Music in the American cathedrals
The very opulence of the American metropolitan cathedrals must be interpreted not only as an effort by the Catholic Church to show its religious and secular power to the new American societies but also as a political show of power and a symbol of the economic competition between the different cities of the American colonies. The tender for the construction of the most beautiful catholic temples in the New World was probably a phenomenon analogous to that already happened in the European capitals of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, when the aristocratic families that governed the different centres of power in Europe competed, among other things, also in the magnificence, richness and beauty of the cathedrals built in their domains.
In the first fifty years after Columbus' finding of the overseas territories, ten architectonical relevant Spanish cathedrals had already been built in Santo Domingo, Panama, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, and Ecuador.
The extraordinary flowering of the colonial Baroque style, with its hyper-decorative models where all the available space was filled with ornaments, is a clear testimony of an interest that transcended those strictly religious. The sumptuous and extensive decorations in pure gold of the Quito cathedral cannot be interpreted exclusively as an attempt to exalt the love for God, but also as a bold statement about the wealth and power of the new dominant classes.
But the splendour of the great houses of the Christian God in the New World could not be limited to the grandeur of architecture, the harmony of proportions, the nobility of materials or the sophisticated, hyperbolic exuberance of decorative elements. American cathedrals had to resound with heavenly music.
The incorporation of the “cultured” musical components into the liturgical system and, more generally, into the representative pomp of religious activities and ecclesiastical ceremonies, was not an immediate process. For a few decades, colonial cathedrals had to settle for a mixture of musical “intentions” of European origin and performances carried out by criollo apprentices, sometimes in a substantial measure. It was only thirty-five years after the Colombian “discovery” that the spiritual power of the colony — and probably also the temporal one — could justify the need and find the resources to contract trained clergy musicians from the mother country. Juan de Alcalá was, in 1530, the first official organist appointed in the American continent, where he served in the Mexico cathedral. In 1537, the maestro de capilla Juan Pérez Materano (?–1561) was appointed by the Spanish court to occupy the position of director of the choir of the cathedral of Mexico, the capital of the kingdom of Nueva España. Passing through Cartagena de las Indias along his itinerary, he was convinced by the Cabildo of the city to stay there as a musician. His place in Mexico was taken in 1538 by the precentor Cristobal de Pedraza, who travelled from Seville with eight priests to serve in the choir of the cathedral.2 As to Pérez Materano, after becoming a cleric and eventually, since 1554, dean of the metropolitan cathedral of Cartagena, he never left Nueva Granada, where he died in 1561.3 In 1554 he was the author of the Libro de canto de órgano y canto llano4 — probably the first theoretic book of music written in American soil —, to which a cedula regia5 granted a licence to be published in 1599.
2 Tess Knighton (ed.), Companion to Music in the Age of the Catholic Monarchs, Leiden: Brill, 2016, p. 350.
3 Juan Friede, “El primer libro colombiano,” Boletín Cultural y Bibliográfico vol. 4, no. 12 (1961), p. 1181.
4 Juan Pérez Materano, Libro de canto de órgano y canto llano (1554), Catedral de Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, cited in María Gembero-Ustárroz, “Pérez Materano, Juan”, Books of Hispanic Polyphony, ed. E. Ros-Fábregas, CSIC, Institució Milà i Fontanals, Barcelona.
5 "Real cédula otorgando a don Juan Pérez Materano, deán de la iglesia Catedral de la ciudad de Cartagena de Indias, el derecho exclusivo [...]". Valladolid August 11, 1557, Archivo General de Indias.