By Sonia Narang
Click on the audio buttons to listen to music from the mission era, including the work of Domenico Zipoli. And listen to two contemporary compositions by Luis Szarán.
Famous for their music, Jesuit missionaries from Spain and Italy arrived in South America almost 400 years ago. Versed in the fine arts of Europe, they brought with them the classical baroque music and established missions across central South America, in areas that are part of modern-day Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil. These missions, known as reducciones, became home and refuge to thousands of Paraguay's Guarani Indians. The missionaries not only provided shelter but also taught the Guarani people to play European music and make their own instruments, including the cello, harp and violin. Each mission had a church, an orchestra, several artisans' shops, and schools of music and painting.
One of the most accomplished Jesuit composers to travel to South America, the Italian Domenico Zipoli composed music that was so popular that it spread throughout the continent. Even Europeans, including Pope Benedict XIV, took notice of the music flowing out of the colonial outposts of the new world. Trained in classical music in Florence, Naples and Rome, Zipoli sailed with the Jesuits and other missionaries from the Spanish port of Cadiz to Buenos Aires in 1717. Though Zipoli lived in South America for only the last 10 years of his life, his music quickly took hold in Bolivia, Paraguay and even Peru.
After the Spanish expelled the Jesuits in 1767, the baroque-style compositions all but disappeared. But in the 1970s, while restoring an old mission church in Bolivia, Hans Roth, a Jesuit architect from Switzerland, found 5,000 pages of original sheet music buried in the ruins. The find included music written by 17th- and 18th- century indigenous and European composers, including Zipoli. Roth dedicated his life to the renovation of mission churches in Bolivia's Chiquitos Province, better known as the Chiqutania, and in 1990, UNESCO designated six of them as World Heritage Sites.
After the rediscovery of this music, Luis Szarán, founder of Sonidos de la Tierra (Sounds of the Earth), initiated a revival of the mission music in his native Paraguay. As the founder of the Sonidos program, which provides music schools for the country's poorest children, and as conductor of Paraguay's Philharmonic Orchestra, Szarán spread the music of the missions among his country's least and most privileged citizens.
In Paraguay today, the ruins of seven of the original 30 Jesuit missions remain. Wall carvings of angels playing trumpets and harps adorn one of the most beautiful of the restored churches at the Santísima Trinidad mission in the Guayra region. Built in 1703, it's the largest of the missions in Paraguay. Szarán regularly holds nighttime concerts in the ruins, bringing the music back to life in the place where it was born.
The Academy Award-winning film The Mission brings the music of this era to life through a musical score by Italian composer Ennio Morricone. The movie, made in 1986, depicts the conflicts among the Guarani Indians, the Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Jesuit missionaries.