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Thu Nov 1, 2012, 04:29 AM

Bolivian treasure

Bolivian treasure
Peter Phillips 3 November 2012

Every so often in my line of business one reads heartwarming stories about manuscripts from the past turning up in unlikely places. The most favoured of these places over the years has probably been bricked-up chimney stacks in Tudor manor houses, where one supposes the terrified owners once thrust documents that would have incriminated them with the prevailing religious authorities. These documents might well have included music written for whichever Church was currently out of fashion; and so it is that pieces of music thought to be long lost have reappeared centuries later, both Protestant and Catholic. There is every chance that further discoveries will be made.

However, none of these western musical finds can match the sheer scope of what has been discovered recently in the Bolivian jungle. ‘Discovering the manuscripts in the Chiquitos and Moxos Missions, in the wild region of Santa Cruz, was a worldwide event,’ says Father Piotr Nawrot, a Jesuit priest who has been working with the Indians in Bolivia since 1991. And indeed the amount of music he has found there seems almost incredible: 5,500 pages in the old Jesuit mission of Chiquitos; and a further 4,000 pages in the Moxos mission, all of them written in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and amounting to over 80 polyphonic masses, operas, sonatas and other instrumental music, with some of the pieces incorporating texts in Indian languages. Fr Nawrot argues that the repertoire probably originated with European composers such as Bassani, Brentner and Zipoli, whose works are included, which were then used as models for teaching composition to the natives. The end result is that much of the music in these collections is of Indian composition in a western style.

The importance of Fr Nawrot’s research is that the prevailing view of what was achieved in the baroque period needs to be modified, since the standard of the writing as well as of the music-making itself was held to be so high that the Pope himself said that many European centres would do well to copy the achievements of the Jesuit missions in South America. The story of how music came to be of importance in these remote places is a particularly resonant one: it was thought that the best and most inspiring form of contact with the Indians would be to use music as an intermediary, if it was found that they had a natural aptitude for it. They did; and in time each mission built up full-time ensembles of 30 to 40 local people, instrumentalists as well as singers who, in communities of over 3,000 people, acquired a very special status. This vast repertoire built up around them.

In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from all the territories of the Spanish crown, which in South America led to the speedy abandonment of their missions: the shells of the surviving buildings are still dotted all over countries like Bolivia. The Indians, left to themselves, carried on the traditions they had acquired from the Spanish in secret, and it was only with considerable difficulty that Fr Nawrot, hoping that something would be left of the repertoires he knew had once existed, gained their confidence enough for them to show him what they had stored away. Their concern was that, if they allowed their most precious possessions out of their care, they would effectively cease to be Indian.


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