Music as Instrument: European Narratives of 'Missionization Through Music' in Early Modern Latin America

How should it not seem odd to a European / how these black half-naked barbarians so artfully sing the Latin church songs/and play their instruments in a village so delightfully/ that people would listen to them with pleasure in many European cities?
 Ernst Steigmiller, from Santa Fe di Bogotta, 1724

The above-cited lines from a letter written by a Jesuit missionary in the area of present-day Columbia speak volumes: although the indigenous population consists of “barbarians,” and indeed are “black” and “half-naked,” they nevertheless sing the Latin church songs “artfully” and “play their instruments … so delightfully” that many Europeans “would listen to them with pleasure.” Many topoi are here brought together—the condescending, exoticizing manner of speaking about these converted people, the astonishment at their musical gifts, the already realized total transfer of European church music into their sphere, and the implicit negation of a non-Christian, pre-Hispanic music together with the certainty that all of this would excite great interest in Europe.

As is clear from the citation, the concept of ‘missionization through music’ was already everyday reality in (regionally narrowly delimited areas of) early eighteenth century Latin America. But how did this come about and what were the consequences? In line with these questions, my research project focuses on both the process through which, between 1523 and 1767, Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries established European music and sounds in Latin America and on the ways in which the above-described narrative unfolded as a result of that process. I here pay close attention to these Early Modern missionaries’ writing on music—one’s own music and that of the others—in letters, reports, and chronicles. For the Jesuits and Franciscans were not only agents of missionary practice who availed themselves in situ of the sensory perceptibility and usefulness of sounds; they were also the authors of the most important documents on ‘missionization through music’. There are very few indigenous sources left.

For this project, development of categories both informed by post-colonial theory and rooted in the European thinking of the time is called for—the problems in play here are first and foremost European problems: what is the connection between music and “civilization,” how did music function in this period as an instrument for education and personal formation, and how is this tied to the goal of missionizing indigenous peoples?  And to what extent were the authors of texts that in the end condensed into an (above all) Jesuit narrative of ‘missionization through music’ initiators of ethnographic, exotistic, and utopian concepts that continue to make their mark today?

In this way, my project is meant to illuminate a range of problems from many musicological areas, as well as from historical anthropology and both colonial and religious history.