Ever since grad school I’ve been interested in Latin American baroque music. I always jump at an opportunity to sing it, so I was excited when my friend Pablo Mahave-Veglia invited me back to Grand Valley State University in Michigan to perform Bolivian composer Estanislao Miguel Leyseca’s Miserere with faculty and students there.
Early European music from Central and South America is a hot topic in the musicology world these days — after all, there’s not much new classical music left to be discovered in the Old World, but scholars are busy digging up manuscripts from church and cathedral archives on this side of the pond, and creating new editions like this one.
The Leyseca Miserere is not actually baroque. It was written in 1781, and that date would place it in the Classical period. However, music from Latin America of that time is a fascinating mix of styles and periods. Because Spanish settlements in the New World were separated from Europe by so much time and space, there wasn’t the same concept of current fashion or of musical elements going out of style. Composers were free to draw on whatever influences and traditions they chose. In the Miserere there were grand choral movements reminiscent of Monteverdi’s great Vespers of 1610, solo movements that made me think of the Mozart C Minor Mass (written one year after Leyseca’s work) I was preparing at the same time, and a little of everything in between. It was wacky, but a lot of fun, kind of like A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas but for real.
I’m glad I attended the pre-concert lecture by Dr. Bernardo Illari, the musicologist who prepared our performing edition. He gave the context for the Miserere, which Leyseca (who immigrated to Bolivia from Sevilla, Spain) composed during a siege. While a group of the native Aymara people trapped the inhabitants of La Paz inside the city for six months, Leyseca wrote the Miserere as a musical show of strength and European dominance. I had never before thought of the political implications of Latin American classical music. Now I’m not sure what to think about this fascinating music, written and usually performed entirely by Europeans, to subjugate a native population whose land and power had already been stolen.
Dr. Illari’s lecture has given me something to ponder, and not just in the case of Latin American colonial music. Doesn’t so much music throughout the course of history have a political agenda? Performers can get away with ignoring this fact; musicologists can’t. Since I didn’t have all the answers in time for last Saturday’s performance, I decided to appreciate Leyseca’s Miserere for what it is musically — eclectic and charming — to have fun making music with good people, and to enjoy my time in the pretty city of Grand Rapids.