Latin American Choral Music - Table of Contents

References Cited

Nationalism, Exoticism, and Colonialist Appropriation:
The Historiographic Decontextualization of Music from New Spain

Drew Edward Davies

By chance at a recent conference, I met a senior scholar who in casual conversation asked me my field of specialization.1  “Liturgical and devotional cathedral music of New Spain,” I answered.  “Well,” she replied, “that sounds trendy.”  Shocked and somewhat confused by the comment, I explained that I had met a total of only three other US musicologists during my years of archival research in the Mexican Republic, and, furthermore, that a small field still beholden to what I consider judgmental positivism could hardly qualify as à la mode.2 “Oh,” she said, “I meant that fabulous recording of the Indians who composed like Monteverdi.”  Unaware of such a composer, yet impressed that she had at least attempted to contextualize viceregal music with that of the Italian peninsula, I realized that her reference was to the Harp Consort’s Missa Mexicana recording of 2002.  Eventually enjoying a conversation that had begun badly, we proceeded to discuss the historical musicology community’s general ignorance of musics and musical cultures in the Spanish world.3

This conversation reflected a glaring reality: despite recent interest in the music of New Spain, a serious problem of decontextualization persists in its study, performance, recording, and marketing.  The root of the problem lies in the assumptions inherent to a network of distinct yet mutually-reinforcing perspectives that dominate the field: exoticist constructions in Anglo- and Francophone performance and marketing practices; nationalist agendas in Mexican and Spanish music historiography; imprecise positivist musicological traditions based on unreliable archival inventories and irrelevant periodization schemes; and a lack of interdisciplinary work that situates viceregal vocal repertoire and its texts in the purviews of religious ritual, devotional aesthetics, and transatlantic styles.  In this paper, as in my other work, I strive toward a more precise interpretive framework for viceregal musics that requires a global perspective yet discreet inter-cultural knowledge and awareness.

Some of the first steps toward such precision should be a reconsideration of the descriptive terms —musical and political— used in Anglophone commentary on viceregal music.  Why ‘viceregal’?  Because New Spain, like Perú and later Nueva Granada and Río de la Plata, not to mention Catalonia and Naples, was a viceroyalty (virreinato) of Spain, an entity distinct in organization and culture from ‘colonies’ in the English sense, as Spanish-language musicology and English-language historiography of Latin America in most other disciplines are well aware.  For three centuries, New Spain (Nueva España) endured as a stable entity governed locally by a viceroy, judicial districts, and religious dioceses onto which the ‘from colonial to independence’ teleology favored in histories of the United States does not directly apply.4  Likewise, the use of the word ‘Mexico’ in a context before 1821 refers only to the City of México and its immediate environs, the territory of the Mexica (Aztecs) at the time of the conquest; there was no concept of Mexico as synecdoche for the entirety of New Spain.  Thus the descriptor ‘colonial Mexico,’ though somewhat comprehensible to mass Anglophone audiences, does not obtain unless used specifically in reference to the socio-political phenomenon of colonialism in the City of México.  I dwell on this neither to be cranky nor pedantic, but rather to demonstrate awareness of the current use of terms among our colleagues in anthropology, history, and art history (Gerhard 1972, Taylor 1987, Carrera 2003).5  As a point of comparison, Canadian scholars reject the phrase ‘Colonial Québec’ in favor of ‘New France/Nouvelle-France,’ which is widely understood.6

This reappraisal of terms also needs to include those specific to musicology, which as a field employs a problematic periodization scheme based upon compositional innovation rather than representative cultural practice.  As such, the lack of a seconda prattica in New Spain following the compositional innovations of Northern Italian courts around 1600 has fomented the myth of a ‘protracted Renaissance’ in the Americas, even though church music in New Spain compares synchronically to repertoire from the churches of Catholic Europe throughout the viceregal period.  Likewise, the misuse of the pejorative ‘baroque’ and the groundless ‘classical’ sidelines the single largest viceregal repertoire in New Spain, namely eighteenth-century music in the galant style.  The progressive, melody-driven galant style, which was aesthetically oppositional to that considered ‘baroque’ in the 1730s, emerged within Neapolitan compositional traditions (Heartz 2003, Webster 2003, Dahlhaus 1985, Voltaire 1779).  It was cultivated in New Spain by Ignacio Jerusalem, a native of Lecce, Puglia, who served as chapelmaster of the Cathedral of México between 1750 and 1769, Santiago Billoni at Durango, and others.  When we refer to the music of Jerusalem as ‘Mexican Baroque,’ we can lose sight that in reality it sports the international galant style as manifest in New Spain.

Moving toward a more precise set of terms should be a first step toward eradicating the compelling forces of exoticism and nationalism from commentary on viceregal musics.  Both phenomena are interrelated in their appeal to ‘us and them’ constructs: exoticism evokes the archetypal ‘other’ through stereotype and fantasy; nationalism invents a collective identity within an oppositional frame.  The cases of nations forging their identities according to exotic Western stereotypes are legion, for example the Turkey of the ‘arabesk,’ and the colonialist attitudes in European culture have been well exposed by the legacy of Edward Said’s work on Orientalism (Stokes 1992, Said 1978).  Yet exoticism on the part of American and European performing organizations and marketing offices has misinformed the public and decontextualized the repertoire of New Spain.  On the other side, the nationalist agendas shared by Mexican and Spanish scholars of previous generations fueled a categorical rejection of foreign influence which still affects the understanding of eighteenth-century Italianate music, not to mention nineteenth-century popular musics (Galindo 1933, Saldívar 1934, Anglés 1948).7

Present in much Western art music since at least the eighteenth century, exoticism or orientalism appeals to a consumer’s fancy by evoking an irrational, feminized, sensual set of characteristics of either distant cultures or internal others, such as European gypsies (Born 2000, Scott 1998, Dahlhaus 1989).  Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Spanish Capriccio exemplify exoticist musical representation of stereotyped hedonistic ‘others’ for the entertainment of European upper classes.  Equally exoticist were recordings of medieval music that flaunted all sorts of contemporary Middle Eastern instruments prior to the efforts of musicians such as Christopher Page who brought a more critical approach to early music performance.  Much the same could be said of record company marketing schemes that focus more on the construction of the ‘other’ than on the content of the product.

Although for the most part intelligently and beautifully performed, the Harp Consort’s Missa mexicana, the disc my new acquaintance had described as the “fabulous recording of the Indians who composed like Monteverdi,” exemplifies exoticist fantasy relocated to New Spain.  Directed by British harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, it intersperses the movements of Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla’s Missa Ego flos campi, a seventeenth-century polychoral parody mass written for the Cathedral of Puebla, with dialect villancicos and dances.  Among the finest and best-selling performances of Novohispanic music on the market, its lively, clear singing and suave playing are infectious to listeners, though at times lacking reverence in tone.  Yet as conceived and packaged, even if superfluous conch shell flutes and rain sticks were ignored, Missa mexicana could be seen as an offensive orgy of exotic souvenirs; a classically orientalist assemblage of ‘Mexican’ tropes presented with irresponsible claims to authenticity; to some, nothing but another clever violation of Latin America in the interest of European profit.  Why?

The problematic issues begin with the designer’s manipulation of indigenous symbols to market the music of the most European echelon of viceregal society.  This is apparent on the box itself, which juxtaposes red and blue, the colors Mexica temples at Tenochtitlán had been painted prior to their destruction in 1521.  An allegory of conquest occurs at the cover’s center point, an incredible image from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala in which the four hereditary rulers (tlatoque) of Tlaxcala receive the Sacred Sacrament from a friar in the presence of Cortez (holding a crucifix), la Malinche, soldiers, and a painting of the Virgin and Child.  See Figure 1.  A pictorial manuscript produced before 1560, the lienzo chronicles the conquest from the perspective of Spain’s indigenous Tlaxcalteca allies, and this particular image shows the fateful colonial moment in 1520 when the caciques of Tlaxcala passively accepted Christian evangelization in order to help the Spanish defeat the Mexica (Muñoz Camargo 1981, Kranz, 2001).  But from the CD package we are led to believe that this image represents the communion ritual of a Mass in New Spain commensurate with the recorded Mass. 8

In the liner notes to Missa mexicana, an image of Mexica music making from a mid-sixteenth-century chronicle of Bernardo de Sahagún precedes a whimsical but misplaced series of late nineteenth-century ‘día de los muertos’ (‘Day of the Dead’) drawings by José Guadalupe Posada.9  And, to appeal to the consumer’s armchair archeological fantasies, the ‘Day of the Dead’ imprinted CD lifts out of the jewel case to reveal a pre-Columbian Zapotec flat stamp from Oaxaca hidden below.  Additionally, the pre-release concert tour featured what appeared to be a flamenco dancer, the translation of yet another stereotyped ethnic ‘other’ —late nineteenth-century Andalucian gypsies— anachronistically onto New Spain.  At one level, any gimmick promoting the musics of Latin America to a more general public can be to some extent exonerated, as the repertoire remains virtually unknown to concert audiences.  But here, the producers explicitly claim ‘cultural’ authenticity, when in fact the product is orientalist fantasy, albeit performed superbly at times.  Astonishingly and importantly, not one of these exotic souvenirs in the packaging relates even closely to the time period, geographic locus, devotional theme, or cultural context of the musical repertoire featured on the recording, namely seventeenth-century cathedral music from Puebla de los Ángeles, the wealthiest and most exclusively Spanish city in the viceroyalty at the time.  Indeed, the product should have been called Missa angelopolitana, meaning Puebla-style Mass, as none of the works can be connected with the City of México.

Perhaps, though, the most egregious issue illustrated by the conception of this record is the essentialization of race as a marker of difference between our ‘civilized’ Northern world and New Spain.  Unlike white European music, the repertoire recorded here is assumed to reflect the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic reality of New Spain, despite the stratification of that society, and therefore it is assumed to embody the characteristics of the stereotyped ‘other’ even present in the earliest colonialist conquest narratives: uncontrolled sensuality, irrationality, dancing, and rhythm.  Indeed, Harmonia Mundi consciously constructs this stereotype in its liner notes to Missa Mexicana, which pit white European rhetorical expression against blacker American sensuality:

Puebla Cathedral boasted a rich musical tradition…influenced by the exotic rhythms of the New World and by the rich harmonies of African music brought to Central America by slaves from the Ivory coast…[In Europe] the progressive style of early Italian opera was an intellectual construct—an imitation of the expressive power of classical Greek drama…In contrast, the new music of New Spain was derived from popular culture —swaying listeners’ hearts by moving their feet to the persuasive rhythms of sensual dances (Harp Consort 2002).

Really?  Do the rhythms of the Missa Ego flos campi and the various Christmas villancicos truly incorporate dance patterns believed to originate in the New World, such as the zarabanda or chacona?  Do Gutiérrez de Padilla’s Venetian-style polychoral harmonies really reflect musical practices transferred from West Africa?  And does populism, although admittedly present, unquestionably replace rhetorical intellectualism in Novohispanic music?

I believe none of these to be precisely the case.  To the contrary, I find that Novohispanic cathedral repertoire overwhelmingly employs European melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic materials whilst at times incorporating advanced rhetorical strategies intended to communicate religious dogma, sometimes through the evocation of popular culture as parable (e.g. in jácara villancicos).  As the most significant church in a diocese, the cathedral would not have served the evangelical purpose of a mission, but rather would have catered primarily to the elite European tastes of the society’s upper echelon—the clergy, political appointees, wealthy merchants, and those seeking that status.  Thus the rhetorical strategies of cathedral music sought not conversion, but rather opulence of devotional expression, novelty in turn of phrase, literary dialogue with known texts, and a sense of Cartesian wonder meant to move the passions of the soul in concert with the other devotional arts of painting, sculpture, metalwork, and the spoken word (Descartes 1649).  This is not to deny the presence of a multi-racial cross-section of Novohispanic society listening to or performing cathedral music; nor is it to deny the dance-like qualities of some villancicos and the Spanish church’s prerogatives of inclusiveness in the decades following the Council of Trent; but rather it represents a desire for a more discerning consideration of which musical or textual elements can truly be considered syncretic, and which follow Iberian traditions—themselves possibly syncretic.  People in regulated, hierarchical societies do not necessarily exclusively perform the music of their own ethnicity, especially if they have social standing, employment, or other goals to obtain.

In this light, how can seventeenth-century villancicos from New Spain be interpreted if they don’t necessarily reflect the local ethnic mix?  Well, first the literary and musical sources need to be investigated in a transatlantic context, especially since many Novohispanic composers were of European birth and training, including Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, who was from Málaga, Spain.  A piece like Gutiérrez de Padilla’s A la jácara jacarilla, which is recorded on Missa mexicana, exemplifies the type of Christmas villancico often assumed to represent local ethnic dance rhythms, and I won’t deny the possibility that it does in some way (although to my knowledge no one has convincingly shown a specific rhythmic concordance between indigenous or African rhythmic patterns and any specific villancico).10

A la jácara jacarilla conforms to the conventions of the jácara, a burlesque song and dance genre from the elite Madrid theater tradition, by evoking lower-class characters or ‘ruffians’ who may exhibit a high moral compass despite their humility and vulgarity.  The opening self-flattering personage, the chorus of onlookers shouting “¡vaya!” and the almost epic storytelling of the many coplas (verses) are all generic jácara features on both sides of the Atlantic, as are the hemiola patterns, descending Phrygian motives in the bass, and sesquialtera figures encountered in villancicos by Gutiérrez de Padilla in Puebla and theatrical tonos by Juan Hidalgo in Madrid alike (Stein 1993).  Cathedral composers in early seventeenth-century Spain found that the scenario of the Christmas story —the birth of Jesus amid humble surroundings— could be effectively evoked by adopting the popularizing flair of the jácara.  It’s not that they were dancing the jácara in the church, but rather, I think, they were using the popularizing tone to theatricize the well-known story during anticipated special events.  Much the same might be said for the dialect villancicos such as negrillos, gitanos, gallegos, etc. which very frequently concern the Epiphany story (the journey of the magi to Bethlehem to adore the Christ child).  Also stemming from golden age theatrical tropes, they themselves use satiric representations of exotic ‘others’ to show the universality of the Christmas story —that all peoples of the world, including Ethiopian Africans came to Bethlehem.  Attempting to understand the villancico texts and transatlantic dramatic traditions renders villancicos such as those of Gutiérrez de Padilla less exotic, but all the more beautiful in their message and appeal.

A century later, in the 1750s, Novohispanic composers continued to compose Christmas villancicos, albeit within literary traditions and an Italianized musical style distinct from the seventeenth-century repertoire and best described as ‘galant’ in a Neapolitan sense (Davies 2006).  Whereas problems of exoticism plague the Anglophone reception of the older repertoire, nationalist agendas that repeat narratives of decadence, invasion and infiltration —some of which date back to the early eighteenth-century itself and thinkers such as Benito Feijoo— have helped decontextualize this largest part of the Novohispanic cathedral repertoires (Moreno, 1976).  Nationalism, noted by Carl Dahlhaus as the widespread belief that the “evolution in the musical culture of a nation expressed and embodies its national spirit” (Dahlhaus 1989), provided a particularly influential perspective in earlier twentieth-century music histories globally (Galindo 1993, Saldívar 1934, Angles 1948), including Robert Stevenson, who based much of his Music in Mexico on a conflation of Galindo and Saldívar.  Stylish Italianate liturgical and devotional music —which was cultivated primarily at prominent urban religious institutions and cannot be considered representative of the common people’s music in small villages and towns— fulfilled a limited role within a nationalist scholarly paradigm, and thus scholars either excised or demonized it.  In fact, it was Stevenson who, allying himself with Galindo, Saldívar and the Mexican nationalist composers of the era, decided that Ignacio Jerusalem was a “second rate Italian composer” who imported the “inanities of Italian opera” to Mexico with the “most deleterious influence” (Stevenson 1952).  Thanks to the two intelligent and responsible recordings by Chanticleer supervised by Craig Russell, a larger public now may recognize Jerusalem among the finer ‘galant’ composers of the mid-century; but nonetheless even recent literature tends to dismiss this expressive, theatrical style of church music (Chanticleer 1994, 1998).

This is unfortunate, because much of the eighteenth-century repertoire contains intellectual, engaging musical representation of religious doctrine that develops Horatian principles of rhetoric —pleasing whilst instructing— within a performative frame.  For example, Jerusalem’s four-voice villancico A la tierra venid, which glosses the same Biblical themes as A la jácara jacarilla —“Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low” (Isaiah 40:4)— depicts the ramifications of this event beautifully though abstractly by using metaphorical inversions (stars coming down to earth), dichotomies (earthly/heavenly, humble/exalted), and eroticism (“lo humano y divino amantes se enlazan”).11 

A la tierra venid
venid presurosas
celestes escuadras
que esta vez mejorando de sitio
sol, luna, y estrellas a la tierra bajan.

Lo humano y divino
amantes se enlazan
lo excelso se humilla
lo humilde se exalta
y alternandos en coros festivos
dulces voces cantan:

Gloria a Dios en los solios supremos,
paz al hombre en sus pobres moradas.

[da capo]

Come to earth,
come, quick heavenly squadrons,
since this time, improving their place,
[i.e. God is now on earth]
sun, moon and stars descend to earth.

The human and divine
come together as lovers,
the exalted is humbled,
the humble is exalted,
and alternating in festive choirs
sweet voices sing:

Glory to God in his supreme thrones, peace to man in his poor dwellings.

[da capo]

Although the Neoplatonic choirs of angels singing “glory to God” appeal to older textual conceits found less often in the eighteenth-century repertoire, the music is thoroughly contemporary for the 1750s in its use of da capo conventions, modulations, and galant style solo writing for voice.  The surprise for the listener is the sudden forte ensemble texture which glosses the verse from Isaiah (measures 21-31).  See Figure 2. The unusual sounding twisting and turning contrapuntal lines that form dissonant suspensions in this passage merely articulate a circle of fifths progression (through six degrees E-A-D-G-C-F over three measures), but in the context of the elegant galant solo melody which precedes this example seem evocative of a world order turned upside down, as prophesied by the text.  Note that the low/high contrast between “humilde” and “exalta” in the text is evoked using the contrast between syllabic and melismatic types of text setting, rather than a literal use of low/high pitch.

Jerusalem’s music falls squarely into mid-century Italianate aesthetics for dramatic music, whether for the theater or church.  But the music is not merely conventional; it embraces the formal needs of idiosyncratic ecclesiastical traditions such as Christmas with affective eighteenth-century sophistication that has roots in operatic aesthetics, yet serves the needs of cathedral culture.  In New Spain, musical life was siphoned into the church, which modernized in the eighteenth-century according to globalizing musical practices similar to those adopted in Britain, Scandinavia and Russia at the time.

Much more could be written about the intellectual framework of Jerusalem’s music.  But herein my main purpose was to expose several of the impediments facing our better understanding of Novohispanic musics from two centuries, and briefly allude to more integrated approaches for its interpretation.  Living ourselves in multi-cultural societies, we should be aware of stereotypes that equate moreno skin tones with uninhibited sensuality, irreverence, and categorically exotic musical practices —and move beyond them.  Simply put, the Novohispanic repertoire is rich in ingenuity, intellectualism, and multimedia dialogue to a degree that its performers and marketers need not resort to gimmicks such as gratuitous imagery, hypothetical syncretism, or the use of anachronistic rain sticks and noisiness to show ‘otherness.’  Of course, authenticity is merely an unattainable abstraction; nonetheless, we can identify and avoid self-serving fiction by proceeding responsibly in the reintegration of Novohispanic music into the larger repertoire.


1. This paper is intended as an ‘op/ed’ style commentary on issues affecting the performance and reception of music from New Spain.  A more thorough discussion of related issues constitutes the first chapter of my dissertation (Davies 2006).

2. Here I refer chiefly to Robert Stevenson’s work, for example Music in Mexico: A Historical Survey, Renaissance and Baroque Musical Sources in the Americas, and Spanish Cathedral Music in the Golden Age among others.  The value of these works is great, but the field of musicology has progressed significantly since their publication.

3. A step toward correcting this problem has been taken by J. Peter Burkholder, whose revision of the standard ‘Grout’ music history textbook for the first time includes serious discussion of viceregal music.

4. Certain South American nations, including Colombia and Argentina, do tend to use the word “colonial” in their musical histories, although I would argue that even in those countries the word construes a misleading, Anglocentric worldview.

5. The use of ‘Nueva España’ in Mexican scholarship is ubiquitous, as is the adjective ‘novohispano.’  I, like many art historians and some other scholars, prefer to render this in English as ‘Novohispanic.’

6. A related issue is the often incorrect use of Spanish surnames in Anglophone contexts, for example references to the composers ‘Capillas’ and ‘Padilla’ instead of ‘López Capillas’ and ‘Gutiérrez de Padilla’ respectively.

7. Despite the age of these volumes, they stand largely un-updated.

8. As of March 8, 2007, the Missa Mexicana packaging could be viewed online at

9. The source of the Sahagún image is Bernardo de Sahagún, General History of the Things of New Spain, Book IX - The Merchants (México, 16th century), which is widely known as the Florentine Codex (Florence: Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, Ms Palat. 218-220).

10. This villancico is edited by Nelson Hurtado (Gutiérrez de Padilla 1998).

11. My unpublished edition from a MS source at Durango Cathedral.  English translation of the Spanish text is my own.  Further commentary on the work is found in my dissertation.