The Story Behind our Mexican Christmas Concert

Dec 7, 2018 | blog, Mexican Christmas | 0 comments

The inspiration for this program came five years ago, when the Consort was on tour in Durango, Mexico, performing in the newly-renovated Cathedral. It was a national holiday, and outside in the plaza in front of the church, traditional music was being performed by bands of musicians, electrically amplified to echo throughout the square. As a result, we too had to be amplified — and to our astonishment, the resulting aural salad of classical and traditional music seemed to delight rather than annoy our audience inside! Everywhere we went in Durango that weekend we heard a soundscape of varied music: radios blaring pop songs, people singing and playing traditional music outdoors and in, organ solos filling the vast space of the Cathedral.

This reminded us of the descriptions of 17th-century Mexican convents, with people gathering outside the cloister walls to hear the nuns so renowned for their musical gifts, and villancico bands, groups of traditional musicians with folk instruments, playing at the gate of the convent to celebrate the entrance of a novitiate about to leave the secular world to take the veil as a nun. For our Christmas concert, we decided to try to recreate the contrasting grand solemnity in the cloister and festive atmosphere we imagined was enjoyed in the plaza outside the Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación in Mexico City.

Angels in the Convent

For the Convent music, we are delighted to return to the music preserved in the in the convent’s six surviving choirbooks now housed in the Newberry Library. At this convent, established in the late 16th century and dissolved sometime in the 19th century, there’s no doubt that music making was a high priority. As was common elsewhere in Mexico, women entering the community were offered dowry waivers if they were trained musicians, thereby ensuring a high level of musical performance for the convent. The Choirbooks contain music European by composers as well as music composed for this community by Novohispanic composers. In addition, books of villancicos and other sacred music were purchased by the convent for use in their services, and we have drawn such pieces from sources in the nearby town of Puebla.

Missa Bonae Voluntatis

Composer Mateo Romero was born Mathieu Rosmarin in the Spanish Netherlands, but soon was moved to Spain, where he served as a choirboy in Madrid. He sang and studied under his countrymen Phillipe Rogier and George de la Hèle until 1593, and by 1598 held the rank of Maestro di Capilla, taking the name Romero. Later, after his ordination to the priesthood, he served as the Chaplain to King John IV of Portugal. El Maestro Capitán, as he was known, was a popular composer in his own time, and wrote psalms, motets, and villancicos in addition to mass settings. His compositions bridge the old and new styles of music that co-existed at the beginning of the 17th century, embracing both the elegant polyphony of the late Renaissance and the brilliant polychoral writing that typifies the grand, Baroque Venetian style. Sadly, much of his work was destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

He wrote two versions of the Missa Bonae Voluntatis, one for five voices, and the one we are performing, for nine voices in three choirs. This mass setting is an example of an old-world piece that was popular in New Spain as well. Copies exist in multiple sources in Spain, and it is found in the Choirbooks from the Encarnación, possibly copied from yet another source, this one in Puebla. The structure of this piece is similar to other multi-choir works in the Choirbooks; featuring a solo voice with basso continuo in one choir, and two four-voice choirs providing antiphonal responses to the solo voice. Sadly, the top choir is missing in the Newberry’s source, as is the case for all the three-choir pieces. Only six books of what was likely an eight-book set are known to exist, but those missing parts can be furnished by one of the other versions preserved intact.

Throughout the Newberry Choirbooks, the Latin texts of masses and other liturgical works give us evidence of a historical and regional pronunciation system used by the nuns. The texts are frequently written exactly as they sounded when sung by a Hispanic speaker; the scribes seem to have written down what they heard instead of what they knew. For instance, they wrote “inbocabo” instead of “invocabo,” demonstrating orthographically the mixed sound of “v” and “b” we hear still in modern Spanish. “Sanctus” is written “Santus”, and thus sounds more like modern Spanish “Santo,” without the internal k sound.

Villancicos in the Convent

Although we have no surviving villancicos from the convent of the Encarnación, we will sing two pieces that may have been known to the sisters. Angelicos Coros cantad resonates with the 17th century idealization of nuns as angels: they are invisible (cloistered), virginal, and sing to the ear of God. A sweet glimpse of the past is in the original manuscript from Puebla; the names of each nun who sang the piece are noted on the performing parts!

Voces, las de la capilla is an example of a special genre of Christmas villancicos about music.  It presents the newborn Christ as both singer and song.  Celebrating Christ as the the Word of God made flesh, but as an inarticulate infant, his cries create a kind of music. The text also makes musical puns on syllables that mimic solfege; “la,” “mi,” and “re” are on their corresponding pitches. In the section mentioning “the thirty-three” (Christ’s age at crucifixion), there are 33 notes in the original notation, and on the word “cuenta,” from the verb “to count,” Chorus II has a long passage of silence where they must count rests.

These highly inventive and intellectual compositions demonstrate the fantastic range of poetry and music that make up this singular genre.

— Ellen Hargis


The Villancico Ensemble is presenting pieces that were composed for the Christmas season in Mexican Cathedrals during the 17th century. Nowadays, the word villancico is used in many Latin American countries in connection to Christmastide. However, it was not always that way; the term was initially used in Renaissance Spain to identify a literary genre and, later on, in the Cancioneros Musicales (Musical Collections) it referred to a musical genre. Iberian composers who traveled to the New World brought with them the genre of villancico and an important number of such pieces mostly sacred and in the vernacular, were composed on this side of the Atlantic. The Cathedral of Puebla de los Ángeles, in the State of Puebla (Mexico), highly appreciated for its religious music in Colonial times, is well represented in our program as we will see.

Tarará, qui yo soy Antón, by Antonio de Salazar, is a lively piece that presents alternating estribillo (refrain) and coplas (verses), the typical structure of most villancicos. Tarará also serves as an example of the use of Guineo, word used at the time in connection to Africa, its people and, their way of speaking. Salazar served as chapel master, first in Puebla (1679-1688), and then in the Mexico Cathedral (1688-1715). Alto, zagales and Si al nacer o miniño belong to a cycle of villancicos composed by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla for the Christmas of 1653 in Puebla, where he was a chapel master (1629-1664). The polychoral Alto zagales, invites the shepherds to drop what they are doing and play a lively foligüela (a little folia in Guineo). Si al nacer o miniño, in Galician language and for a smaller ensemble, has a more contemplative tone. In this piece the typical refrain and verses are replaced by four sections of contrasting meters and texture. Al establo más dichoso, also by Gutiérrez de Padilla is an ensaladilla (little salad) with several sections that feature different characters from shepherds to a mule skinner, African people and even angels who join the Africans in singing Gloria in Spanish. Padilla has been recognized by some as one of the most important composers of New Spain.

Serenísima una noche, is identified as a baile by its composer, the Iberian Fray Jerónimo González. The word baile rather than danza for “dance” suggests a popular character. The first section, a romance (ballad) depicts a story by the manger; the second part, the baile proper, is indicated to be played very fast, almost “like flying” (muy volado); and that is how the nuns of the Convent of the Santísima Trinidad (Puebla), may have performed it sometime ca. 1650. Gaspar Fernández, probably of Portuguese origin, was chapel master at Puebla for twenty-three years in the early 17th century. His Eso rigor e repente clearly brings forward the African flavor with its rhythm, theme and combination of Guineo and Spanish; in Tleican Timochoquilía, he sets up the music to text that can be recognized to be in Nahuatl, language of the Aztec people, also mixed in with some Spanish. We close our program with Convidando está la noche by the Mexican-born Juan García de Zéspedes. He joined the Puebla Cathedral as a choirboy and then held different positions until he became chapel master, succeeding Gutiérrez de Padilla (1664-1678). He was reprimanded by the Cathedral authorities for borrowing music and instruments from and keeping them in his home. Perhaps he never returned all the music to the Cathedral archive, which would explain why so few of his pieces survive! Fortunately, Convidando está la noche has come down to us for the delight of audiences and musicians alike. The Convent and Villancico ensembles join forces for this piece, whose sections are labeled by the composer as Juguete (toy) and Guaracha. The former, with a straight forward homophonic texture sets up the tone for the lively guaracha, term used nowadays to identify a popular Latin American upbeat song dance.

Along with the villancicos we are performing Santiago de Murcia’s Cumbé and La Azucena whose sources have been found in Latin American archives. Originally for Baroque guitar, these pieces will be heard in arrangements for a basic ensemble of violins, harp, Baroque guitar, and percussion that includes hand drums and castanets. But this festive band for both instrumental pieces and villancicos would not be complete without the presence of instruments played nowadays in Mexican traditional music such as the jawbone, in the percussion department, and the jarana and leona, descendents of the Spanish guitar.

— Francy Acosta and José Luis Posada

Special thanks to musicologists Andrew Cashner, Omar Morales, Cesar Favila, and of course, to the late Robert Stevenson, a pioneer in the study of this repertoire. Also consulted: Studies by Aurelio Tello, Bárbara Pérez, John Koegel, Javier Marín López, Alejando Vera.

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