Bridges of San Luis Rey: Early sacred music from Latin America

The sacred music of Latin America in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries has only recently been discovered by recording labels. The results are always striking and frequently marvelous.

Is The Bridge of San Luis Rey, with which in 1927 Thornton Wilder obtained his first—almost his only—huge success as novelist, still read widely? It deserves to be. If a book can survive having its concluding chapter unctuously quoted by Tony Blair in 9/11’s aftermath, it can survive almost anything the crooked timber of humanity can inflict on it. (This concluding chapter also inspired the English-language title of Alma Mahler’s memoirs, And the Bridge Is Love.) 

I discovered the book by chance during high school, vividly recollected its impact, and thus dreaded returning to it. We have all had the embarrassing experience of being confronted in adulthood with literary and musical equivalents of our teenage crushes: whatever, we are forced to ask ourselves, did we see in that? How many grown-up females would willingly be reminded of the months and years their adolescent selves spent slavering over Sylvia Plath? How many grown-up males would willingly be reminded of the months and years their adolescent selves spent in rapturous obsession over Jack Kerouac’s road trips? There always seemed a good excuse for avoiding The Bridge of San Luis Rey decade in, decade out (particularly when my own Penguin paperback copy of it is so old that its biographical blurb describes Wilder as still living: he died in 1975).

Such avoidance turns out to be unfair. If Wilder had achieved nothing else, The Bridge (which Penguin in 1974 managed to fit onto a little over 100 generously leaded pages with lavish margins) would still have proclaimed him to have been one of American fiction’s finest modern stylists. Not a sentence in it fails to be elegant; few sentences in it fail to be epigrammatic. Ultimately, though, what makes The Bridge unforgettable is less its prose’s suave perfection—Truman Capote could manage that too—than the imaginative and cultural vistas which that prose, unlike Capote’s, offers. These vistas would have been disfigured by the slightest hint of authorial sermonizing. In any event, Wilder never shared his Peruvian characters’ bred-in-the-bone Catholicism, nor does he appear to have had any fervent religious belief once he had abandoned the Puritan worship of his childhood. Nevertheless, it is to The Bridge that millions upon millions of readers, not solely in America, owe their first glimpse of high Latin American civilization in any form.

The early 18th-century Lima which Wilder portrayed with such deft, swift strokes was at once so fascinating, so elaborate, and so ceremonious as to have enthralled at least one Australian schoolboy otherwise representing (like most other Australian schoolboys) the most brutish provincialism. Of course, no schoolboy could comprehend everything in Wilder’s narrative—this schoolboy found himself particularly baffled as to what the word “usury” meant, and why Peruvians in 1714 should have made such heavy weather of it—but then, no schoolboy needed to comprehend everything. All he needed to do was accept The Bridge’s premise that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in even his philosophy, and that among the most fascinating of those things was “the New Spain,” even when in decline from its 16th-century economic and cultural peak.

Once such a schoolboy has had his imagination baptized (the metaphor is C.S. Lewis’) by The Bridge, he will be left—often at an instinctive rather than a conscious level—forever unable to accept the Anglosphere’s Whig-Marxist “black legend” about the Spanish empire being one vast dump for grass-eating peasants who groaned forever under the lash of philistine priests and sadistic Inquisitors-General. And once he has ceased to believe this “black legend,” he might well end up asking himself (again, more indirectly than directly): if this was conscious mythomania, then what else in the Whig-Marxist world-view is also conscious mythomania? Can he trust Whigs and Marxists in their attempts to defend the totalitarian terror wielded by Henry VIII? By Elizabeth I? By Cromwell? By Titus Oates? By the Mexican Reds in the 1920s? By the Spanish Reds in the 1930s? Questions, questions.

The Bridge burst onto the bestseller lists at the very climax of Mexico’s anti-Catholic state gangsterism. Coincidence? Maybe, but the whole theme of The Bridge deals with whether we can rely on coincidence as an explanation for anything. Besides, the sheer size of Wilder’s public indicates the existence of a hitherto unsuspected readership for commentary on Latin America that was not mere recycled Ku Klux Klan canting. Such canting, of course, is precisely what Donald Trump and Ann Coulter peddle with obscene profits in our own time.

Not the least of The Bridge’s virtues is its usefulness in providing, so to speak, a crash course in Spanish art. To London’s Observer newspaper in 1955, Wilder boasted of having read—in, need one say, the original language—all 470 of Lope de Vega’s surviving plays. Even if Wilder had in fact merely read four of them in translation, he would still have been doing far better than most other 20th-century scribes, in America or England.

Flatteringly, Wilder assumes that readers of The Bridge will be conversant with a Spanish dramatist of the generation following Lope: Pedro Calderón, active in the first two-thirds of the 17th century. Several times Wilder’s plot hinges upon one of the 80-odd autos sacramentales—quasi-morality-plays—which Calderón produced. In these plays, too, Wilder expects us to take an intelligent interest. 

But possibly still more conspicuous, and less predictable from any author, is Wilder’s acquaintance with 16th-century church music. Clearly Wilder knew first-hand some of the liturgical masterpieces by Palestrina, by Tomás Luis de Victoria—“Vittoria,” as The Bridge, following 1920s Anglophone custom, spells his name—and by the much earlier Cristóbal de Morales. That Victoria attracted a widespread Peruvian following even in his own time is proven by a 1598 document which the late, great Los-Angeles-based scholar Robert M. Stevenson disclosed (and of which Wilder remained unaware), showing the composer to have been pursuing, via his agents in Seville, 900 reales owed to him for the sale of his compositions to the Lima market. In 1927 almost no music from Victoria, or indeed Palestrina and Morales, had been commercially recorded. Very little of it could be found on American concert programs. So it required fairly diligent library quarrying, or live exposure to Catholic liturgies at their most elaborate, for Wilder to have encountered this material.

What Wilder did not encounter, more’s the pity, was the repertoire of native church compositions from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries which we now have at our disposal. Before Stevenson began excavating this repertoire well after World War II, entire histories of sacred music had been written in complete disregard of it. Almost no phonographic libraries, however exhaustive, could be relied on to possess aural evidence of it. Such limited pre-1990s evidence as they did possess seldom won it friends. Occasionally a tea-and-scones Oxford-Cambridge ensemble would commit a little of it to disc, in the process invariably emasculating its sound.

Only in the last 20 years or so have recording labels (usually either somewhat offbeat British ones like Hyperion, or else Continental European labels much more obscure still to the average music-lover) covered the genre in enough detail, and with enough imaginative insight, to give us a comprehensive notion of what it could attain. The results are always striking and frequently marvelous.

We all too readily forget how quickly Spanish, and to a lesser extent Portuguese, rule in the Western Hemisphere produced lastingly impressive intellectual and wider cultural outcomes. The hemisphere’s oldest campus—yes, far older than any Ivy League college—is the University of Santo Domingo in what is now the Dominican Republic. It dates from 1538, a year before Mexico acquired the University of Michoacán.

As with academic development, so with musical development. As early as 1530 Mexico City’s cathedral had a choir which consisted entirely of Native American members, singing the kind of counterpoint which could then be heard at analogous establishments in Madrid or Seville, and doing so, apparently, with comparable aptitude. The same building boasted, from a slightly later time, two organs. (Not the two organs to be found there these days, which are different instruments, dating from the early 1700s and damaged in a 1967 fire, but restored to working condition as recently as 2014.) Lima Cathedral from 1572 had six singers and six instrumentalists on its payroll. An organ with 600 pipes arrived at Quito Cathedral in 1638. 

Latin America provided a consistent market for Spanish and Portuguese organ-builders, even when their homelands temporarily could not. Those features which make the Iberian Peninsula’s instruments distinctive—the squealing trumpet stops; the pedal department’s primitivism; and, conversely, the ingenious split-down-the-middle manuals which give a trompe-l’oreille effect of two different tone-colors sounding forth simultaneously from the same keyboard—flourished in the Western Hemisphere also. The same disparity between the amount of high-quality organ-playing which we know to have gone on then, and the amount of notated organ music which has been transmitted to us, marked Latin America as it marked Spain and Portugal, not to mention Italy and France. In all cases, the chief reason for the disparity is that most of the music was improvised. Notated organ works from these cultures often tend to be written-down improvisations, with an identifiable didactic purpose. This tiny, anonymous organ sonata, designed specifically to imitate trumpeting, is Mexican but could have been produced anywhere in the motherland.

Earliest of the Latin American musicians to warrant notice here is Hernando Franco (1532?-1585). Like nearly all such musicians until about 1700, Franco was in fact Spanish-born—a native of Extremadura, as many Spanish settlers for the first century or so of the empire tended to be—and he obtained his early training in his homeland, at Segovia Cathedral, before crossing the Atlantic. After a few Guatemalan years, he settled in Mexico City, where he served as the cathedral’s master of music (mestre de capilla, the Spanish phrase has it) from 1575 until shortly before his death. Much of his surviving output, apt to resemble Morales’s in its sobriety and freedom from virtuosic high-jinks, can be found in the city’s so-called Franco Codex, compiled in 1611. There we find, for example, this Magnificat setting by him.

By the time the Málaga-born Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (1590?-1664) became (1629) mestre de capilla at another Mexican cathedral, that of Puebla, the style of Giovanni Gabrieli and other Venetian masters had left its mark in the New World as well as in the Old. Consequently Padilla’s sacred output—the topic, by the way, of a doctoral dissertation submitted at the University of Southern California back in 1953, which almost counts as ancient history in terms of musicological research—tends to be simpler and more straightforward in its idiom than Franco’s, less contrapuntal, more chordal, as in the motet Deus in Adjutorium

Note the above rendition’s fairly lavish use of instruments. It cannot be stressed often enough that unaccompanied interpretation of this music (and of late-Renaissance sacred writing in general, whatever the composer’s ethnic background) was at the time merely one option available, and by no means the most widespread or desirable option. The widespread misconception that a cappella performance somehow represents the gold standard, and that instrumental backing in such material is innately illegitimate, gained no traction before around 1860. Stevenson expresses himself bluntly on the subject: “Instruments were always indispensable in both Spanish and Peruvian cathedrals to the performance of even such ostensibly a cappella polyphony as [Francisco] Guerrero’s Liber Vesperarum of 1584.”

With Francisco López Capillas, we have a composer Mexican by birth, who from 1654 until his death 20 years later—aged approximately 62—ran the music at Mexico City’s cathedral, having previously helped out Padilla in Puebla, not least as a player of the bajón. (A bajón was an early type of bassoon, but with a harsher and more penetrating sound than its modern descendant. Spanish-oriented church musicians found the bajón useful to reinforce otherwise weak bass lines.) López Capillas shared Padilla’s fondness for block harmony, as in this somber Eucharistic motet O admirabile sacramento:

But the two figures who perhaps most imperiously demand inclusion in even the briefest overview of the New World’s early sacred music are a long-lived Spanish-Peruvian and a short-lived Italian: the former being Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco (1644-1728), and the latter being Domenico Zipoli (1688-1726). To Torrejón, Castile-born yet based at Lima Cathedral from 1676 till his death, we owe the Western Hemisphere’s first opera, in any language: La Púrpura de la Rosa (1701), which can now be found in several different CD versions, and which Torrejón based on a Calderón play. More relevant to this article’s purposes is the funerary music which he composed the same year to honor the unfortunate King Carlos II. One chronicler, Joseph de Buendía, attended the première. “The [Lima] crowd was so vast that it seemed useless to hope for silence during the music,” Buendía assures us, “but the delicious harmony of voices, organs, and other instruments so captivated the ear that all noise gradually gave way to rapt attention.” In more joyful vein is the following Torrejón Magnificat, which, without any sacrifice of dignity, reveals the operatic composer on the job:

Unsurprisingly in view of this verve, Torrejón proved an enthusiastic and prolific provider of villancicos: sacred but non-liturgical, repeatedly dance-like, choral pieces, in Spanish (at times with dialect words thrown in), not Latin, and usually commissioned for major feast-days. The whole villancico genre drew from a good many composers, Spaniards as well as Latin Americans, some of their liveliest writing—the biggest villancicos became extended cantatas in everything but name—but by the late 18th century it had largely fallen into desuetude, being collateral damage from the 1767 expulsion of the Jesuits. 

Zipoli, in musical terms, started at the top (tuition from Alessandro Scarlatti, no less). He had already had at least two oratorios publicly performed before, in 1716, not yet 30, he joined the Society of Jesus. Most of his remaining days he spent in Córdoba, Argentina’s second-largest city; and there he died. Whilst time and chance have robbed us of numerous pieces which we know that Zipoli furnished, much of his keyboard output survives, as does San Ignacio de Loyola, a curious multi-composer opera devised specifically for the Jesuit reductions, to which Zipoli contributed several numbers. His eloquent, lyrical, and memorable Elevazione for organ inspired various chamber-orchestral arrangements, such as this one from the 1970s.

Whatever has caused the neglect into which Zipoli and the other musicians mentioned here have largely fallen, it is not, as will by now have become obvious, any lack of talent. One can only hope that, with Peter’s throne being occupied by a Latin American for the first time in history, and with the music itself being more easily accessible (not exclusively thanks to YouTube) than it has ever been before—or than Wilder could ever have conceived of it becoming—this corpus will at last acquire the international attention that it deserves.

FURTHER READING AND LISTENING: Indispensable in the production of this essay were Gérard Belhague, Music in Latin America: An Introduction (Eaglewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1979); Robert M. Stevenson, The Music of Peru: Aboriginal and Viceroyal Epochs (Washington DC: Pan American Union, 1960); and Robert M. Stevenson, Christmas Music from Baroque Mexico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974). Especially valuable were the following CDs: Masterpieces of Mexican Polyphony (Helios CDH 55317, 1990); Fire Burning in Snow (Hyperion CDA 67600); Moon, Sun, and All Things (Hyperion CDA 67524); and Música Barroca Mexicana, Vol. 1 (Quindecim QP008). The website, always valuable for public-domain sheet music, has a decent cross-section of relevant scores.

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About R.J. Stove 0 Articles
Australia’s R.J. Stove, organist and adult convert to Catholicism, is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).