Music with a mission

White-robed Chiquitano children glide across a dais at the front of the church. Behind them is the ornate altar of San Ignacio de Velasco, carved in 1748 by their ancestors under the guidance of Jesuit missionaries. They sing the opera San Ignacio, composed by a member of the neighbouring Moxos tribe not long after their church was built. It is an elaborate work, firmly in the style of Italian high baroque, and they sing with pure intonation and absolute certainty.

At the 9th international festival of Renaissance and Baroque music in Bolivia, time and geography seem strangely fluid. This is state-of-the-art baroque music, composed by indigenous Bolivians for 18th-century reducciones, democratic settlements established by Jesuits where music played a vital role in daily life.

To reach San Ignacio, members of our group have flown via Madrid and Buenos Aires to Santa Cruz, then travelled by minibus over increasingly corrugated dirt roads for almost an entire day. In the humid plains of Bolivia’s Santa Gran Chiquitania, vegetation seems to creep in on buildings as you watch, and history co-exists with the present in slow-moving central squares and dense jungles. St Ignacio and St Francis wrestle with the Devil in a drama played out by almost 200 local youngsters in rituals that seem both as incongruous and as utterly at home now as they must have done two and a half centuries ago.

In his encyclical of 1741, Pope Benedict XIV wrote that the music of the South American missions was so beautiful that European cathedrals should seek inspiration there.

“When you first read this text, you think that the Pope must have written it after his second glass of wine,” says Piotr Navrot, the festival’s artistic director. “But when you go to the archives, you discover that he was very well informed.”

A reduccion housed between 2,000 and 4,000 people, and was constructed around a central church built by locals under Jesuit guidance. In stark contrast to the conquistadors, the Jesuits built societies where locals had a strong political voice, owned their own land and kept most of their profits. They learnt a range of skills and crafts and were able to defend themselves against both the Portuguese-driven slave trade and violent neighbours.

“When the first missionary came to the Chiquitos, he brought six indigenous musicians with him,” Navrot explains. “We sometimes imagine that colonisation and evangelisation were the same thing. But that’s not true. Of course sometimes there was abuse, and sometimes they came with the cross and the sword. I don’t deny that, but it wasn’t always like that. More often they came with the cross and the violin.”

The Chiquitanos were a musical people, and the Jesuits’ violins were a major lure in their decision to join the reducciones. Swiss Jesuit Martin Schmidt was a key figure in 18th-century Bolivia, designing and building churches, altars and organs for the Chiquitano region until papal decree expelled the Jesuits from the continent in 1767. By that time, a rich musical tradition had been established.

Each church employed 40 professional musicians who performed every day. Musicians enjoyed high social standing and were exempt from paying taxes. Under the guidance of an indigenous maestro di capella, local composers created motets, cantatas, operas and a wide range of other musical works for their communities, influenced by Italian and south German baroque music but often in their own language, with a distinctively local flair.

“The Pope was probably right,” reflects Navrot. “The splendour of the liturgy would have been greater than in most European capitals. The Europeans would not have been able to afford 40 professional musicians. Even in the Spanish towns in America they would only have employed about six musicians.”

When the Jesuits left Bolivia, the churches and their orchestras began a gradual decline that continued until the 1970s. Then the Swiss architect Hans Roth (1934-99) began reconstruction work on the Bolivian churches, assisted by the Franciscans. As he worked on the buildings, increasing amounts of musical evidence surfaced.

Navrot, a Polish Jesuit musicologist, heard about the manuscripts as he was preparing to begin his doctorate in Washington, and resolved to make them his life’s work. He moved to Bolivia, where he found that more than 12,000 pages of Bolivian baroque compositions had been preserved. Old instruments were kept alongside the scores in many of the churches, and older community members still played in an inherited style of traditional baroque.

“Even in the 1960s, the Chiquitos would still play a part of this repertoire. And in the neighbouring area of Moxos, they copy sacred music by hand, even today. This is the only place on earth, I believe, that baroque music exists not just in the past, but also in the present.”

In 1990, six of the Chiquitano missions were granted Unesco world heritage status. This was the springboard that Bolivians need for the foundation of their Renaissance Baroque Festival. Navrot assisted a local team to establish the first Festival in 1996. Since then, the event has grown steadily. Every two years, local and international musicians come together to present a substantial concert series in some 14 churches throughout the region over a 10-day period. Education plays a vital role. Some 3,000 local children, most of them in the missions, now play musical instruments, with Bolivian baroque repertoire as a core part of their musical training.

“The village of Urubichá only got electricity in 2010, but one in four people there can read music and play an instrument,” Navrot says. “Kids go to play soccer and take their violins along; during the break, they’ll play a baroque sonata. In this way they know their own culture. That is only one example. We believe that if you know where you came from, you can find your present and build a better future.”

While we are at the festival, which begins at the end of April, striking miners and health workers close the bridge over the Rio Grande. Our bus is obliged to take a huge detour, and we cross the vast, muddy river on log ferries that look as if they are millimetres from capsizing. Transport, both by land and air, is a perennial problem.

“It has been a challenge,” admits Navrot. “Two years ago we also had strikes. We sent someone from our team and promised to give them a concert; so they opened the bridge for us. Miracles happen here, but we have to keep cool, I tell you! When you see the churches, and you feel the calm of the locals, you feel part of the festival family. It is strong. People here are convinced that this is of great value, and they will continue.”

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