Semana Santa in Popayán: 1. Looking ahead to the festival

(The Chant Café welcomes J. Richard Haefer, professor emeritus of music, Arizona State University, for a series of articles. This week, Dr. Haefer is writing to us from Popayán, Colombia, where he is observing Holy Week and attending the 52nd year of the Festival de Música Religiosa.

Here he gives us some background on the event.)

For centuries Holy Mother Church has used and encouraged drama as a means of catechizing the people. Witness the recitation of the Rosary and the Via Crucis known to nearly all Catholics, though today rarely presented in dramatic fashion. Less well known are the mystery or miracle plays prevalent in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and still practiced in many out-reaches of Catholic missionary territory. Musicians would know the “Play of Daniel” with its monophonic melodies, and Catholics in the Southwest of the United States may have participated in Los Pastorelas or Las Posadas (the latter encouraged by the Knights of Columbus throughout the U.S., though with little musical information). Also known in the Southwest and in northern Mexico are the Lenten festivities of the Yaqui and Mayo (not Maya) Indians where members of the cults of Phariseos and Chapayacas make promises or vows such as not speaking during the 40 days of Lent, as an offering of penance to Our Lord.

All of the dramas mentioned above and more owe their origin in the New World to the Hispanic missionaries of the 15th – 19th centuries. Such is Semana Santa in Popayán. The Holy Week processions and celebrations in Spanish cities such as Seville, Salamanca and Murcia are well known, featuring large floats of statues organized by fraternities portraying Passion Week in the life of Christ and offered as a penance each year. The priests who accompanied the Conquistadors and later colonizers brought this tradition to the New World which continue in many locations in one form or another. The town of Popayán in southwestern Colombia has presented the tradition of religious processions for more than 450 years. As the most developed of Holy Week activities in Colombia, the festivities were added to the UNESCO list of Intangible World Heritage in 2009.

Some five decades ago a festival of religious music was added to the Holy Week

The Teatro Guillermo León Valencia in
Popayán (credit: Telepacifico)

celebrations in Popayán, now one of the longest continual festivals of religious music. In the next few days I will review some of the musical activities of that festival for the readers of The Chant Café.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for us to reflect on the difference between “sacred” music and “religious” music. Holy Mother Church has given us not only distinct criteria to define such music, but also several centuries of examples in the treasury of Catholic sacred music, which unfortunately have been forgotten by most. There exist, however, many examples of religious music appropriate for concerts during Holy Week, which although not “sacred” might direct our thoughts and hearts to the Passion of Our Lord: for example, the music of Bach comes to mind. We will see in the next few days what Popayán has to offer.

One final thought for today refers to the music of the processions. Though not part of the music festival per se, it might be that the alabados and alabanzas sung during the processions may prove to be the most “sacred” music of the overall festivities.  The procession of last night, Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows), had only secular music, as two local bands led and concluded the procession that featured ten beautiful “pasos” with life-size statues, each carried on the shoulders of eight young men.     The religious significance of each Holy Week procession, the statues, and other elements, such as the flowers featured on each paso, indicate that more than 450 years of visual catechism has successfully developed a Catholic culture within this part of Hispanic America.