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Two Performance Problems from the Mexican Baroque
Francisco José Grijalva Vega

Edited English translation by Janet Sturman

All works from the Baroque period in New Spain oblige the performer to resolve diverse problems and demand skills that come from an understanding of Gregorian practice, of counterpoint, and from a knowledge of European liturgical style, as well as from an investigation of the uses and customs that pertained to indigenous performers, as well as Spaniards, who aimed to recreate a blended universe, a syncretic religiosity that affected linguistic as well as musical practice during the Colonial period.

I will speak of two problems of interpretation. The first concerns what criteria enter into play for finding an appropriate pulse for a performance of the prayer to the Virgin, Saint Mary In ilhuicac, written in Náhuatl and taken from the Valdés Codex.  This manuscript, found in the town of Cacalomacán in the state of Mexico, presents a dilemma regarding the authorship as well as the designation of the work’s musical form.

The second topic I will mention concerns the problem of accommodating musical parts derived from the study of biblical texts and the differences in the meter represented in Psalm 109, an anonymous work from the Valdés Codex encountered in the former convent of Carmen in a transcribed version.

To speak of the Sancta Mariá In Ilhicac, dated c. 1599, we must take into consideration that it is a piece that causes great controversy, starting with the lack of knowledge regarding its author. In 1934 Dr. Gabriel Saldivar y Silva published a History of Music in Mexico, and among the works belonging the vice-reign, published that text in Náhuatl. Saldivar attributed the creation of this song to Hernando Franco, who was chapel master of the Mexico Cathedral from May 20, 1575 until his death on November 28, 1585. Posthumously, Robert Stevenson, in Music in Mexico classifies the piece as a hymn aattributes it to Franco and says that this little work merits attention along with more pretentious work by this same composer (Stevenson 1952: 119). (See fig. 1)  In a later publication, Music in Aztec & Inca Territory, Steveson affirmed that the Sancta María was an Aztec song, a chanzoneta azteca whose composer was Don Hernando Franco, an indigenous leader who surely was godson to the chapelmaster.  As an hommage [the song] was composed in the name of the godfather accompanied by the title “don,” an honorific used by the indigenous nobles and aristocratic Spaniards or peninsulares, or with the rank of judges (Stevenson 1972).

It appears obvious that the chapelmaster could never have displayed that title. In the first chapter of Music of Mexico Stevenson addresses the subject again, now calling Sancta María a motete and saying that don Hernando is the presumed author (Stevenson 1986).  So we are left with various questions about this polyphonic piece in Náhuatl: is it a hymn, a chanzoneta or a motete? And, who is the author: Hernado or Hernán Francisco, or Franciso Hernandez, as indicated on the recording by the ExCathedra Ensemble, someone not encountered in any trustworthy registers, and who might be an indigenous noble or a mestizo?

Stevenson’s contentions were likely influenced by his knowlege of the importance role that prehispanic people gave to music.The Aztecs, like other prehispanic ethnicities, assigned great importance to the study of music, which was taught with severe discipline in the calmecac y tepochcalli or in the youth house.  There youth learned sacred songs and dances of valor represented in the codices. The young nobles and the learned performed the great dances and songs on sacred occasions.  Initiated into the order of Tepochtiliztli, consecrated Tezcatlipoca, as much ghosts as maidens without living as a congregation, but they gathered each day in a different neighborhood…beginning their ceremonies at sunrise…tolling, singing and dancing taking root with the hands…until noon. (Torquemada 1975: 321)

The previous takes us to the reality faced by the conquistadors and that we must also take into account when gathering in the two cultures that we decant when we concern ourselves with texts such as Santa María In ilhuicac. According to David Brading: “Cortés brought together more than 1000 children of indigenous nobles, consigning them to the Franciscans for their education.” (Brading 1993: 122). Thus indigenous nobles were educated by missionaries and soon they succeeded in transliterating the phonemes of Náhuatl to written Latin. Also Brading speaks of how the municipal archives attest to how rapidly the nobles aquired and applied the art of reading and writing in their own language.

Therefore the affirmations of Stevenson are not the final blow since:

A few years later, after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Father Pedro de Gante founded a school for indigenous students, where in addition to other things they taught music in the European tradition, that is to say, the Renaissance practice of plainsong [canto llano] and polyphonic music.  The Indians learned quickly and so well that shortly thereafter Pedro de Gante declared that his students were at the level of the professional singers in the musical chapel of Carlos V. (Herrera) 

At the same time it is probable that there existed indigenous composers of noble origen educated by the missionaries who were capable of writing a work like the Sancta María. Thus recorded Brother Toribio de Benavente, Motolinía in his History of the Indians of New Spain:

The third year we taught them song, and some laughed and joked about it, because they seemed tone deaf, because they appeared to have weak voices […] An Indian from among these singers, a neighbor from the city of Tlaxcala, had composed an entire mass, marked by pure genious, approved by the best singers ever seen in Castilla. (Motolinía 1995: 169-171)

For his part, when speaking of the Mexican singers in his article for the virtual journal of the Insitute for Historical Research at UNAM, Miguel León Portilla documents that the Indians sang and danced combining songs of their tradition with liturgical songs; this makes us think of the beginnings of a musical syncretism that was exposing traditional Náhuatl songs as much as liturgical ones in Spanish (Leon-Portilla 1959/2002: 141-147).  Might Don Hernando Franco, or  Hernándo Francisco, or Francisco Hernández been living something similar to that cited by Dr. León-Portilla, as written by Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, who was the rector for the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico and also a chronicler  of the city from 1569:

The Indians were such fans of those dances that, as noted other times, although they were involved in them all day, they did not tire; and although then after stopping some dances and games, such as that of el del batey [the sugar refinery] and patol de frisoles [blanket of beans], they were permitted, to be content, this dance, with which, as they sang demonic devotional praise songs, they also sang those alabanzas to God who alone merited being praised. But they were so inclined towards their ancient idolatry that if there was no one who understood the language very well, they mixed them with the sacred orations sang by pagan singers. To better cover this damaged work, they began and ended with words of God, interposing the other paganisms by lowering the voice so they would not be understood and raising it at the beginning and end when they named God. (Cervantes 1914: II-46; Leòn- Portilla 1959/2002: 141-147)

Very probably, Stevenson had this same information at hand and it may have prompted him to claim:

Perhaps the native tradition that idolized rhythmic instruments and made a fetish of beat helps explain Don Hernando's mastery in one area and his naïvité in another. (Stevenson 1976: 206-207)

In whatever form, the song is written in Náhuatl.  It could have been the compositional product of the chapelmaster Hernando Franco or of Don Hernando Franco, the indigenous leader, or of Hernán Francisco, or Francisco Hernández, what is certain is that the vernacular language was used to sing to the Virgin. That was what caused me to ask: if it was written in Náhuatl and they tried to approach the new converts with this type of song, why not interpret it as it was written, without semitonia subintellecta [the alterations of musica ficta] and by trying to approximate more the measure of the dance intimately implied by the piece, thinking that the composer used only some of the tools provided by the missionaries, to reach his own expression, without trying to frame it in any way to European forms of the era.

Regarding the musical form, I concur to some extent with the conclusion expressed by Eloy Cruz, a researcher at UNAM, who affirms that a single letter makes a difference in the works in Náhuatl attributed to Hernando Franco. He also states that Stevenson's designation of this piece as a hymn is erroneous:

Juan Manuel Escorza y Robles-Cahero were correct to say that the designation of hymn is erroneous: in Latin song, a hymn is a strophic poem in praise of God set to more or less simple music and sung during the divine office. (Cruz 2001)

It is correct that the piece is not strophic and it is not for the divine office but is instead a Marian song, which discounts the possibility of its designation as a hymn. Cruz also cites Covarruvias to demonstrate that in his second supposition Stevenson is also wrong:

The term chanzoneta refers also to a strophic poem set to music; according to Covarrubias a chanzoneta is the same as a Christmas villancico: a corruption of cancioneta, a diminutive of canción. Chançonetas are villancicos that are sung on Christmas night and in the churches in the vernacular language, surely a genre of happy and rejoicing music. (Cruz 2001)

Cruz finds the designation motete even more problematic because the form is one that has undergone many transformations over time.  Despite all these signals in his clarifying conclusions he does not want to discredit the figure nor the trajectory of Dr. Stevenson, but considers that his monumental works:

—have illuminated, for me and for many Mexicans, pathways in our musical history that would have otherwise been permanently ignored; despite the confusions that have occurred with respect to the Náhuatl pieces there have been productive results; they ultimately permitted the rediscovery of the Valdes Codice, a fountain of information that he uniquely studied, and in which, inexplicably, before that no one had shown interest. (Cruz 2001) 

From these considerations I raise an interpretation for potential discussion, but it is no less probable:  if using the features it has, we perform it like a chanzoneta, it will conform rhythmically, with its ternary character, to a dance (I propose that a dotted whole note equals 60), or as a motete in this sense:

The style of the motets of Josquin were studied by Howard Mayer Brown and can be very briefly summarized in the following manner: the use of an imitative contrapuntal structure through points of imitation, with distinct music for each section of the literary text; resulting in contrasting homo-rhythmic sections; paired antiphonal duets (one of the principal stylistic characteristics of Josquin); musical phrases that are eminently vocal in conception and perfectly adapted to the words of the text. (Cruz 2001)

Although the complete song was one of these homorhythmic sections and has distinct music for each literary phrase that flowed proportionately in Náhuatl, I decided to try singing it without the semi-tone alterations, a position that I consider more closely restores the probable sounds of a polyphonic piece of Náhuatl expression.

Each one of Stevenson’s proposals and the conclusions of Eloy Cruz present us with an  possibilities as performers, that at times we  pass blindman’s cane over a map without a compass hoping that although we have embarked from different corners, we arrive at the same place. I in vite the reader to listen to the diverse recordings presented at the symposium to illustrate.

Audio Example 1.- "Sancta Maria, e!" performed by Ex Cáthedra, Jeffrey Skidmore, dir. Moon, sun & all things, Baroque music from latin america- 2, London, Hyperion CD A67524, 2005, track  14.
Audio Example 2.- "In Ilhuicac Cihuapille" performed by the The Hilliard Ensemble, Spain & the new World, Renaissance music from Aragon and Mexico, Holland, Veritas Virgin Edition, 1991,  CD 2, track 1.
Audio Example 3. "Sancta Maria Yn Ilhuicac Cihuapille," performed by Ars Nova, Magda Zalles, dir. Música virreinal mexicana siglos XVI y XVII, México, Polygram. Distribuido por: Quindecim Recordings, QD00144 1992, track 12.
Audio Example 4. "Sta Mara He-Dios Itlaconazine," performed by Grupo Hermes, Carlos Hinojosa, dir.México música colonial, México, Luzam, CD- LUMC-93001, EDITART, S.A DE C.V. s/a, track 12.
Audio Example 5. "Santa María In illhucac," performed by Ensamble Coral In Arcis, Francisco Grijalva, dir. El encanto sonoro de la muerte, México, 2006, Live recording of concert given in the Ex Convento de El Carmen, auditorio Fray Andrés de San Miguel.

Now, to raise another problem of interpretation: that of the anonymous Psalm 109 from the Codex of Carmen. The Codex of Carmen was transcribed in 1952 and annotated by Jesús Bal y Gay, a Spanish researcher exiled in Mexico, in the setting of the Music Research Division from which was born the National Institute of Fine Arts (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes).  This document appears to have been created in the second half of the sixteenth century.  Due to the style of a few works and the mention of the composer Francisco López, yes--we believe he is Francisco López y Capillas—we consider that the formation of the Codex was continued until well into the eighteenth century.  The Codex contains various psalms, hymn, lamentations, three Magnificats, three Masses, and two Passions among anonymous works by well-known authors of the era, such as Francisco Guerrero, Fernando Franco, Francisco López y Capillas, and Juan de Lienas, the latter we presume was the chapel master of the Convent Chapel (Capilla del Convento).

Psalm 109 Dixit Dominus for four voices, is an anonymous work from this document in its transcribed version.  The work presents two different rhythmic meters through the same transcribed musical discourse.  The paleography here indicates two possibilities for writing as noted:

Contrary to the transcriptions that translate the original signs of imperfect tempo (tempus imperfectum)  indistinctly by the same rhythm, we adopt 2/4 for the first meter and 2/2 for the second, thus following the distinction established by the theorists of the era (Bal y Gay 1952:X).

But why utilize two meters to realize the document if the prosodic accentuation of the psalm invites us to always mark the beat with the breve? Is this a response to the ingenuity of the composer, to the notation, or to a differently way of composing?

The 2/4 sections interrupt the musical flow without an apparent reason in the expressive coordination with the text or a decision of rhythmic contrast.  I am really inclined to think  that this is an error of the first copyists who included that work in the general document.  There were probably two different copyists, one for each section.  Another of the reasons that I think so is that the psalm is separated into two parts and we have to find the text of Dixit Dominus in the Bible to join together the puzzlepieces of disparate parts in the discontinuous folios. The text goes as follows:

(Latin Vulgate Psalm 109)

Dixit Dominus Domino meo
Sede a dextris meis.

Donec ponam inimicos tuos
Scabelum pedum tuorum.

Virgam virtutis tue
emitet Dominus ex Sion:
dominare in medio
inimicorum tuorum.

Te cum pricipium
in die  vitutis tuae
in spledoribus sanctorum:
ex utero ante luciferum  genuite.

Juravit dominus
et non paenitevit eum:
Tu es sacerdos in aeternum
Secundum ordinem Melchisedech.

Dominus a dextris tuis
con fregit in die irae
suae reges.


Judicavit in nationibus,
in plebit ruinas:
conquasabit capita
in terra multorum.

De torrente in via bibit:
pro pterea exaltabit caput.

English Translation 1

1 The Lord said to my Lord: Sit thou at my right hand: Until I make thy enemies thy footstool.

2 The Lord will send forth the sceptre of thy power out of Sion: rule thou in the midst of thy enemies.

3 With thee is the principality in the day of thy strength: in the brightness of the saints: from the womb before the day star I begot thee.

4 The Lord hath sworn, and he will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech.

5 The Lord at thy right hand hath broken kings in the day of his wrath.

6 He shall judge among nations, he shall fill ruins: he shall crush the heads in the land of the many.

7 He shall drink of the torrent in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.

The incipit begins on page 30 of the text Dixit dominus Domino meo Sede a
dextris meis, set in 2/2 [see fig. 2 ] and we have to go to page 35 to follow the sequence of the text Donec ponam inimicos tuos [see fig. 3]. It is in 2/4 and returns to page 31 for the text Virgam virtutis tue in 2/2 [see fig. 4] and then to page 36 and 37 in 2/4 time [see fig. 5] returning on page 32 to 2/2 and then on page 38 to 2/4, and so on, until completing the full text of the psalm.

To maintain a continuous and clear path through Psalm 109, I propose that all the sections that are in 2/4 be marked in two halves (marking two measures of 2/4 with one measure of 2/2, in other words, half note equals half note).

In this case in particular, there are no errors in the semitonia subintellecta proposed by Bal y Gay, so I have decided to respect that, although in other cases, in this same document I would have to take care with the false relations that result from errors in the transcription. This is determined from reading the notes appearing at the beginning of the document, as much for performance as for reviewing errors by the editor. Listen to audio example 6: Psalm 109 Salmo 109,  performed by Ensamble Coral In Arcis, Francisco Grijalva, dir. 9 años de Opus 94, México, 2005, live recording.

We continue to have questions regarding the actual execution of the diverse ancient materials that twenty-first century musicians are privileged to access; this is as much the case for resarchers as for those of us who perform.

I cannot conlude without raising the following questions: Should our interpretations come only from the body of theory provided to us by diverse transcriptions and translations? Should our interpretations come from the probable sonorities proposed by the piece itself? Are we being responsible in following the canons of a single epoch or are we being influenced by new tools that we count upon for performance in this century? These are questions that must be answered before each performance.


1. Editor's note: In this English translation of Francisco Grijalva's article, the English translation of the Latin (Douay) is Richard Challoner's translation for the English Psalter. Psalm 109 in Latin Vulgate appears as Psalm 110 in the English Psalter and in other Bibles. It is also Psalm 110 in the Hebrew Bible. A translation of the Hebrew text for Psalm 110 by Robert Alter is given below for additional clarity.

1. A Psalm of David/The Lord's Utterance to My Master
"Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a stool for your feet"
2. Your mighty scepter, may the Lord send forth from Zion. Hold sway over your enemies.
3. Your people rally to battle on the day your force assembles on the holy mountains, from the womb of dawn, yours is the dew of your youth.
4.The Lord has sworn, he will not change heart. " You are priest forever. My solemn word, my righteous king [Melchizedek]."
5 The Master is at your right hand. On the day of his wrath he smashes kings.
6 He exacts judgement from the nations, fills the valleys with corpses, smashes heads across the great earth.
7 From a brook on the way he drinks. Therefore he lifts up his head.