By Scott Cave, 2014-2015 Barbara S. Mosbacher Fellow
We seldom stop to gasp and wonder at the sheer amount of music that exists, much less the sheer amount that can be summoned with a few swift keystrokes in the search bar of a streaming service. Sites like Excavated Shellac make sure that even the oldest, scratchiest, rarest records are listenable to modern audiences. We can even hear the horrifying hell-screeches of the first talking dolls, should we need high-octane historical nightmare fuel.
This is largely a result of the fact that we live in a recording society, even though this period only began in the last century and a half or so. Before, music spread via sheet music or via the people who carried it from place to place, musicians professional and amateur. The music you hear was the music that was made near you, whether by you, your neighbors, or professionals.
Still, we know that societies before recording reverberated with the tolling of bells, the singing of work songs, the chants of Mass, and other musical forms. It can be hard to reconstruct that soundscape, but that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last few years, as I look at early colonial music in Latin America, specifically in indigenous villages and missions.
I’m not the first to have tried to do this, but its still a fairly understudied topic, and one that I find fascinates a lot of people I talk to. That search has sent me to some weird places.
I’ve looked at tattered Maya hymnals and musical textbooks at special collections libraries in Indiana, New Jersey, and Chicago. (The one in Indiana was wrapped in actual centuries-old deerskin, with the hair still on it!) I’ve looked at printed musical texts like the Nahuatl (aka Aztec) Psalmatia christiana. (You can see the fully digitized work here.) I’ve even found little one page songs in the back of indigenous-language textbooks on Christianity.
Frustratingly, because most Mexican and Central American music was accompanied by drums rather than other instruments, and because these drums were played by musical professionals who knew the rhythms beforehand, I have a lot of lyrics, but less music. We also know that a lot of sheet music was made, but that a lot of it was lost or thrown away as it got old. For secular music, I have even less. As boring as they can sometimes be, missionary dictionaries can help partially solve these problems. By approaching these things as lists of words a priest needed to know to live with his parishioners, we can combine the musical entries deemed important by the author and think about them as a series of facts on the musical landscape of an indigenous village. It is long, slow work that only feels rewarding in the long term.
Sometimes you get a fun surprise, though. I was looking at this amazing book called Rhetorica Cristiana by Diego Valadés. Valadés was a Mexican Franciscan friar who moved to Rome and put together a massive Latin treatise on the job of a preacher. I was interested in it because his wonderful engravings show that early missionary churches were actually huge open performance spaces, well-suited to singing, dancing, or whatever else a parish needed at the time. It was wrapped in the hard white cow skin cover that a lot of early Latin American books are, but this cover had come loose, and the scrap of paper that had been placed between the spine and the cover was showing through. I saw a few of the weird, squared-off notes of choral sheet music.
After asking very nicely, John Carter Brown Librarian Kim Nusco agreed to hold up the book so that the spine faced me, so I could see what it was. It was the sheet music for a Latin mass, either from Italy, where the book was made, or possibly from Mexico (if the book was re-bound). According to her, sheet music, either used or unsold, was often used as the layer between leather covers and sewn book spines in the 16th century.
I’m not going to damage all of the rare books I see to find out, but it does make me wonder how much more there is to find tucked away in the hidden nooks and crannies of libraries. These silent bits of music may be all around us, if only we know where to look.
First published in Scott Cave: Cinque Metri Più