Silvestre Revueltas' ‘Sensemaya’ was written in 1937 for chamber orchestra; one year later, the composer transcribed it for a huge orchestra of twenty-seven wind instruments, fourteen percussion instruments, and strings. The rhythms are laid out precisely and have considerable visceral impact, very much in a manner that recalls Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. However, Revueltas' masterful orchestration, and ability to evoke the ancient Maya civilization with decidedly modern music are uniquely his own. It is a unique orchestral spectacle, something only Revueltas could have written, and in its way it is one of the most brutal works of its time.
The work begins with a low note in the bassoon as the percussion plays the sinuous, syncopated rhythm that drives the work. Soon a solo horn enters playing the first of this work's two major themes, a muscular, ominous motif. Other horns join the first one to play the theme, growing louder and more emphatic, but rigorously yoked to the underlying rhythm. Eventually the horns blast as loudly as they can, with obsessive trills on the bassoon far underneath, and the violins enter with the slashing second theme. The horns take up this new theme and bring it to a climax, after which the music returns to its opening texture. This recapitulation brings with it a mood of foreboding. The rhythm becomes even more obsessive, and finally the music reaches a massive climax during which both themes are played, overlapping, sometimes in part and sometimes in whole, by woodwinds, brass and violins in what sounds like a musical riot. The coda feels like the final dropping of a knife.