The Baroque in Central and South America

The Baroque in Central and South America

Written by Anne E. Johnson

When we hear the term “Baroque music,” most of us automatically picture the ornate courts of Europe in the 17th and early 18th centuries, with the music of Vivaldi or Bach being performed for royals and nobles.

Well, it’s a fair image, but not the only one. There was also a musical Baroque on another continent. As a result of colonialism, European music had made its way to Central and South American, even if most of the Baroque composers in those regions don’t show up in the music history books.

Fortunately, you can always count on performers who specialize in early music to seek out the esoteric. Thus, there has long been a steady trickle of new recordings of these American Baroque composers. (The now-defunct Dorian Records deserves a nod for getting this trend in motion 20 years ago with its Baroque Music of Latin America by Camerata Renacentísta de Caracas.) Here are a few recent recordings:

Fernández: Chanzonetas (IBS Classical) features the vocal work of Gaspar Fernández (1566-1629), a Portuguese-Mexican who worked in what is today Mexico, back then called New Spain. As is true of many New Spanish composers, not much detail survives about his life and career.

This recording is a collaboration by Capella Prolationum (voices) and Ensemble La Danserye (instruments). The program consists of a type of Spanish-language song called villancicos, poems (in this case by Alonso de Bonilla, who wrote mostly on religious topics) set to music in a form originally derived from a type of medieval dance in Spain. Villancicos were popular among New World composers.

As you can hear in the very short song “Virgen, a parir te atreves” (“Virgin, You Dare to Give Birth”), the rhythm has a distinctly Spanish syncopation, emphasized here by strummed guitar chords at certain off-beat moments. The small group of singers uses a degree of vibrato that is surprising for an early-music group, and I admit I found it distracting. But the lead soprano’s wobble is made up for by the strength and enthusiasm of her singing.


“Oh, qué gozo tan profundo” (“Oh, What Deep Joy”) is written in a more polyphonic style, with the soprano voice beginning a line and the others responding to, imitating, or extending the phrase. The instrumentation seems to consist of late-Renaissance instruments such as haut-boit (early oboe), sackbut (early trombone), and lute.


Another album of Gaspar Fernández’ work is now available from the Phaia Music label (although they spell it Fernándes – he lived in a time before standardized spelling, even of names). On Cancionero musical de la Cathedrale d’Oaxaca, the Cuban early-music ensemble Ars Longa is directed by its founder, Teresa Paz. Although they’ve also done recordings of Monteverdi and other more “standard” early music, Ars Longa’s primary mandate is to help preserve the little-known repertoire of Spanish colonialism.

“Jesós de mi goracón” (“Jesus of My Heart”) is another of the Fernándes/de Bonilla religious songs. Its infectious rhythm and delightful orchestration (transcription from the original manuscript is attributed to one A. Tello) really demonstrates how such a song could have originated in a type of dancing. The various timbres of percussion are modern choices based on what was probably available in that historical time and place.


“Fransiquiya ¿Donde vamo?” seems to be a type of song, perhaps coming from France. It’s another toe-tapper, opening with baroque guitars and percussion that sounds almost African. The singers in Ars Longa have a clear and buoyant sound that truly brings this music to life. They make me imagine that life in a Spanish-Mexican court was lively indeed.


Trésors des couvents (Diapason 4), featuring 17th-century music from “New Spain”. The four-member French vocal ensemble Vox Cantoris, directed by Jean-Cristophe Candau. The title, which means “Treasures of Convents,” refers not only to the original purpose of this music for worship, but also to where the manuscripts were found – in the libraries of Mexican convents.

Besides a handful of anonymous works, the recording is devoted to the music of Juan de Lienas. His exact dates are unknown, but his career flourished in the middle of the 17th century. De Lienas is rare among this group of composers for having apparently been born in the New World and also having indigenous blood. It’s believed that he lived and worked primarily in Mexico.

Vox Cantoris produces a rich, meditative tone with very little vibrato, as you will hear in “In manus tuas,” an example of de Lienas’ religious songwriting. The instrument you hear is a dulcian, a double-reed predecessor to the bassoon. It’s played here by Isaure Lavergne. De Lienas is using vocal-writing techniques that would have been popular in Europe a generation or two before, the dense polyphony of late Renaissance church music.


Another track combines two scriptural texts that were beloved by motet-writers in Europe: “Miserere mihi” and Psalm 133: “Ecce nunc benedicite.” The “Miserere” starts with an introit, or opening based on Gregorian chant, before opening up into angelic four-part counterpoint. This music can soothe the soul, and the performance does it great justice.


The most recent New World Baroque recording I’ve been able to find is L’or et l’argent du haut Pérou on K617 Records. On it, the instrumental group Ensemble Elyma is directed by Argentinian conductor Gabriel Garrido, and joined by a French choir called La Maîtrise Boréale. Together they pay tribute to the composer Juan de Araujo (1646-1712).

Araujo was born in northern Spain but ended up getting a job in Peru as a maestro di cappella (basically, music director for a church or a court). It is believed that he worked at several cathedrals in the region.

“Batailles et déplorations: A recoge pasiones inhumanas” (“Battles and Lamentations: On the Collection of Inhumane Passions”) is a religious work that shows de Araujo’s swirling and complex style. Garrido leads his forces with intelligence, delineating phrases with a rhythmic freedom that never loses track of the underlying beat.


These three composers were not the only ones working in Central and South America during Europe’s Baroque era. Others to keep an eye out for include Diego José de Salazar, Manuel de Sumaya, and Domenico Zipoli. Happy exploring!

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