; Video: 1080p HD)

Wheaton College is about 25 miles west of Chicago and these musicians give a lively performance of this popular work. Contrary to popular belief, this overture is not really about wasps at all. It’s about people who behave like them. Or so thought the Greek poet and playwright Aristophanes, who in 422 BC wrote a play called The Wasps. It was a caustic satire that ridiculed the Athenian law courts, the juror system and the bickering old codgers who chose to become jurors. They’re described in the play as being “as terrible as a swarm of wasps, carrying below their loins the sharpest of stings”.

In 1909, Vaughan Williams was invited to write the incidental music for a production of the play at Cambridge. He later adapted the music to create a suite of five movements, the overture being the first. It’s become a favourite concert piece in its own right although the other movements are sometimes also performed, one of which is intriguingly entitled March-Past of the Kitchen Utensils. Apart from the opening fifty seconds of wasp-like buzzing sounds, the music doesn’t have much to do with wasps or even ancient Greece. It’s pure Edwardian England, full of wholesome folk-like tunes and stylistically just about as far from Athens as you can get. Musically it’s closer to Nether Wallop-in-the-Gruttocks.

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940): Sensemayá. Portland Youth Philharmonic cond. David Hattner (Duration: 07:17; Video: 1080p HD)

Now I don’t know about you, but I have an aversion to snakes too. Wasps are bad enough but snakes take the cake. Now I’m sorry if you are a snake-lover but I can’t stand the things purely on the grounds that they give me the creeps. Of course, this is totally irrational and probably unfair to snakes but that’s how it is. And what are they for anyway? They just seem to laze around all day. Mind you, that’s probably not much different to some of the foreign residents in these parts.

Silvestre Revueltas Sánchez was one of Mexico’s leading musicians in the first half of the twentieth century. He first achieved fame as a concert violinist and was later appointed Assistant Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. He’s best-known for his dramatic film music particularly his score for the 1939 Mexican movie La Noche de los Mayas. His music uses clashing dissonances with abandon and many of his works have a passionate rhythmic vitality and raw visceral energy. Sensemayá dates from 1938 and was inspired by a poem by the Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén evoking a ritual chant performed while killing a snake. Originally the music was scored for small orchestra but the composer later changed it into a full-scale orchestral work.

Guillén’s poem refers to a mayombero, a man skilled in herbal medicines and arcane rituals. One of the main rhythmic motives in Sensemayá is derived from the repeated chant of the mayombero and it’s evidently used in an actual snake-killing ceremony. The music begins quietly and ominously and the volume gradually builds up over an obsessive, pounding rhythm. There are moments which might remind you of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but this is an unmistakable Mexican voice that evokes the exotic legends and beliefs of another age. The rhythms are powerful and hypnotic: just listen to the complex surging patterns of sounds that Revueltas creates as the work progresses. It’s thrilling stuff.

These young Americans give a terrific performance. The orchestra was established in Portland, Oregon in 1924 and is the longest-established youth orchestra in the country. It would have been immensely satisfying to tell you that the orchestra’s emblem is a writhing snake. But unfortunately it isn’t.