Masterpieces of Mexican Polyphony

Masterpieces of Mexican Polyphony - CoverYou might assume that when I was in America, I was as cash-strapped as any student was; and, if you do so, you are right. More so because I was sent by a Paraguayan church and they were strained to the maximum in doing so. Therefore, I economized as much as I could, avoiding any unnecessary expenses.

But one of the few “luxury” purchases I made was this recording. This is a recording of Renaissance sacred polyphony composed by Spaniards and Mexicans who were maestros de capilla (music directors) of Mexican churches in the first period of Spanish conquest, superbly rendered by the Westminster Cathedral Choir under the direction of James O’Donell. Listen to the CD and you’ll be amazed at how elaborate and sophisticated the music is, not to mention beautiful.

This poses a question. If the Spanish conquest was just a cheap excuse for pillage and plunder, and the obliteration of several cultures and civilizations just for the sake of the conqueror’s greed and the enslavement of the native people, then why is that such a musical treasure like this came into being? The answer is, of course, that while the whole process of Spanish conquest was mostly regrettable, it also had its bright spots. Thousands of Roman Catholic missionaries came, and with them their sincere conviction that the natives were people, created in God’s image, and that the salvation of their souls was the missionaries’ utmost concern. A process of cultural change began, a process where both Spaniards and natives would change and unconsciously enrich each other.

One of the most interesting sides of this cultural exchange was the art of music. To their astonishment, missionaries and conquerors discovered that the natives had a strong musical talent and ability, and that music was able to open doors that sheer force or imposition could not. Soon the Indians were competing for positions in the schools of music, being attracted to the musical instruments and the sounds of the music they sang. This phenomenon not only produced excellent performers, but also native composers. Scattered throughout the archives of American cathedrals, the works of hundreds of Indian composers praising the Lord are stored, forgotten and decaying under the rot of time. The music they produced, both as performers and composers, was on a par with that produced by Europe in terms of quality and artistic excellence.

This recording from Hyperion bears testimony of what I said above. You can hear three works by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c1590-1664) a Malaga-born Spaniard, Master of Music at Puebla Cathedral; two by Francisco López Capillas (1612-1673), a Mexican who served as master of music at the cathedrals of Puebla and Mexico City; and one each by Hernando Franco (1532-1585), a Spaniard born in Extremadura and a master of music first in the cathedral of Guatemala City and then at the incomplete (at the time) Mexico City cathedral, and Antonio de Salazar (c1650-1715), a Spaniard born in Seville and master of music at the cathedrals of Puebla and Mexico City.

All the works are beautiful. You can hear Franco’s Salve Regina, where he offers a beautiful rendering of the Salve in the tradition of the cantus firmus i.e., elaborating polyphonic settings having one of the voices singing the original notes from the plainchant; or Gutiérrez’s setting of the Office of None’s music, the antiphone Deus in adiutorium (God, come forth in my help) and the portion of Psalm 119:129-144 Mirabilia testimonium (How wonderful are your testimonies), a magnificent and demanding double-choir setting, as is the usual in Padilla’s music, always very expansive. The music of López Capillas is more simple in a way, though he is more avant-garde in harmonic combinations, and extremely lively, as you can hear in his motet Dic nobis Maria (Tell us, Mary). The final motet is the introspective, luminous and hopeful O Sacrum Convivium (O holy banquet) of Salazar, which looks like peaceful sunlight translated into music, and whose closing verse et futurae gloriae pignus datur, “and a pledge of future glory is given us” sets the tone for the whole recording.

The music present in this recording shows a fact too much overlooked: We Hispanic Americans are part of the Western Christendom and Western Culture, and we contributed to Western Culture in our own right, as much as we had received. Today, people tend to classify ourselves as non-westerners, but this is not true. We may not be First World, but we are Westerners, and our main culture is Western.

This recording was Gramophone Critic’s Choice. The CD is adequately packaged, and comes with libretto with English translation of all texts, and excellent liner notes by Bruno Turner. The music was recorded on 20-22 June 1989. However, there is one big caveat: I bought this CD in 2001. Right now is 2004, and the CD has deteriorated quickly. There is a visible hole in the reflective layer, and it looks like it cannot sustain itself for too much time. The funny thing is, that this is the only CD that had this thing happened. So, beware; and if you own a CD burner, do yourself a favor and burn a copy of this CD ASAP. If you feel interested in getting it, you can click on the CD cover at the beginning of the article, and it will take you to the Hyperion homepage.

It’s no wonder this recording is one of the treasures, if not the treasure, of my CD library. I will close this review this thought from Dic nobis Maria, the motet by Francisco López Capillas:

Scimus Christum surrexisse a mortuis vere:
tu nobis, victor Rex, miserere. Amen. Alleluia

(We know that Christ has truly risen from the dead.
Have mercy upon us Thou triumphant King. Amen. Allelluia!)

Amen. Allelluia!


  1. I haven’t heard the Cd but your description is beautiful.
    I find the cultural history very interesting.

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