As part of Bachtrack’s Baroque Music Month, Jane Shuttleworth looks at the history of music in South America in the 17th century and beyond.

Picture a Baroque cathedral: white stone, domed towers with open belfries flanking a pillared façade, with a scrolled gable between the towers and a triangular portico. Now add some palm trees on either side and mountains in the background, and you could be in any one of the old colonial cities of Latin America, from Mexico City or Bogotá down to Lima, Santiago de Chile or Córdoba in the south. The architecture of the age when Spanish power and wealth were at their height clearly left its mark on the culture of the continent, and in recent years, we’ve become more aware of the equally important role played by music from the same period, in terms of the amazing legacy left from the colonial period and the influence of the European Baroque style on popular and traditional music.

Naturally, these new Baroque cathedrals required maestros de capilla to oversee liturgical music, to train musicians and to compose new works. Musicians from Spain, Portugal and Italy arrived to fill these posts and the city of Puebla in Mexico became an early centre of musical excellence. The composers Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (1590–1664), Francisco López Capillas (1615–1673) and Gaspar Fernandes (1570–1629) all worked there, writing grand Latin church music in the European style for the cathedrals – perhaps one of the grandest examples, now lost, must have been the four separate mass settings by Capillas, written so that they could be performed simultaneously at the joint consecration of four bishops in Mexico City in 1656. These Mexican composers also wrote vernacular church music based on traditional Spanish songs, and there is also some music written in local native languages, such as Fernadnes’ beautiful Nuahuatl nativity hymn Xicochi Conetzintle.

Moving further south, things get more interesting. In Cuzco and Lima, in the Viceroyalty of Peru, composers such as Juan de Fuentes and Juan de Araujo incorporated elements of Inca music and text into the cathedral’s music. For Corpus Christi in 1551, a polyphonic arrangement by de Fuentes of an Inca haylli (hymn) was performed by eight boys dressed in Inca costume alongside a choir of Spanish men, and the success of this performance led to the permanent creation of a boys’ choir at Cuzco. We can get some flavour of this blend of Inca and European music in the wonderful processional hymn to the Virgin Hanacpachap Cussicuinin, published in a manual for priests which gives advice on how to blend Christian and Inca worship. The words are in Quechua, the language of the Incas, still spoken in parts of the Andes, and the text is full of beautiful local colour: the stars of the Southern Cross, the red cactus flower. The music mixes voices and solemn wind instruments in a manner reminiscent of Venetian church music, but with the addition of thrilling percussion.

Beyond the colonial cities, in the jungles and grasslands of Bolivia, Paraguay and northern Argentina yet another fascinating musical development was taking place, and one which brings our story full-circle, taking South American Baroque music back to the present and back to Europe. When the Jesuits arrived in South America, they were given permission to set up autonomous mission stations (known as reductions), until eventually, the Spanish, jealous of the Jesuits’ power and wealth, expelled them in 1767. The reductions are often recalled in popular culture as utopian havens, model communities where everyone lived and worked together peacefully. Whatever the realities, the important role that music played in the cultural life of the people living in the reductions cannot be disputed. Many of the beautiful Jesuit Mission churches have been preserved as part of UNESCO World Heritage sites, and with this international attention came the rediscovery by European musicologists of manuscripts stored in the churches, but also of the unbroken musical tradition in the Mission areas.

Undoubtedly the best-known of the Jesuit composers was the Italian-born Domenico Zipoli. He left a promising career in Europe – he was organist at the Jesuit mother church, the Chiesa del Gesù, in Rome – and enrolled as a Jesuit missionary, living among the Guarani people in what is now Argentina, and his music found its way across the Mission area. It seems that the Guarani, the Chiquitos and the other people in the Jesuit areas quite simply fell in love with the music that the missionaries brought with them. One priest wrote “give me an orchestra and I will convert all South America”, and the fact that Zipoli and other mission composers wrote not just church music, but secular works too gives us some idea of how music was a major part of life on the reductions. Zipoli’s music is essentially Italian, full of colour and flair, and easily stands up against the works of his better-known European contemporaries. His exuberant setting Beatus Vir has been recorded by several groups and is an excellent place to start exploring his work.

Zipoli may have been forgotten by Europe when he sailed across the Atlantic, but his music, alongside that of both his fellow Jesuits and anonymous local composers, has remained a living part of the musical heritage of the mission areas, where there are many flourishing orchestras and choirs. The practicality and, perhaps, foresight of the Jesuits meant that they taught the native people not just how to read and write music, but also how to make instruments, ensuring that the rich musical life they brought with them endured long after their own expulsion. One of the most important instruments in Paraguay folk music today, the Paraguayan harp, is based on the Baroque harps that the Jesuits often used instead of organs for accompaniment. In fact, all the string instruments that are so central to South American folk music, from guitars down to the tiny charango (originally made from the shell of an armadillo) are themselves a legacy of the colonial years, for before the Europeans arrived, the people of South America only played wind and percussion instruments.

It can be tempting to think of South American Baroque music as being something recently rediscovered, an exotic add-on to the story of “western” music, but it is nothing of the sort. The Bolivian orchestra playing Zipoli in the heart of the jungle is part of the same tradition as the English choral society singing Messiah. The Baroque has been called the first truly global art movement, and the story of Baroque music in South America is surely proof of that.

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