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Music and the Religious Spirit in the New World

Throughout history, music has helped people express and disseminate their beliefs. European settlers in the New World brought their faiths with them and, with the aid of music, converted some of the indigenous population. As a result, many people of modern-day Mexico (colonized by the Spanish) and of northeastern Canada (settled by the French) are Roman Catholics.

Some of the most elaborate compositions written in the New World during this era were composed in Mexico. From the onset of the Spanish conquest in 1519, missionaries used music as "an indispensable aid in the process of conversion" to Catholicism, according to the first bishop of Mexico. As early as 1523, Amerindians were taught Gregorian chant, as well as the craft of instrument building; these arts soon spread throughout the country. A polyphonic style arose that infused the rich musical tradition of Spain with native elements in their Masses, hymns, psalm settings, and in a secular (and sometimes devotional) genre known as the villancico. Several types of Latin American folk songs sprang from this last type of music, and today the term often refers to a Christmas carol. In Puebla (a city just southeast of Mexico City), the Cathedral supported a large choir that performed polychoral music by its choirmaster Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c. 15901664), Mexico's most important Baroque composer. Eventually even some girls were afforded a musical education at convent schools not unlike the famous one where Antonio Vivaldi taught in Venice (see p. 190). Scholars today are still unraveling colonial Mexico's rich musical life, and performance ensembles are now bringing these musical treasures to modern audiences.

In comparison, the music of the early Protestant settlers on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and parts of coastal Canada was considerably simpler; their religious and social lives centered around the singing of psalms from the Old Testament. Although psalm books became increasingly available—imported from Europe and eventually published in the colonies—not everyone had one, nor were all colonists even literate. Hence, a singing style known as lining out came into practice, characterized by a slow, drawn-out tempo, with a leader chanting the text line by line before it was sung by the congregation. Some people embellished the tune, thus creating dissonant heterophony—two or more decorated versions of the melody sung simultaneously—a practice typical of many music cultures around the world.

The lining-out style eventually gave way to more sophisticated polyphonic settings of the psalms. The foremost American composer in this genre was the Boston music teacher William Billings (17461800), who is remembered today for his fuging tunes—polyphonic settings of psalms or hymns in an overlapping, imitative style (related to the fugue but not as strict in form). Billings's works were intended for use not in church services but as sacred or devotional music, performed in the singing schools that had sprung up in New England and in the maritime provinces of Canada.

Folklike devotional music was cultivated throughout the New World, in Mexico as noted above, and by African Americans and whites alike in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the form of dance tunes, spirituals, and gospel hymns (religious songs sung at revivals and prayer meetings). One of the most famous examples is the so—called Shaker hymn, a dance song entitled Simple Gifts ("'Tis the gift to be simple"), written in 1848 by a church elder of the nearly defunct Shaker religious sect.

Today, gospel—an eclectic style of Protestant African-American hymns popular in worship and entertainment—and Contemporary Christian music— a type of sacred country rock—have supplanted these traditional songs and expressions of faith with new sounds that appeal to the hearts and ears of modern listeners.

Terms to Note

villancico
heterophony
fuging tune
lining out
spiritual
gospel music

Suggested Listening

Fuging tune (William Billings)
CD iMusic Gospel hymn (Amazing Grace)
Sacred polyphony (Masses, hymns) from Mexico (Juan Gutiérrez da Padilla and others)
CD iMusic Shaker hymn (Simple Gifts)
Spiritual (African American or white)


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