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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Latin American Baroque

The European discovery of the New World in 1492 changed the world for ever. More than five centuries later the impact of that discovery still affects the human race fundamentally. The influence of Spain, Portugal and other European empires on the Americas - particularly Central and South America - is well-documented. The New World was seen as a source of staggering wealth for the colonial powers, and the plunder was accompanied, it must be admitted, by disease, greed and brutality on an epic scale.

But the desire to spread the Catholic faith among the indigenous people of the New World had some more positive outcomes in terms of art, and specifically, music. The church spread rapidly through Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and other countries as a result of the enormous resources poured into its missionary work. Building, general education and training in music were all priorities, and while there is good reason to question the propriety of such an infiltration, there is no doubting that some stunning music resulted from the meeting of the Old World and the New.

To set the scene, musically speaking, have a listen to this.

This is a processional in the Quechua language. Appearing in print in 1631, it was the first western-style polyphony to be published in the Americas. But by 1631 Catholic music was already at a very high point of development in a number of major musical centres. These included the cathedrals in Mexico City and Puebla in Mexico, Lima in Peru and Córdoba in Argentina. In this post I want to survey chronologically the music of a number of composers, mostly Spanish or of Spanish descent, who worked in these and other centres and who produced some truly beautiful, and at times thrilling, music.

The setting of a processional in Quechua is only one of many pieces which have survived which reflect the desire of the church to reach out to the indigenous people in their own languages. Major parts of the liturgy were performed in Latin, but local languages were also used for other parts of worship.

Hernando Franco was born in Spain in 1532. He was trained in major Spanish centres of church music before going to the New World, probably in the 1550s. After initially working at Guatemala Cathedral he spent the final part of his working life at the Cathedral in Mexico City. His tenure there, from 1575 until his death ten years later, led to an unparalleled degree of musical accomplishment, both in the quality of the music performed and in the standard of the performers. This is his setting of the Salve Regina, discovered in the archive of Puebla Cathedral. [listen]

Mexico City Cathedral

The richness of the musical culture in the churches of the New World is evident in the music which has been discovered in the various archives of the major centres. All the composers whose work I’ll include here actually lived and worked in the Americas, but music by many others who never left Europe was also sung there. Copies of music by Palestrina, Lassus, Morales, Lobo, Victoria and many others is known to have been performed in Central and South America in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Gaspar Ferdandes was a Portuguese composer who was born around 1570. He eventually became maestro di capella at Puebla Cathedral in Mexico and he died there some time before September 1629. Ferdandes was particularly well-known for his sacred music written in the vernacular. This is a sublime lullaby to the Christ child in the Aztec language, Nahuatl. [listen]

One of the best-known composers to work in the New World was Juan Guttiérrez de Padilla. Born in Spain around 1590 Padilla was an up-and-coming player in the highest echelons of Spanish cathedral music until about the age of 30. For reasons unknown to us now he went to the Americas and was there by 1622. He worked under Fernandes at Puebla Cathedral, eventually succeeding him as maestro di capella in 1629. He held this post until his death in 1664.

Puebla Cathedral

Padilla’s music proves that what was going on in Puebla could match anything going on in Europe at the same time. He had lavish forces of voices and instruments at his disposal in Puebla, and like many composers of the period wrote thrilling music for antiphonal choirs. This is Padilla’s setting of the opening versicle for Vespers. [listen]

One of Padilla’s major works to survive is the Missa Ego flos campi. Whose setting of Ego flos campi provided the basis for this parody mass is not known, but again Padilla’s double choir setting creates a voluptuous sonic world which must have moved all who heard it. This is the mass’s Gloria movement. [listen]

It was of course only a matter of time before composers born in the Americas would start to make their mark in the musical life of the colonies alongside those born and trained in Europe. Juan de Lienas is a composer about whom little is known, but he was born in Mexico around 1590 and flourished in the second quarter of the 17th century. His music survives in various sources from the period, including a five-part mass, of which this is the Kyrie. [listen]

Born in Mexico City around 1605 was Francisco López Capillas. He eventually became Padilla’s assistant at Puebla Cathedral and some years later became maestro di capella at Mexico City Cathedral. Thus he became the first incumbent of this prestigious post to have been born in the city. His music is assured and polished, in the best traditions of the day, and some is on a grand scale. This is his voluptuous setting of a hymn in praise of the holy sacrament. [listen]

Puebla Cathedral: Choir

Another Mexican-born composer was Juan García de Zéspedes (sometimes spelled Céspedes). Trained as a boy chorister at Puebla Cathedral under Padilla he eventually became a respected teacher within the Cathedral administration, although legal documents exist which show he was occasionally charged with not properly fulfilling all his duties.

Most of the music I’ve mentioned so far is strictly liturgical, but there was much written which inhabited a grey area between liturgy and popular music. This was especially so at Christmas, where music was included which was in local languages or Spanish, and the congregation seems to have been able to let their collective hair down at the end of Mass. This highly-charged, sensuous and intoxicating song for Christmas by Zéspedes is a good example. It brazenly contrasts the respectable church style with the music of the common people. [listen]

Even though a lot of the best music seemed to be happening in Mexico, other centres were excelling as well, most notably Lima in Peru. Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco was born in Spain in 1644, and came to Peru as an attendant to the Viceroy in 1667. From 1676 until his death in 1728 he was maestro di capella at Lima Cathedral. That is, he held the post for a remarkable 52 years.

Lima Cathedral

In addition to being a respected composer of church music, Velasco also wrote operas, but it’s his church music which has, thankfully, survived in archives in Cuzco and Guatemala City. This is his setting of the Magnificat. [listen]

One of the most prolific and talented composers to work in South America in the Baroque was the Spanish-born Juan de Araujo. Born in 1646 he went to Lima at an early age with his father. He may even have been a pupil of Velasco. He was eventually appointed maestro di capella of Lima Cathedral when in his early 20s. In 1676 he took up the equivalent post in the city now known as Sucre in Bolivia. He held this post until his death in 1712. His music is, in a word, stunning, thought by many to be the finest South American church music of the period.

Sucre Cathedral

We’ll hear two very different works by him, one now and one at the end. This setting of the psalm Dixit Dominus is scored for three choirs. [listen]

I mentioned in connection with Velasco the fact that opera was performed in South America in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, just as it was in Europe. Other vocal forms such as the oratorio and the cantata - both sacred and secular - were also known and composed in the New World. One Mexican-born composer who wrote sacred cantatas was Manuel de Sumaya (sometimes spelled Zumaya). His early life was based in Mexico City but he later became maestro di capella at Oaxaca Cathedral in southern Mexico. He died there in 1755.

Oaxaca Cathedral

Sumaya was amazingly well-informed of European developments in the early 18th century but could also write in the older, late Renaissance style of some of the composers we’ve already encountered here. His Christmas cantata Alegres luces del dìa was preserved in the Oaxaca Cathedral archives and shows an awareness of the Italian cantata style from Europe, albeit expressed with a definite Spanish accent. [listen]

The Spanish and Portuguese ancestry of nearly all the composers mentioned so far makes our final composer a bit of a shock, as he was Italian. Domenico Zipoli was born in Prato in 1688 and developed a promising and influential career as a composer in Italy before suddenly and mysteriously deciding to join the Jesuits and go as a missionary to the New World via Spain in 1717. He worked as a composer and organist in Córdoba in Argentina until his death in 1726. Zipoli’s music was enormously popular with the Chiquitos Indians of Bolivia and his style was bright, happy and direct. His setting of the hymn Ave maris stella is a good example. [listen]

The music of the Latin American Baroque is a huge treasury of stunningly vibrant and original, often moving and magnificent, music. A great deal of it has only been discovered in the past few decades and slowly it is coming to the fore in recordings. I can highly recommend the three CDs devoted to this repertoire released some years ago on the Hyperion label by the British early music group Ex Cathedra, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore. They’re called New World Symphonies, Fire Burning in Snow, and Moon, sun and all things. These have not been uploaded much to YouTube but I have found other excellent performances to share with you in this post.

Scores by many of these composers (in editions of varying quality) are available on the ChoralWiki, or Choral Domain Public Library, site. The composer index is here.

As promised, I’m going to finish with another work by Araujo, an example of a very popular form of composition known as the villancico. Nowadays this word is usually used in Spanish to mean a Christmas carol, but it dates back to the 15th century to denote a multi-stanza poem in Spanish which had strong connections - when set to music - with dance forms. This villancico by Araujo is a joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus which must have had everyone dancing at the end of Mass on Christmas morning. I hope it sets you off in search of more music from this remarkable corner of the repertoire. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2008.

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