10-13 November 2005

Report by Calvert Johnson, Agnes Scott College (Decatur, Georgia)


In the mid 1980s a manuscript of organ music with a nun’s name on the cover was discovered in the archives of the Cathedral of Oaxaca, Mexico. This was the catalyst for a modern critical edition of what appears to be the earliest known Mexican organ music as well as a conference surrounding its publication by Wayne Leupold Editions. The manuscript, Cuaderno de Tonos de Maitines de Sor María Clara del Santísimo Sacramento, was found during the first comprehensive catalogue of all music manuscripts in the Cathedral Archive. The Institute of Historic Organs of Oaxaca took special interest in the manuscript because of its work documenting all known organs in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and invited me to prepare the edition for publication, and I asked musicologist Aurelio Tello to write an article as part of the preface based on his research on the role of music in Mexican colonial convents.

The manuscript consists of sets of versets for each of the eight Psalm tones, and there are multiple sets for the first and second tones. In addition, each Psalm tone is set to a figured bass so that the organist can accompany a singer or choir intoning the Psalm verses. Apparently the versets were intended to replace the antiphon after each group of Psalm verses. Because Matins requires as many as nine Psalms, each with its antiphon, these versets would have been played frequently at the daily office of Matins. Stylistically the versets reflect late eighteenth-century styles, including Alberti bass, balanced phrases, and thin texture typical of gallant and early Classic music. Due to the variety of handwritings found in the manuscript, it is certainly a compilation of manuscripts rather than the work of a single composer or copyist, and the nun’s name on the cover merely indicates that it belonged to her. Some of the versets may have been composed by her and other nuns, but probably most of the versets were provided by male composers, whether Mexican or Spanish. The modern edition faithfully follows the manuscript with its legible and modern notational practices. My own prefatory article discusses performance practice issues (use of the versets at Matins, organ specifications and registrations, ornamentation, tempo).

Cicely Winter, founder and director of the Oaxacan institute, organized a splendid conference that featured the publication, and set the manuscript in its historic and cultural context. Of particular interest were a number of papers devoted to the subject of the role of music in late colonial Mexican convents. Appropriately, most of the papers were given in the buildings of former convents in Oaxaca (almost all of which are public buildings today). These included the ex-convents of La Soledad (now the municipal government offices), San José (currently an art school), and Santa Catarina de Siena (now the luxury hotel El Camino Real). Other papers were given in the local cultural center, located in the ex-monastery of Santo Domingo, where a superb exhibit “Music and Feminine Spirituality” was on display in the Biblioteca Burgoa, including the manuscript of organ music of Sor María Clara as well as other well-chosen colonial documents. The exhibit was organized by María Isabel Grañen Porrúa, Director of this library. In addition, I led the group in a mini-Matins service (only two Psalms, one entirely sung with its antiphon and the other with organ in alternatim style) at the church of La Soledad, using the versets from the seventh tone from the Sor María Clara manuscript.

Peruvian musicologist Aurelio Tello spoke on “Nun composers and keyboard music in colonial New Spain [i.e. Mexico],” giving the names of numerous Mexican nun musicians who sang, directed convent music, or played instruments during worship services at their convents. He drew our attention to the fact that accomplished musicians were frequently admitted to an order without paying the usual dowry because they had an important skill that was needed by the convent, such as the ability to play the organ.

Spanish harpsichordist Luisa Morales discussed “Secular keyboard music from the archives of the Convent of San Pedro de las Dueñas, Castillo, Spain” noting that virtually none of this keyboard music was specified for use in worship, representing instead the typical stylistic types of Spanish sonata known in the eighteenth century, and noting the importance of secular music making in Spanish convents that she has studied.

American historian Anne Staples, who has lived and worked in Mexico City for many years, gave a very well written paper, “Daily life of nuns in Colonial Mexico.” She described the daily routine followed in cloistered convents, and discussed the differences among convents in Mexico City, particularly due to the social status of the women that each convent tended to attract. Some primarily admitted women from the wealthiest class (ethnically pure Spanish) who entered the order bringing her servants and living in well-appointed suites within the walls of the convent. She too noted that it was not uncommon for a woman from a lower social class, but who had a special skill such as playing the organ, to be admitted to these convents.

Mexican musicologist Nuria Salazar then spoke on “Music and choir in the Jesús María convent” of Mexico City, and Mexican musicologist Luis Lledías discussed “Organ and harpsichord music in the schools for girls in New Spain: a study of teaching methods and repertoire.”

Finally, Polish organist Ricardo Rodys shared his recent findings in the two weeks preceding the conference in searching the newly digitized municipal archives of births, marriages, and deaths. Thanks to this digitization, he seems to have identified María Clara, who—if his findings are correct—was the niece of the second organist at the Oaxaca Cathedral and cousin of several local organ builders. She entered the Conceptionist convent (which took over the former Jesuit monastery after the Jesuits were expelled from all Spanish territories in the early eighteenth century) as a grown woman in her thirties because of her skill as an organist. While it is unfortunate that the municipal archives digitization on CD-Rom was not available when the publication of the manuscript was in preparation, Mr. Rodys is in the process of writing an article on this biographical data for the IOHIO newsletter.

A number of concerts brought to life music from the conference, including selections from the newly published manuscript itself. The opening concert featured myself on Oaxaca Cathedral’s historic organ that was restored by American organbuilder Susan Tattershall. My program included three sets of versets from the manuscript (all three intended for the first Psalm tone), works by women composers (a hymn setting by Spanish nun Gracia Baptista from the mid-sixteenth century; a motet by Italian nun Catarina Assandra transcribed for organ from around 1600; a funeral dirge by English parish organist Miss Steemson from the late eighteenth century; an organ chorale prelude by Anna Amalia, Princess of Prussia, from the late eighteenth century; and a prelude and fugue, op. 16/3, by Clara Schumann from the mid nineteenth century—apparently contemporary with the actual María Clara!). Other works on the program were by late eighteenth-century Spanish composers José Larrañaga and José Lidón to demonstrate music contemporary with the versets in the manuscript, as well as the diverse styles found therein, including dance-like material. Several contemporary Mexican composers were on the program as well: José Bernal Jimenez and Ramón Noble (a setting of the popular dance La Bamba), and the encore was American jazz organist Shirley Scott’s Samba Felicidad with its quotation of the opening of “The Girl from Ipanema” melody.

Luisa Morales played a brilliant harpsichord recital of sonatas by Antonio Soler and Domenico Scarlatti in the cloister of Santo Domingo Cultural Center. During several sonatas written as boleros, she was joined by Spanish historic dancer Cristóbal Salvador, who garnered an enthusiastic fan base in Oaxaca during his brief visit to the city. Just as my recital underlined the importance of contemporary dances (the bamba and the samba) in contemporary music for organ, Ms. Morales’ program demonstrated that Scarlatti knew the bolero intimately, and his sonatas in bolero style precisely match the requisite dance steps without altering either harpsichord piece or dance.

An all-day excursion to rural areas in Oaxaca state provided the conference goers with the opportunity of seeing and hearing a number of historic organs, some restored and some not. Mexico City organist Roberto Oropeza played a recital at the ex-convent of Santo Domingo, Yanhuitlán (now a local cultural center and church), featuring early Spanish organ music and one set of versets from the Sor María Clara manuscript.

Mexican brother and sister organist Laura Carrasco and Baroque violinist Ludwig Carrasco provided the day’s closing concert at the beautifully maintained church of San Andrés, Zautla, featuring music from a manuscript found in the archives of Mexico City Cathedral as well as a set of versets on the second tone from the Sor María Clara manuscript.

The final concert of the festival presented sacred solo vocal music of the Renaissance and Baroque performed by Mexico City Conservatory organist José Suarez and Spanish baritone Josep Cabré using the beautifully restored historic organ at San Jerónimo, Tlacochahuaya. Their expressive music making resulted in an instantaneous standing ovation at the conclusion of the concert.

All in all, Cicely Winter must be congratulated for organizing a superb conference that brought together a number of scholars and musicians working in the area of colonial Mexican convents and early Spanish keyboard music. There was great camaraderie among the presenters and conference attendees, a relaxed pace, and wonderful local food. And no doubt there will be follow up work as a result of this conference.