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New World Music:
Chanticleer revives Mexico's earliest classical music

Our Lady of Guadalupe

This article appeared in the May 1, 1998 issue of the OC Weekly.

It’s a small accident of history that the Aztecs didn’t invent guns and large sailing ships, scour the Atlantic for trade routes, discover Europe, lay siege to Western Christendom and Moorish civilization, enslave the Iberian peninsula and make an offering of King Ferdinand’s heart to Quetzalcoatl.

Instead, Columbus and Cortes beat them to the punch, and for the next 300 years, the Spanish brought the civilizing influences of martial law, feudal class structure, mineral extortion, the African slave trade and the Holy Inquisition to their conquered New World subjects. By the time that Latin Americans caught revolutionary fever in the 19th century, they had irreversibly embraced the Hispanics’ language, their medieval Catholic faith and their Aragonian-Castilian genes. One of the few things left that they could bear to part with was their European musical heritage.

“They just stopped playing it because it was a painful reminder of subjugation and to them, a loss of national identity,” says Cal Poly San Luis Obispo professor Craig Russell. But what few people know is that the viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru were home to a rich and sophisticated liturgical music tradition that was, in some ways, equal to Europe’s.

A sampling of Mexico’s classical music will be heard next week in local concerts by San Francisco-based choral group Chanticleer and a small chamber orchestra led by Joseph Jennings. The works by Italian-born composer Ignacio de Jerúsalem (1710-1769) and native American Manuel de Zumaya (1678-1755) are from Chanticleer’s best-selling "Mexican Baroque" album and its new sequel "Mexican Baroque II," but they only hint at the impressive, largely unknown legacy unearthed by Russell and his fellow scholars.

“Unfortunately, there’s the impression in North America that culture starts on the eastern seaboard with the British and spreads west,” says Russell. But compared to the metropolitan centers in Mexico and South America, the English settlements in the North were a cultural backwater.

“They were colonies, and it wasn’t a concern of the British Crown to have magnificent opera or oratorio being performed in New York or Philadelphia or Boston or South Carolina,” says the Cal Poly musicologist, who chuckles a lot and loves to talk about history in the present tense. “But if we go to New Spain - Mexico and California and Arizona and New Mexico - there is a legal and psychological difference that it is part of Spain, so it’s in the interest of the Crown and the Church to have all the luxuries and sophistication and activities that you’d have if you’d been living in Salamanca or Granada or Sevilla or Valladolid.”

In some ways, Mother Spain was still a backward country in the 1700s. The Enlightenment was late in coming, even under the Bourbon kings. The Inquisition reigned supreme until 1813 and auto-da-fé was still the national pastime. But there were a few bright spots. The Queen’s personal harpsichord instructor was the great Domenico Scarlatti, and every night for 10 years the King was sung to sleep by the silver-throated eunuch Farinelli. Meanwhile, the all-powerful Church supported a thriving choral liturgy that reached across the Atlantic where Spanish nobles and their mestizo and creollo minions mined half the world’s supply of silver and gold.

Mexico City and Puebla and Oaxaca and Guadalajara had vibrant drama, music, sculpture and painting that were central to their national culture. Even in the northern belt from Tejas to California, mission fathers like Padre (Felipe) Arrollo de la Questa, Juan (Bautista) Sancho and Padre (Narciso) Durán built orchestras and choirs that rivaled their counterparts in Europe.

“If you went to the San Antonio mission,” Russell says, “everybody seems to agree that Juan Sancho had a formidable, magnificent, amazing choir and orchestra. If you look at the music that I believe was performed there, it’s equivalent in difficulty to Handel’s 'Messiah.'”

And from church records he examined - some from the archives of the Inquisition - it was clear that the players weren’t European musicians trained in Spain or Italy. Many were young members of the local Chumash and Mutsun tribes who were musically brilliant, judging from the manuscripts they had to play.

“It absolutely floors me with enormous respect,” says Russell, “to think that you take a bunch of indigenous native Americans who haven’t before seen a violin, and in short order, can play the equivalent of a Bach "B-minor Mass.'”

One of the reasons that the music of New Spain is unknown today is that much of the music - which was heard from the remote mission outposts in California to the splendid Mexico City Cathedral where de Jerúsalem wrote his "Maitines para Nuestra Señora Guadalupe" - was written for the unfamiliar matins (morning) service instead of the better known liturgical masses and evening vespers.

“The Viceroyalty of Mexico really adores matins services,” says Russell. “It’s the big deal. If I were a composer growing up in Oaxaca or Morelia or Mexico City and I really want to make a name for myself, what would I aspire to write? It would be matins services and masses.”

But another reason for the music’s anonymity is that for years, scholars - even Mexican and Spanish musicologists - blew it off as second-class. It’s true that most of the trans-Atlantic traffic was a one-way street. Much of Locatelli and Corelli’s music was heard in the New World while very little music from the Americas made its way back to Europe. But Russell slyly suggests that Mexico may have influenced the one man that some people consider the greatest composer who ever lived.

“On Chanticleer’s recording of 'The Virgin of Guadalupe,'” he points out, “the last responsory for the 'Te Deum' is by Giacomo Rust. It’s performed in 1764 in the Mexico City Cathedral, and a few years later Rust is the chapel master in Salzburg when there’s this young kid named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart studying there. So Rust’s music is played in the Mexico City Cathedral before it’s performed in Salzburg and where Mozart was learning some of his chops, I think, from Rust.”

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