Sunday, March 17, 2013

Latin American Sacred Music: An Overview

At the mere mention of Latin American music, most wouldn’t think of the “classical” music [1] that has been written there starting in the late Renaissance. Many may only think of mariachi bands, the tango, and other rightly well-liked indigenous music, but such a constricted view gives short shrift to the breadth and depth of this great culture. Some dismiss this polyphonic tradition, which was brought to the New World from Europe, as being the “music of the conqueror,” but this raises some rather inconvenient questions. Does this mindset make Catholicism the “religion of the conqueror,” therefore to be ignored? In other cases, the inroads of Evangelicalism in the Global South have convinced some to lay aside the Western Tradition in favor of more populist models in Catholic worship, and it wouldn’t be surprising if American political interference in the 1970’s and 80’s [2] made an impact in this respect, too. Nevertheless, even through the 20th century and today, music in the European mold continues to be made in Latin America, although, like all good music, it is not merely a copy of antecedents but has its own distinguishing characteristics.

Now that the College of Cardinals has elected the first pope from Latin America, it would seem to be a good time to delve into some of this music, particularly since Pope Francis’s namesake loved music, and, as was noted here earlier this week, the order he founded has contributed much to the practice of Gregorian chant.

It seems uncertain whether or not this music has stirred up a whole lot of interest among performing ensembles, and this is too bad. Much of it deserves worldwide recognition and can stand alongside many of the greatest works of the so-called Western Canon. Here are only some composers among many that might be considered.

Hernando Franco (1532-1585):
Franco was born in the Old World and immigrated to New Spain most likely in the 1550’s, starting out in Guatemala before taking the position of Maestro di Cappella at the cathedral in Mexico City, where he is buried.

Franco’s style is lucid and simple and more closely resembles that of Palestrina than that of his fellow Spaniards such as Tomas Luis de Victoria, who may also have studied with Franco’s teacher, Gerónimo de Espinar. His music is also easier than that of his contemporaries, perhaps because of the choristers with whom he was working. Twenty motets survive, but interestingly, no Masses; there are also a number of Magnificat settings which some say were influenced by Cristobal de Morales of Spain.

Franco’s Circumdederunt me was sung at the Requiem Mass at the 2008 CMAA Colloquium in Chicago. Jeffrey Tucker wouldn't stop talking about it. It’s an odd piece in that the text is so morbid and yet the music is ecstatic. I could never understand this, but a colleague of mine helped me figure this out unwittingly one night at dinner. A cancer patient, he has no idea how long he has to live. “Maybe death is exhilarating!” he mused, his eyes glowing almost with anticipation. I think that’s what this piece is about, the exhilaration of death. Just before he died, Steve Jobs stared off into the distance and gasped, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” [3] Maybe that’s what Franco was saying with this piece. Surely it’s one of his finest.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959):
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Heitor Villa-Lobos was somewhat self-taught, eschewing formal study just as European music was losing its dominant grip on Brazilian culture in the wake of social upheaval. He learned to play guitar, cello, and clarinet, and in the early 20th century studied the indigenous music of his culture. He played in everything from street bands to the opera orchestra, and while his music did owe a lot to European influences, most of it nonetheless favored the native approaches of Brazil.

In a certain sense, Villa-Lobos’s music is an excellent example of how successful a synthesis between American and European music can be. It is inculturation at its finest, not a mere pastiche of clashing influences. His Pater noster from 1950 illustrates this well. Though much of it seems indebted to the French, perhaps owing to a visit from Darius Milhaud in 1917, the theme is nonetheless of a folk character, and it’s hard to know if the chromaticism in the second half of the piece is merely an avante garde post-tonal approach or the result of spicier South American flavors.

Gutierrez Fernandez Hidalgo (c.1553-1620):
Hidalgo is considered by Robert Stevenson to be the most important South American composer of the 16th century. Not much is known about his early life, and it seems as if he had as much trouble getting along with church authorities as J.S. Bach or W.A. Mozart. The earliest known event in his life is his arrival in Bogota in 1584, where he took up a post that only lasted a few years before the situation soured. Incidentally, Hidalgo’s only surviving manuscripts are from the Bogota Cathedral, his other works having apparently been lost while en route to Europe to be published. From Bogota, Hidalgo moved south to Quito, where he worked at the seminary and cathedral, again only for a short time, before running along to present-day Sucre, where he was finally able to settle down and occupy a position until his death in 1620.

CPDL has published Hidalgo’s Magnificat Quarti Toni, which is easily within the grasp even of many small ensembles, the voice distribution of the choir being mercifully simple. Here, also, is his Salve Regina:

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983):
It’s only fitting that we should end up in Buenos Aires, where Ginastera was born in 1916 and received his early musical training. He studied with Aaron Copland for a while before returning to Buenos Aires to found the League of Composers. In 1968 he moved to the US once again, and then went to Europe in 1970, and died in Geneva in 1983.

Ginastera’s work is diced up into three periods: Objective Nationalism (1934-48), Subjective Nationalism (1948-58), and neo-Expressionism (1958-83). Written in 1947, his Villancico, Toccata, and Fugue dates from the first of these phases and makes use of indigenous rhythms and forms, while using a B-A-C-H theme for the fugue. What’s not to love about a piece like that?

Ginastera also composed a gigantic setting of Psalm 150 for chorus and orchestra, which I highly recommend for a listen, even if it’s out of bounds for most parish music programs.

Ginastera is only one representative of a great music culture in Argentina. Even the art of organ building has thrived there. At the Buenos Aires cathedral and in many other churches in the country there are fine Walcker organs from the 19th century. Joseph Mansfield has discussed a similar treasure of organs in Oaxaca, Mexico in Sacred Music. [4]

This isn’t the place for a more thoroughgoing investigation of the music of Latin America, but these four composers are figures as good as any to start with. In particular, Villa-Lobos and Ginastera offer not only a model of inculturation but also perhaps some laudable approaches for the creation of new music, music that is not afraid to go its own way but which stands on the shoulders of the giants of the past, in the Old World and the New, nonetheless.


1. Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, offers an excellent take on the regrettable nature of the term "classical" music in his book, Listen to This, pp. 3ff.

2. For background consult, among other sources, Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, and Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent.

3. Steve Jobs on Gregorian Chant.

4. Sacred Music, Volume 133, No. 3, p. 14.

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