Mexico City III and Vatican II

Author: Duane Galles

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 4, Winter 1990


Four hundred years ago in 1585, the bishops of Mexico celebrated the third provincial council of Mexico City. The church in Mexico was very young then. In 1521, Cortez conquered Mexico, and by 1530 Spanish colonization had reached such a pace that the Diocese of Mexico City was erected. The young Mexican church grew rapidly and in 1546 the Diocese of Mexico was detached from the Province of Seville, Spain, and erected into an independent ecclesiastical province with suffragan sees.

These institutional developments mark off the rapid maturation of the Church in that mission land. But one could also chart the progress of that church by reference to the decrees on sacred music pronounced at the third provincial council of Mexico City. These decrees suggest a state of church music very highly developed indeed. In 1523, Frey Pedro de Gante arrived in Mexico as the first teacher of western music. He established a school in which to teach the Axtecs plainchant and polyphony. The progress of Mexican music was such that the council's music decrees sixty years later marked the commencement of a golden age of church music which astonishes even today. Guided by this wise canonical legislation, the Church in Mexico enjoyed a century of musical excellence. Moreover, the 1585 legislation of Mexico City III council bears interesting comparison with that of the Vatican II council.

Music is integral to the solemn liturgy and the Mexican legislation was calculated to produce excellence in both. No one was to be admitted to the ranks of the clergy unless he possessed the rudiments of plainchant, which in Mexico meant Mozarabic, not Gregorian, chant. Clerics, furthermore, were not to be promoted to major orders (i.e., ordained subdeacon) unless they had become skilled in plainchant. Moreover, the Mexican Church was by law dedicated to the cultivation of the treasury of sacred music. Sacred polyphony was not only permitted, but it was to be fostered. For Easter, particular law required its use. Chapelmasters who taught polyphony were forbidden to teach at the same hour that the succentor (the sub-chanter or precentor's assistant) was teaching plainchant. At lauds or morning prayer the verses of the "Benedictus" were to be sung, as in Spain, alternately in polyphony and plainchant. Thus, polyphony and plainchant were regarded not only as distinct but as complementary musical forms suited to the temple, and legal provisions were made for both. Moreover, to ensure that the treasury of sacred music was cultivated, chapelmasters who excelled in composition as well as performance were forbidden to restrict their choirs merely to their own compositions.

This legislation sounds excellent, but was it put into effect? History says it was. The literary evidence sings the praises of the church music of baroque Mexico. In 1568, the inspector of the Council of the Indies, the board that governed the colonial empire of Spain, reported that even the merest hamlet with a resident clergyman had two choirs of fifteen members each which in alternate weeks sang Mass and vespers daily. Churches in larger centers had quite magnificent musical establishments. When the Cathedral of Puebla was consecrated in 1649, there was a fortnight of sacred music to mark the event. It was attended by some 1200 clergy from as far away as Manila. The music rivaled, as it was intended to do, the brilliant music composed by Orazio Benevoli for the consecration of the Salzburg cathedral in 1628. During his forty years as chapelmaster of the Puebla cathedral, Juan Gurierrez de Padilla saw to it that polyphony was performed every Sunday at Mass. In 1589, the library of the Mexico City cathedral included the musical works of Palestrina, Victoria, Morales, Guerrero and Orlando di Lasso, indicating that the treasury of sacred music was indeed cultivated there and not only the new music of the chapelmaster was performed.

Looking to the bottom line, the Mexican Church fortified its legislation with appropriations. The annual musical budget of the Puebla cathedral was 14,000 pesos, enough to support in solid, middle-class comfort about thirty families. The music budget of the Mexico City cathedral was 5,000 pesos. With such robust support for music, the Church in Mexico not surprisingly attracted first-rate musical talent. Several observers attest that Mexican church music was on a par with that of European cathedrals. A vast quantity of church music was composed in Mexico and some of this has recently been rescued from manuscript archives, published, and pronounced splendid. But the dedication to church music was no mere urban fancy.

Even northwestern frontier mining towns in Sinaloa and Sinora had good music. In 1715, the bishop of Durango visited the remote Jesuit mission of San Francisco de Satebo on the feast of Saint Ignatius. He was astonished and delight to discover that its Indian choristers could render a polyphonic pontifical solemn high Mass with aplomb to the accompaniment of bassoon, viola, clarinet, harp and organ. Many similar stories could be added but enough has been said to show that the music legislation of the third provincial council of Mexico City was in fact put into effect. It remains but to show its similarities with the legislation of Vatican II.

Like the Mexico City Council, the Vatican Council had high praises for sacred music. It declared in its constitution on the liturgy, "Sacrosanctum concilium," that music is "necessary or integral" to the solemn liturgy and added that liturgy has "a more noble form" when celebrated solemnly with song (art. 112-113). It declared that church musicians exercise a genuine liturgical role (art. 29). Thus, it ordered that the treasure of sacred music be cultivated and preserved with superlative care (art. 114) and that choirs be assiduously developed, especially in major churches like cathedrals, basilicas, and monastic churches. Gregorian chant was to be given pride of place and sacred polyphony was by no means to be disdained (art. 116). The clergy, too, were to be trained in music, for seminaries and houses of formation were ordered to give "great importance to the teaching of church music." Looking to the bottom line, the council elsewhere in "Gaudium et spes," (art. 67), spoke of the need to pay a just wage to those employed so as to provide a dignified livelihood. That would have included adequate compensation for church musicians.

One is struck by the parallels between the music legislation of Mexico City III and Vatican II. The 1585 Mexican legislation shepherded in a golden age in church music. It expressed in legal language the dedication of a Church--the clergy and laity alike--to the cultivation of good sacred music. That the Mexican decrees were so strikingly successful gives one hope that the similar Vatican II decrees will some day bear fruit.