Latin American Choral Music - Table of Contents

References Cited

Juan Bautista Plaza
and the Rescue of Venezuelan Colonial Choral Music

Marie Labonville

In 1993 the patriarch of Latin American musicology, Dr. Francisco Curt Lange, made a startling pronouncement about Venezuela.  That nation, he declared, “is, considering its territory and number of inhabitants, the most musically developed country of Latin America” (Lange 1993/1995: [vi]).  Lange’s assertion, however, applies only to recent decades.  Before then, a long series of adverse economic and political circumstances had hindered national musical life.  These realities also affected composition during the colonial period.

Venezuela, in contrast to places like Mexico and Peru, experienced no early flowering of polyphonic creation in the Renaissance and Baroque styles.  Nevertheless, Venezuelan colonial composition did enjoy a brief moment of glory that was, sadly, cut short by the independence struggles that broke out in 1811.  The compositions from that remarkable period are homophonic, and show influence of Pergolesi, Haydn, and Mozart.  Most are for three or four voices and orchestra, and they include Latin liturgical works and Spanish-language devotional pieces.  Vocal soloists typically alternate with chorus, while instrumental preludes and interludes add variety.  This repertory, composed largely by men of mixed race, became a matter of pride for Venezuelans after it was brought to light during the second half of the 1930s by the country’s first musicologist, Juan Bautista Plaza.

Plaza, who was born in 1898 in Caracas, was one of Venezuela’s leading musical figures.  Over the course of a nearly forty-year career, he was active as a composer, conductor, organist, chapel master, educator, journalist, lecturer, concert promoter, director of national culture—and musicologist (fig. 1).  When Plaza began his professional career in 1923, Venezuela was under the rule of General Juan Vicente Gómez, a repressive and brutal dictator who governed from 1908 until his death in 1935.  Gómez was uninterested in the fine arts and offered almost no material support for cultural activities.  Nevertheless, beginning in the late 1920s Plaza and a group of colleagues began working aggressively to modernize the culture of art music in the capital city of Caracas.  Their efforts culminated in the summer of 1930, when they presented the spectacular premiere concerts of Venezuela’s first stable symphony orchestra—the Orquesta Sinfónica Venezuela—and Venezuela’s first stable mixed choral society, the Orfeón Lamas.  Later in the decade, these ensembles began to disseminate Venezuela’s rediscovered colonial repertory (audio example 1: the Orfeón Lamas and the Orquesta Sinfónica Venezuela performing Popule Meus by José Angel Lamas).

When those groups made their debut in 1930, however, only a few compositions from the country’s colonial period were known.  Furthermore, little was understood about the history of the repertory.  Out of curiosity and patriotism, Plaza and a few colleagues managed to acquaint themselves with the available scores.  As he became more familiar with this music, Plaza developed an ardent desire to publish the best of the repertory once enough scores had been located and studied.  An accidental discovery set the process in motion.

In 1935 the director of Venezuela’s only state-supported music school was exploring a storage area in the building when he came upon hundreds of pages of hand-written music from the colonial period and the nineteenth century.  He notified his colleagues, including Plaza, but at first nothing significant happened.

By fortunate coincidence, however, General Gómez died at the end of the year.  His regime was replaced by a government better disposed towards supporting national culture.  The new foreign minister, by another fortunate coincidence, was a former professor from Plaza’s university years.  Thus, unexpectedly, Plaza was able to secure an official appointment to take charge of the recently discovered manuscripts.  He had no training or experience in musicology, but had frequently consulted scholarly sources while preparing educational lectures and articles.  The study of those authoritative monographs had gradually clarified for him the technique of musicological research, and by the time he was appointed archivist, he was undoubtedly the Venezuelan best qualified for the job.  He began his work among the manuscripts in August of 1936.

At first Plaza labored alone, working as often as time permitted, in a room that the music school had reserved for that purpose.  Five months after beginning his arduous task he described the enormity of the project to a journalist, who had gone to the school to interview him.  In Plaza’s words:
This has to be a labor of many years.  It is a work of great patience, in whose realization I expect to employ the best part of my time. . . .  In the five months I have been working here—by myself—I have barely been able to make a basic classification, very rudimentary, of this multitude of loose papers, which were found piled up in the most frightful disorder.  I have also begun to transcribe into score some [of the] works, among others the Symphony of Meserón, which alone has amounted to more than eighty pages. (Salvi 1937)

To the same journalist, Plaza confessed his desire to publish the best of those works, perform them in periodic concerts, and write a critical-historical work about Venezuelan colonial music.  He acknowledged that he was proposing lengthy undertakings.  “But we can cherish the hope,” he added, “since the [political] environment is favorable and a sincere desire to work for the Fatherland animates us all.”  (Salvi 1937).

The government continued to support the project, and even acquired additional manuscripts.  Plaza’s burden was eventually lightened when two assistants joined him at his work.  By the beginning of 1939 the three had made considerable progress in organizing the archive, and putting some of the works into modern score format.

Fortunately for the history of musicology in Latin America, the work of Plaza and his team came to the attention of Francisco Curt Lange (fig. 2) who was traveling throughout Latin America researching musical Americanism for his pioneering periodical, the Boletín Latino-Americano de Música.  In early January 1939, Lange arrived in Caracas to, in his words, “incorporate Venezuela also into the gearwork of ‘Musical Americanism.’” (Lange 1990: 11).

Lange and Plaza met a few hours after Lange’s arrival and formed a solid, warm friendship.  During the next few weeks, Lange familiarized himself with musical life in Caracas, gave lectures, and wrote a series of articles about musical Americanism for a local paper.  Great was his surprise when one day Plaza took him to the School of Music to show him the archive.  Lange was profoundly impressed, and spontaneously designated the collection a “Latin American miracle.”  Later he recalled: “I already had experiences of this nature in various regions of Latin America that did not attain, in any way, the characteristics of this archive” (Lange 1990: 13).  He expressed his doubt that even part of the collection could be disseminated unless it were published.  Plaza replied that it would be impossible to carry out such a project in Venezuela for lack of an adequate music publishing house.  Lange impulsively offered to publish the restored scores, though at the moment he had no clear idea of how he might do so.

A short time later, Lange concluded that it would be feasible for his Montevideo establishment, the Interamerican Institute of Musicology, to publish the scores.  Unfortunately his good intentions were not sufficient to set the project in motion, because funds were lacking.  For a while, therefore, the project remained in limbo.

Publication of the reconstructed scores unexpectedly became a real possibility in 1941, evidently after General Isaías Medina Angarita became President of Venezuela in May.  One night, at the theater, Plaza approached Medina and told him about the need to publish the scores.  Medina was favorably inclined and called one of his associates, referring the matter to him and saying that it would be good to pay attention to Plaza and help the project.  The government disbursed the necessary funds for the edition of scores, designating it as an official publication commemorating the centennial of the repatriation of the remains of Simón Bolívar, known in Venezuela as the Liberator.

In the meantime Lange had returned to Montevideo.  Plaza sent him twelve scores, which Lange decided to publish in a limited edition of one thousand copies.  Each score was bound separately and the edition was finally issued with the date of 1943, although some of the copyright pages bear the date 1942 and the last four volumes were not available until at least November 1944. Lange retained one hundred sets of scores for distribution to institutes of international renown.  This historic publication became the first series of monuments of Latin American art music. (Fig. 3 shows a cover of one of these scores, and fig. 4 lists the contents of the volumes, published as the Archivo de música colonial venezolana series.)

Around the time that Plaza sent the scores to Montevideo for engraving, he had his first occasion to publicize the repertory abroad.  Like the opportunity to publish, this new opportunity presented itself as the result of a visit by another foreign musicologist.  In June of 1940, Carleton Sprague Smith, director of the Music Division of the New York Public Library, had spent time in Caracas.  Plaza had publicized Smith’s visit and had taken him to the School of Music to see the colonial manuscripts.  Smith believed that it would be interesting to make Venezuelan colonial music known in the United States and felt that Plaza should travel there to give lectures.

After many efforts by Smith, the Pan American Union in Washington agreed to invite Plaza and to cover his costs.  In March of 1942 Plaza arrived in New York, where Smith put the madrigal chorus of the New York Public Library at his disposal and assembled an orchestra so that Plaza could rehearse the compositions he had brought along.  Plaza delivered his first formal lecture on March 27 to the Greater New York Chapter of the American Musicological Society.  The musicians he had been rehearsing performed the musical examples, which were recorded during the performance.  After Plaza’s lecture, the directors of The Musical Quarterly approached him and asked for the text of his talk so that it could be published in the next issue. As a result Plaza’s text appeared, in an English translation by Conchita Rexach, as “Music in Caracas During the Colonial Period (1770–1811)" (Plaza 1943a).

During the following weeks, Plaza used the discs recorded in New York to illustrate presentations of the same material at the Eastman School of Music, the School of Music of Yale University, Queen’s College, a gathering sponsored by the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Musicological Society, and an unidentified later occasion in Washington, D.C. 

Plaza’s lectures in the United States marked the beginning of his scholarly writings on the subject of Venezuelan colonial music.  In the course of his score study he had consulted archival sources, writings by national historians, and accounts by Venezuelans and foreigners who had lived in Caracas during the decades before Independence.  As a result, he found himself with enough material to publish a substantial number of articles.  Some of these articles were lengthy, meticulously documented studies, while others were newspaper pieces addressing unresolved questions, erroneous concepts, and polemics, particularly about the life and work of Venezuelan composer José Angel Lamas.  (See fig. 5 for a list of Plaza’s writings on Venezuelan colonial music.)

Plaza’s investigations enabled him to form a coherent picture of colonial musical life.  He identified the years 1770–1811 as the period when native composition flowered in Caracas.  In 1770 a young Venezuelan priest, Father Pedro Ramón Palacios y Sojo, had returned from a journey to Rome and Madrid where he had gone on church business.  Plaza found credible the tradition that Father Sojo had brought back music teaching materials, instruments, and scores–including some that Plaza considered to be by Pergolesi (Plaza 1957: 26–27, 1958: 4–5).  Father Sojo owned a coffee plantation near what is today the Chacao municipality in Caracas and he met there frequently with his fellow priests, friends, and musical protegés to enjoy performances of the scores he had brought from Europe.

Plaza was not able to discover anything about Father Sojo’s actual musical abilities--only that he was a great lover of music.  This brought up an intriguing question: How did composer Juan Manuel Olivares, Father Sojo’s principal protegé and first representative of the colonial musical movement, receive his training?  Plaza doubted that Olivares was self-taught; it could be assumed that he had learned at least the fundamentals of harmony and composition, probably from a church musician in Caracas (Plaza 1947: 110–11).  But the main influence, Plaza speculated, must have come from Father Sojo, who would have given advice to young Olivares and put at his disposal the teaching materials, scores, and instruments he had brought back from Spain and Italy.  The most surprising characteristic of Olivares’ music, as Plaza perceived it, is that his compositions are not the works of an apprentice or simple music-lover; they exhibit the maturity of the artist who knows what he has to say and how to adapt, with all effectiveness, his language to his circumstances (Plaza 1947: 120, 1958: 13).  Plaza acknowledged, at the same time, that Olivares’ music was not entirely free from "deficiencies of technique" (ibid.).

Olivares and his colleagues evidently benefited from an unexpected gift, as did the generation that followed.  According to Venezuelan historians who did not cite their sources, some German or Austrian naturalists who had enjoyed Father Sojo’s hospitality in the mid-1780s later sent to Venezuela a collection of musical instruments and works by composers including Haydn, Mozart, and Pleyel.  Although Plaza did not find any documents confirming that such a gift had in fact arrived in Caracas, he did not doubt its likelihood because of what he observed in the music of the colonial composers after that date.  (Fig. 6 provides a summary of Plaza’s findings about Venezuelan colonial music.)

Plaza liked to point out that, despite identifiable similarities between the colonial composers and contemporaneous Europeans, the colonial works were in no way servile imitations.  He wrote:
There is something in the music of our Olivares and in that of all our colonial composers, without exception, which not only is not derived from foreign sources, but does not even belong to them at all.  It is something that we could define as the intuitive expression of the colonial Venezuelan soul, or at least the religious aspect of it; something very different already from the spiritual substratum bequeathed to us by the Mother Country.  (Plaza 1958: 14, emphasis his)

Plaza’s interest in the early music of his country did not extend to compositions from the revolutionary period or afterwards.  He did, however, make an exception for the patriotic song that had become the national anthem of his fatherland.  That piece, titled Gloria al bravo pueblo (Glory to the Brave People), is usually ascribed to Juan José Landaeta, a composer of the late colonial period whose music was well known to Plaza.

In 1943, or earlier, Plaza became concerned about certain errors and deficiencies in the official edition of the anthem.  After some study, he created an improved arrangement for voice and piano.  Next, he contacted the cabinet of President Isaías Medina Angarita, explained what was wrong with the present official edition, and proposed issuing a new one (Plaza 1943b).  The cabinet approved the project, but for an unknown reason the publication was not carried out.

In October 1945 President Medina’s government was overthrown and a revolutionary junta took over.  Within a year the junta resolved to issue a new edition of the anthem.  Plaza reminded the new government that he had already proposed such a project three years earlier, and this time he was attended to at once.  His several arrangements were declared official and were issued in 1947 together with an article by Plaza justifying the divergences between his arrangements and the earlier ones. His work on that project is still considered authoritative, and his version of the anthem remains official. (See fig. 7 for a list of his arrangements of the Himno Nacional; audio example 2 offers a performance of Plaza's setting for orchestra and chorus.)

In addition to the activites described above, Plaza disseminated the Venezuelan colonial choral repertory in other ways.  A typical example is seen in his involvement with the Museum of Colonial Art, founded in Caracas in 1941.  Plaza served on its Committee on Music and Musical Instruments, and to help celebrate the museum’s first anniversary, he and twenty-five other musicians created the Society of Friends of Colonial Music.  Two days later the Society presented its first concert, and Plaza figured prominently in the proceedings as speaker and conductor.

Although Plaza seldom conducted after 1948, he continued to promote Venezuelan colonial music by every possible means.  His advocacy of the repertory continued into the final weeks his life when his health was very poor.  His last public lecture, delivered November 27, 1964, was titled "Venezuelan Colonial Music Up to Date with European [Music],"2 and his last article, written during December 1964, was titled "An Aspect of Our Colonial Music."  It was published in January 1965, three weeks after his passing (Plaza 1965a).

Today Plaza is still regarded as one of the principal authorities on Venezuelan colonial music.  Although he never completed the book he had hoped to write, many of his articles on Venezuelan colonial music were reprinted during his lifetime as well as posthumously, and the most important ones have been published in an anthology.  Even though other Venezuelans have continued his work, none have surpassed him in importance.


1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at a meeting of the Midwest Chapter of the American Musicological Society in April 2006.

2. The text of this lecture was published posthumously in a version reconstructed by Nolita de Plaza from Plaza’s notes and from lecture notes taken by Isabel Aretz and Ala Botti, as “La música colonial venezolana al día con la europea,” Revista Nacional de Cultura (Caracas) 27 /167–168–169 (January–June 1965): 44–49.