Marin Baroque Society celebrates music of Mission period in Latin America

By Francisco Valdez

Baltasar Jaime Martinez Compañón served as Bishop of Trujillo, Peru from 1779 to 1790 at Trujillo Cathedral. During his time in Peru, Bishop Martínez Compañón engaged in research of native customs and local music, architectural ruins and native plants and animals. He also taught the indigenous Peruvians how to make a living off of the land through farming. The bishop had a genuine interest in the people he encountered and with whom he shared the Gospel.

In order to make a study of Peru and its people, he explored the country for two years, eight months and eight days. During this time, the bishop gathered information that would later become the basis of his projects to establish new towns and schools.

Baltasar Jaime Martinez Compañón served as Bishop of Trujillo, Peru from 1779 to 1790.

When Martínez Compañón died in 1797, he left behind a codex of animals, plants and other artifacts. The codex also included an overview of the history and customs of the local people, including music. His work filled 24 boxes. Today, part of the collection is held at the Museo de América in Madrid, Spain, although the majority of it has been lost. He also sent to Spain a nine-volume set of watercolor images depicting the people, plants and animals of Trujillo. Drawn by local artisans, these 1,372 images are a unique example of vernacular natural history produced in the colonial context. The originals survive today in the library of the Royal Palace in Madrid.  

While Martínez Compañón is relatively unknown, the Marin Baroque Society brought the music he composed to life in a concert on Nov. 5 at Mission San Rafael Arcangel in San Rafael. Among other Baroque pieces of the Mission period, the concert highlighted the multicultural mixings of European melodies and harmonic structure combined with indigenous rhythms and melodies of traditional Latin American music, which is prevalent in the music of the Spanish missions. In addition, the concert included music from enslaved Africans in Latin America such as music by composer Juan de Araujo.

The Marin Baroque Society performs music from the missions at Mission San Rafael.

The Marin Baroque Society holds concerts regularly throughout the year, playing well known music while also performing lesser known music from the period.

“We have done both mainstream Baroque and Classical, but of course there is nothing mainstream about classical music,” said Daniel Canosa, music director and co-founder of the Marin Baroque Society. “We do music of composers that everybody knows like Handel and Bach, but once a year, we do programs of lesser-known music, like music of the Americas that is not commonly performed. We want to span on the repertoire of the American Baroque.”

When asked why he chose to incorporate the music of Martínez Compañón, Canosa said, “His music was sort of an early musicological enterprise. For two years, he wandered around the region listening to the music and what people were playing.”

Canosa explained that during the time that Martínez Compañón was alive, most the people of Peru had encountered and accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and at the same time, they still kept up some of practices of their original culture, which resulted in a rich heritage that is still authentically Catholic and prevalent in the music of the Mission period.

“There were also native elements that went into the music that they were performing,” said Canosa. “He took elements of what he was hearing and made his own compositions. It was not [only] the European traditions that went into the music but it incorporated the popular music of the native cultures. This music was played in Church, in homes and in public places.”

The indigenous Peruvians did not simply listen and enjoy the music. They also participated in it. “If you see the drawings of Martinez Compañón, you can see the native playing violins as well percussive instruments like the cajón,” noted Canosa. “They were playing native flutes as well as harps that were coming from Europe, so it is a mixture of cultures in the music.”

Canosa further explained that the bishop wrote only melodies and a few bass lines using the staff we use today. Using this as a starting point, Canosa recomposed the form for the concert, keeping the melody.

One of the most challenging and complicated pieces of music for the concert is Martinez Compañón’s Lanchas Para Baylar. He only wrote the melody and the bass line in his original manuscript. Daniel Canosa made the arrangement for the second violin, the chords for the guitar and the percussion that the ensemble actually played. In the original score, the rhythm changes from measure to measure, making the music difficult to play and changes to the composition challenging.

“The harmony that the cello and the guitar play accompany the melody,” said Canosa. “We made them up, but the melody is original, so it is not far off from the original sound. The research is fascinating. I am familiar with the music of the Americas, because I studied it when I was living in Argentina. The most challenging aspect was finishing the arrangements. We had four singers, two violins, a cello, guitar and two percussions.”

Martínez Compañón cared for his people despite not looking like them. He took the time to learn the culture of the indigenous people of Peru and did his best to educate them and spread the Gospel; not for his own gain, but to help the people under his care grow and spiritually and to support themselves. His music is rich and vibrant and is a window into the world of the early missions. One can get a feel for the sounds and music the people experienced as they went about life in the missions thanks to the excellent work and arrangements of the Marin Baroque Society.

“It was a joy to do this music,” said Canosa. “The rehearsals were fun, and the musicians loved it. They enjoyed the music because it was lively and deep at the same time. We thoroughly enjoyed the process.”

Francisco Valdez is a reporter for San Francisco Católico.