The field of earlier music in the Americas – once an exotic footnote to Western music history – has matured in exciting ways over the past few years thanks to the efforts of scholars and performing musicians. The availability of new source material and the willingness of ensembles to try out music by unknown composers have begun to reveal the diversity of colonial repertoires to larger audiences, even if the music preserved in manuscripts represents only a small slice of what people in the colonial Americas heard. Indeed, almost all of the music we are able to revive from notated sources originally served a ceremonial function at an elite church, or in some cases an elite civic institution, during the late 16th through early 19th centuries.
Until recently, performances of “Latin baroque” music have tended to accentuate the more popular elements of the repertoire, sometimes giving the impression that music in the Americas was somehow lighter than European religious music of the time. But the reality seems to have been at once more sober and more varied, as delving into the repertoires of specific institutions shows. For example, the Newberry Consort’s “Celestial Sirens” performances in winter 2012 and spring 2014 invited us into the ethereal sound world of Mexico City’s Convento de la Encarnación, where nuns sang the liturgy using a mix of Spanish and local music that is transcendent in sound yet pious in character. In contrast, the Consort’s upcoming program on November 7-9, 2014 explores the Italianate, sometimes meditative music once heard at Durango Cathedral, a church in northern New Spain (colonial Mexico) with a repertoire quite different from that of the convent. (See www.newberryconsort.org)
The archive of music manuscripts at Durango Cathedral, probably the third largest collection of colonial period cathedral music in Mexico (after Mexico City and Puebla), contains 936 works by an assemblage of local, central New Spanish (Mexico City), and European composers. The works in the archive, which date primarily to the 18th century, show alignment with late baroque and galant European musical aesthetics. They include some of the only string sinfonias written in New Spain and encompass the complete known music of Santiago Billoni (ca. 1700-1763), a Roman violinist and composer who served as chapel master of Durango Cathedral between 1749 and 1756. As chapel master, Billoni also played first violin, and wrote unusually virtuosic parts for himself.
Billoni’s compatriot in Mexico City was Ignacio Jerusalem (1707-1769), who arrived in Mexico City via Spain as a theater musician, but in 1750 rose to the position of chapel master of Mexico City Cathedral, where he remained until his death. A cellist and player of other stringed instruments, Jerusalem learned the galant style before leaving Europe, and was singlehandedly the most influential figure in cultivating music in that style in New Spain, despite a colorful personal life that angered some church officials. Although Jerusalem did not work at Durango, Durango Cathedral preserves 72 of his works, many of them unique sources, which show the currency of his music there.
The repertoire of Durango Cathedral extends far beyond music composed within New Spain and includes a rich collection of galant opera arias and duets by the likes of Hasse, Jommelli, Galuppi, Leo, and others. These operatic excerpts, which may have been brought to New Spain by Billoni or a Spanish priest, were often given new texts on religious subject matter so that they could be performed during religious services – such retexted pieces are known as contrafacts or contrafacta. Contrafacts are common in New Spanish repertoire, but always challenging to study, as scribes rarely indicated the source of the music, preferring instead to leave a puzzle for future musicologists!
Colonial music is by nature fragmentary. There is no single style of colonial music, and no single character to the Mexican or Latin baroque. Individuals such as Ignacio Jerusalem and Santiago Billoni played crucial roles in shaping musical repertoires and practices in a society such as New Spain. Mexican cathedral archives today contain the vestiges of what these musicians composed, bought, donated, adapted, corrected, rewrote, and performed. Piecing together those vestiges is an exciting endeavor that yields new and beautiful music and can inspire us to reflect on the colonial history of the Americas, a history shared by the modern nations of the USA, Mexico, and the rest of this hemisphere.
Prof. Drew Edward Davies