Latin American Choral Music - Table of Contents

References Cited

Interpretive Issues in Latin American Choral Music
Frederick Moehn

As an ethnomusicologist my research has focused on popular music recording and production practices in Brazil.  To begin this talk I would like to explain how I ended up at a symposium on Latin American choral music.1  Some years ago I was browsing the Brazilian CDs at the Columbia University music library in preparation for my first graduate seminar on Brazilian music history.2 I came across a number of relatively obscure recordings of music from the colonial era in Brazil.  Naturally, as a teacher I was delighted to have found audio examples from this period — most of which were of sacred music — for use in my course.  Yet music from the colonial period seemed to have little to do with the Brazil that I knew, the modern Brazil that emerged in the twentieth century and that gave rise to globally popular and decidedly secular genres like samba and bossa nova, or to the influential Tropicália movement of the late 1960s.  Colonial-era music predated the eminently "Brazilian" popular genres that in recent years have been enjoying yet another moment of global popularity.  It dated from a period when Brazilian culture was ostensibly largely derivative of European models, an era when the Brazilian territory was oriented toward metropolitan exploitation rather than cultural and artistic development.  I was therefore somewhat surprised to find what amounted to a small early music scene in Brazil, as well as some international groups performing this repertoire, and I thought that more people should know about it.  I proposed a review essay on these recordings to Rick Anderson, review editor for the journal Notes, and he eventually published it in 2005.3

As it turned out, I uncovered a curious link between the Tropicália movement and this repertoire on a recording of works by the São Paulo mestre de capela André da Silva Gomes (1752–1844).  When the Silva Gomes manuscripts were discovered in 1960, composer and arranger Rogério Duprat transcribed and edited the pieces.  This was shortly before he would spearhead the avant-garde música nova movement, and seven years before he would work with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, and the rock band Mutantes as the musical arranger for the seminal Tropicália, ou panis et circensis album of 1967.  His brother, Régis Duprat, is a musicologist and performer of colonial music who also edited and researched several of the works presented on the recordings I reviewed.

In the process of working on that Notes essay I grew increasingly interested in the sacred choral repertoire of Brazil and Latin America.  Through interlibrary loan and from some of the performers and musicologists involved in the recordings I was reviewing I acquired copies of selected scores of the vocal repertoire.  I gathered together some of our musicology graduate students at Stony Brook interested in singing and jointly with my colleague Ryan Minor we formed a small Collegium-like ensemble. We were able to count on harpsichord and occasionally portatif continuo from keyboard students studying with Baroque specialist Arthur Haas.  We also sang a cappella pieces such as José Maurício Nunes Garcia's beautiful four-part motets edited in 1976 by Brazilian musicologist Cleofe Person de Mattos.  I learned from one of our Brazilian colleagues at this symposium, Ricardo Bernardes, that these pieces probably did have instrumental accompaniment, but that Mattos edited them as a cappella works to fill a perceived need in the printed Brazilian colonial vocal repertoire at the time.  Notwithstanding, they make fine unaccompanied repertoire and one of the groups whose recordings I will discuss, Ensemble Turicum, produced an excellent recording of them (Ensemble Turicum 1995). Another work that we enjoyed singing is Luis Álvares Pinto’s Te Deum, edited by Jaime Diniz in 1967 for four voices and continuo.  Our students, vocalists Christine Fena, Steve Gehring, Katherine Kaiser, Kassandra Hartford, Matthew Toth, and our keyboardist Faith Wollrath, found the music quirkily different in its occasional lack of concern for stylistic consistency or period, or for the customary rules of counterpoint.  More recently we began to look at some of the Mexican repertoire, such as Manuel de Sumaya's Ave Regina Caelorum, for four voices, and Adiuva nos Deus, for five voices, both edited by Craig Russell.4

I would like to take a moment to speak to practical matters of getting such an ensemble off the ground at Stony Brook.  Since I am the first Latin Americanist in the music department, we hold none of these editions in our library.  In any case, much of this repertoire is out of print, or difficult to order from Brazil (we were unable to establish a purchasing account, for example, with Brazil's National Foundation of Art [FUNARTE], which publishes a lot of music), and only a few libraries in the United States have substantial collections of Latin American choral repertoire from the colonial era.  Fortunately, in the past five years much more of this musical material has become available in PDF format.  The Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) now houses the Curt Lange archive and is publishing various editions on their website.  Also in Minas Gerais the Mariana Museum of Music has made PDFs of their newly edited and extensive collection of Baroque Brazilian repertoire available on the Internet.5 Other practical concerns include the large number of competing ensembles at Stony Brook and the hierarchy of commitments that research faculty and Ph.D. students negotiate, at the bottom of which performance ensembles — especially when not for credit — are usually situated.  Often the distinction between scholarly and performance careers in music seems greater than that between music and other disciplines.  A final challenge is my own need to study Renaissance and Baroque vocal practice and the Latin American repertoire more intensely, which again is difficult for the tenure-track ethnomusicologist to schedule (and fund).  My only experience in this particular kind of singing is as a tenor in New York University's Collegium Musicum for a couple years when I was a graduate student.                 

Let me now introduce some of the recordings I reviewed for NotesFigure 1 shows the unassuming cover to the História da Música Brasileira: Período Colonial I (ca. 1999) which, along with a second CD (Período Colonial II),was recorded by Ricardo Kanji and the Vox Brasiliensis orchestra and choir.  These were intended to be part of a larger project that was apparently terminated after the second recording. Paulo Castagna of the Paulista State University (UNESP) in São Paulo undertook the musicological research, and artistic director Ricardo Kanji is a baroque flutist and conductor who spent 25 years working in Holland but who now lives in Brazil. Figures 2, 3, 4 show the covers to recordings by the Brasilessentia Vocal Group and Orchestra, under the directorship of Vitor Gabriel.  Figure 5 is from the Camerata Novo Horizonte de São Paulo, directed by Graham Griffiths.6 Figure 6 shows the cover to a fine recording by Ensemble Turicum, based in Zurich, Switzerland, and directed by Mathias Weibel and Brazilian Luís Alves da Silva, the second of a two-volume set of sacred music from 18th-century Brazil.7  Figure 7 is from Quadro Cervantes, an early music ensemble based at the University of Rio de Janeiro (Uni-Rio).  Finally, Figure 8 is the recording Negro Spirituals au Bresil Baroque by the France-based ensemble XVIII–21 Musiques des Lumières and released on the Baroque-specialized label K 617, also based in France (associated with the International Center of the Paths of the Baroque).

Of particular interest here is the cover art.  As Ricardo Bernardes remarked,8 the representational approach taken here — an analogy between sacred music written by mulato Brazilian composers and North American slave spirituals — evidences the kind of exoticism that Dr. Davies discusses with respect to the Harp Consort’s 2002 recording Missa Mexicana.9  XVIII-21 Musique des Lumiéres is directed by Jean-Christophe Frisch and, like the label K617, is also based in France.  Finally, one other ensemble whose recordings I reviewed is the Collegium Musicum de Minas, based in the state of Minas Gerais (see Figure 9).  This area flourished in the second half of the eighteenth century as a rich source of precious metals and stones (Minas Gerais means General Mines), and its Catholic brotherhoods generated a great deal of Baroque vocal repertoire.  This is the music that Francisco Curt Lange first uncovered in the 1940s and 50s, effectively initiating Brazilian musicology. Figure 10 illustrates a famous Baroque church from the town Ouro Preto, in Minas Gerais.

As I evaluated these recordings I began to think of interpretive considerations which subsequently arose in discussions I have had with Brazilian musicologists and performers.  For example, should an aesthetic of “pious simplicity” guide the approach to performance? The Brazilian churches were not as grand as the Mexican cathedrals and much of this music was commissioned for Catholic brotherhoods that may have preferred relatively austere realizations of the pieces.  One Brazilian musicologist objected that some of the European performances of this repertoire (e.g., the ensemble XVII-21 Musique des Lumiéres) did not respect the essential simplicity of Brazilian sacred music from the colonial period and instead performed the music with too much flourish. On the other hand, when I mentioned this to a Baroque musician in São Paulo he reacted that attributing a quality of simplicity to Brazilian colonial music reflected a tendency within Brazil to regard the country's music history as "underdeveloped."  Indeed, the word simples in Brazil (simple) does evoke colonialist dichotomies between the "civilized" white elite and the supposedly uneducated subaltern classes.

Another interpretive issue pertains to the Latin texts.  For example, Padre Diniz, editor of Pinto Te Deum mentioned above, noted idiosyncratic Latin spellings in the manuscripts. That might explain why, when singing this piece, we came across Latin words with which we were not familiar. Perhaps more interesting than questions of spelling is which kind of Latin pronunciation should one use in performance?  Some of the students in my ensemble were accustomed to German Baroque pronunciation of Latin; others were more accustomed to using Italian pronunciation. It is likely that an Italian pronunciation was used, but was it altered as it passed through Portugal, or as it was transmitted in Brazil?  If, as some linguists argue, Brazilian pronunciation of Portuguese is indebted to African languages, how did thecomposers of Minas Gerais pronounce their Latin?  Other questions include what instrumentation was used for accompaniment, or how many voices to a part? Were female voices used? (Probably not.)  I wonder, too, how many instruments were imported and how many locally made, and whether the latter sounded different from European instruments? Did instrumentalists improvise extensively?

An issue that arose when we were performing some of the pieces mentioned above was how to interpret apparent "errors" in the part writing when lacking a true critical edition that would elaborate on doubts about source manuscripts — many of which are actually compiled from various copies of the different parts — and the choices that the editor made in preparing the performance edition.  Stylistic questions are complicated by the typically Brazilian eclecticism of many of these works, particularly those from the last quarter of the eighteenth century when so-called pre-classical styles were belatedly mixing with Baroque practices in Brazilian sacred music.

However, the considerations that seemed most obvious and important to me as I reviewed these recordings were basic questions of ensemble dynamics, choices of tempo and approach to the Baroque rhythms, and the timbre of the overall sound which in the case of the recordings I was reviewing often had as much to do with the performance space, the equipment, and the technical expertise employed in making the CDs.  On these matters the European recordings generally impressed me as superior to those made in Brazil.

Selected musical examples illustrate these points. First one might listen to the Benedictus (Andante Staccato), Hosanna (Allegro), and the Agnus Dei (Andante) from the Mass for Ash Wednesday (Missa para quarta-feira de Cinzas) by Minas Gerais composer Lobo de Mesquita (1746?-1805), performed by Ricardo Kanji’s Vox Brasiliensis ensemble.  Without wishing to detract from the importance of Kanji's work, this recording seems a little uninspired to me, although part of it may be a consequence of the mediocre audio quality. 

A second set of examples provides a striking contrast between two performances of the motet "Bajulans," possibly attributable to Manoel Dias de Oliveira (1738-1813). Kanji’s Vox Brasiliensis lasts 1'09" and includes organ and violoncello continuo.  In the second sample Ensemble Turicum performs the work a cappella and it lasts 2'09".  I find the performance by Ensemble Turicum to be much more interesting in the coordinated use of dynamics to bring out the richness of the harmonies, the expressive use of pauses between phrases (as if there were fermatas), the careful synchronization of diction between all the vocalists, and the unforced timbre of the voices, particularly the high tenor.  Here again, Vox Brasiliensis suffers from a lesser recording quality in which the continuo overpowers the voices. Ensemble Turicum (which takes its name from the Latin word for Zurich, where they are based), describes as its aim "the union of one or more voices, each articulating the parity of a line, sounding with a group of string instruments and harpsichord."10 They seek to "convey the dramatic expressiveness of Baroque music, whose equilibrium between the increase and resolution of tension is a unique listening experience."11Their recordings reflect these priorites, but I do wonder if my preference for Turicum’s interpretation here is not born of my own expectations and tastes as a listener of certain contemporary European Baroque ensembles, and whether these aesthetics are applicable in the Brazilian case?

An excerpt from Ensemble Turicum’s recording of Antonio dos Santos Cunha’s Responsorios para o Offício follows the same responsorial structure used by Mexican composers outlined by Craig Russell.12 In contrast to many of the composers in Minas, dos Santos Cunha was evidently not of mixed race since he belonged to a Catholic brotherhood that only accepted whites.  Perhaps because of this he may have had more financial resources at his disposal, as the listening guide to this recording suggests, allowing him to compose for soloists, chorus and orchestra.  Listening to the recording, one can hear that this work is a little bit more elaborated than the previous examples.

Finally, I would like to compare excerpts of Ensemble Turicum’s performance of Luis Alvares Pinto’s (1719-1789) Te deum laudamus (1760) with XVIII-21 Musiques des Lumiéres’ rendition from the afore-mentioned CD, Negro Spirituals au Brésil Baroque, beginning with the latter group, taking selections from the opening “Te deum” and from the “Te glorioso” and “Te Martirum” sections. Figure 11 presents an excerpt from Padre Diniz’s edition of this work.  Both recordings are quite nice but the XVIII-21 version is bathed in reverberation and is executed at a slower tempo than Ensemble Turicum’s.  It also features a significantly more elaborated accompaniment arrangement that incorporates recent thinking on the importance of improvisation in Baroque music. Ensemble Turicum’s rendition employs a livelier and lighter approach to the rhythms while it maintains an emphasis on the vocal parts, using a simple accompaniment. It also features a countertenor on the chant. We cannot state, however, that either of these interpretations is the “right” one; the differences between them point precisely to the limits of our knowledge of how the music was originally performed.


The turn of the millennium marked Brazil's quincentennial celebrations.  These celebrations also spurred federal and private funding of musicological research and performance of historical repertoire, for example the support of, Petrobras (the national oil company), the Central Bank of Brazil, and municipal governments on many of these CDs. The recordings discussed in this article were released on relatively small labels and thus are difficult to acquire in United States.  The Columbia University library acquired them through an interesting program sponsored by the Library of Congress office in Rio de Janeiro whereby for a reasonable annual fee the office will send a box of recent recordings selected by a staff member. In closing, I wish to mention some of the challenges that remain for historical musicology of Brazilian sources. As Carlos Alberto Figueiredo suggests, there is a need for a clearer understanding of what stylistic elements characterized the music of this period in Brazil, and for the publication of critical editions (rather than performance editions). Ease of access to the archives that hold original manuscripts is a perennial problem. Figueiredo also notes that a deeper understanding of the performance conventions of the period is required, especially through the study of Brazilian treatises. However, very few such treatises have survived, and other Brazilian musicologists suggested to me that one must look instead at contemporary Portuguese and Italian performance practices for guidance.  Perhaps Brazilian performers should also take a cue from XVII-21 Musiques des Lumieres and consider recent thinking on the place of improvisation in Baroque accompaniment. Finally, there is the need for greater funding for musicological endeavors, which is of course particularly difficult in a country that continues to face challenges in economic development.


1. Editor's note: To preserve the character of the original presentation on "Interpretive Issues in Latin American Choral Music" at the symposium, references to that occasion have been retained in this article.

2. The seminar was actually at Stony Brook University, where I had just been hired.  Since Stony Brook had never had a Latin American musicologist, I was more likely to find the recorded music I needed at Columbia.

3. “Colonial Era Brazilian Music: A Review Essay of Recent Recordings,” Notes, vol. 62/2 (2005): 448-472.

4. It has been the author's pleasure to meet Craig Russell at the symposium.


6. Professor Aurelio Tello, of Mexico, is credited on this recording for supporting the efforts of the Camerata, so it is a special pleasure for me to have had the opportunity to meet and converse with Dr. Tello at this symposium.

7. I was surprised to discover that George Steel, director of the Vox vocal ensemble at Columbia University's Miller Theater, which focuses on early and contemporary repertoire, knew of this recording.  I learned this when I met with Steel to discuss matters of performance practice and he shared with me his own edition of Joaquim Lobo de Mesquita’s Tercis for voices and string trio and quartet.  I had imagined that only Brazilians or “Brazilianists” knew this material.

8. Ricardo Bernardes. Conversation with the author at the symposium.

9. See Davies' "Nationalism, Exoticism, and Colonialist Appropriation: The Historiographic Decontextualization of Music from New Spain" which appears in this publication.

10. Footnote to liner notes

11. Footnote to liner notes

12.The author notes Russell's animated keynote address reflected in the article "Digging, Gluing, Printing, Playing: Making the Music of Colonial Mexico Come to Life" which appears in this publication.