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Music from the Jesuit reductions in South America

Updated: Apr 9

The “Holy Experiment” viewed from the musical angle


On 5 April 1717 three ships leave the harbour of Cadiz, on board of one of them a small man “of average stature and with two liver spots on his left cheek”. Just before, the musician had been offered a post as chief musician in Seville, but he declined it in order to follow his calling. Instead, together with another 53, all – like him – members of the Order of the Jesuits, he sets off. We are talking of Domenico Zipoli, known here in Europe primarily through his “Sonate d’Intavolatura per Organo e Cembalo” of 1716 and a violin sonata in A major. During his time in Rome, around six years earlier, he had been the “sort-of composer in residence” of the Order of Santa Cecilia, for whom he composed several vespers and oratorios. His vocal works from Europe are now considered lost.

Córdoba, Argentina © Ulrike Schuckert

Three months later the group arrives at the Rio de la Plata in what today is Argentina, where the Jesuit brothers go ashore. By no means were these 54 missionaries the first to set foot on the South American continent; Jesuits had already been active in the “New World” since the 16th century, particularly as itinerant preachers. In the first decades of the 17th century the first reductions[1] were founded in what is now Brazil, where the Jesuits drew together the indigenous population, thus “protected” to some degree from being captured by others.


In this context it must be said that the Christian mission in South America – as in every other region of the world – has left behind traces and images of people of which nobody can be proud. The effects of the reductions can be viewed in very different ways. Range and consequences of missionising, colonising and suppression have been confronted in part, a process ongoing to this day, but it is a subject not to be discussed within the framework of this essay. It is most definitely not the intention of the author to glorify the (purported) “achievements” of the reductions and of Christian missionising in general. Rather, the aim is to identify the music that came to be in the reductions, and to outline the history of its effects.


Domenico Zipoli and his colleagues stayed in Buenos Aires for a few weeks and then, on ox carts, set off into the interior of the country. After more than 700 km (google maps states that, on foot, the journey would take about 160 hours) the group arrived in what today is the capital of the province, Córdoba. Today the town bears the nickname “La educada” or “La docta” – the educated one – doubtlessly because the Jesuits founded first the “Colégio Máximo” and, in 1613, the first Argentinian university which still exists as “Universidad Nacional de Córdoba”.


Ceiling of the main nave of the Cathedral of Córdoba, Argentina © Isabelle Métrope

After his arrival in Córdoba Zipoli studied at these two institutions for at least four years, while at the same time serving as organist and master of music at the Jesuit church in Córdoba. Several masses and numerous psalm settings for vespers on Saturday evenings originate from this period. The compositions are generally for 3-4 voices (SAT or SATB), one or two obbligato instruments and basso continuo. The choir parts are generally homophonic, with the masses including some imitative and polyphonic passages. Most of the psalm settings need soloists, sometimes just one soprano, sometimes several soloists.


The musical language matches the liturgical function. Though Zipoli was, in Europe, considered a skilled and virtuosic composer, the pieces that survive from the reductions (not just Zipoli’s works) are rather plain in their texture. We can assume that this music was not only part of religious services but also pursued educational aims, with displays of high standards of compositional technique being of only secondary importance. Nevertheless the pieces do not lack a certain elegance. In their simplicity they have great expressiveness, and a most cheerful basic mood permeates them in a way that would rarely be found in such a way in Europe. In this context about Pater Schmid, who will reappear later in this text:

“From an aesthetic, unilaterally European point of view, Schmid’s work may appear feeble.  But it is a remarkably good match to the function it was intended to fulfil, and it mirrors the utopian ideal of a Christian community free from conflict, which inspired many Jesuit missionaries”.[2]

As a means of proclamation and characteristic feature of Christian church services, music was of extreme importance within the concept of the Jesuit reductions. Not only the composition of liturgical pieces, but also the building of musical instruments and musical education formed part of everyday life in the reductions. In his letters back home to Switzerland, Pater Martin Schmid SJ describes everyday life in the Chiquitos reductions in what today is Bolivia:

“Alongside all these things already mentioned, my superiors have ordered me to do other things, too, namely, that I introduce music into these missions, also make organs and instruments, so that these Indians, with their music, might also praise their God and Lord. So I immediately started to instruct the Indians’ little boy toddlers and boys, who after all can read, in the art of singing and furthermore, I have built an array of musical instruments, though I myself never learnt to do that while in Europe, or even kidded myself that I had. [ … ] For all kinds of peoples have their organ: have many violins and double basses made of cedar wood [ … ] So all these Indian little boys are excellent musicians, who every day in Holy Masses, with their singing and musical instruments, deliver to our highest God the thanks and praise He is owed. And I can say that with their music, they would be able to appear in any town and church and cause great amazement. [ … ]”[3] [translator’s note: the original is in 300-year-old Swiss German; it is represented here in British English from 2024]

In the last 30 years, some music from the reductions has already found its way to Europe, largely through personal contacts to South America. European publishers have so far brought out little or nothing. A large share in the opening up of works from the Chiquitos and Moxos is owed to Piotr Nawrot SJ who, within the framework of his doctoral dissertation, has investigated manuscripts and copies from the reductions and edited them to make them accessible. It is difficult to get hold of this music, much is out of print or was published in very small print runs by small publishing houses which all too often disappear under the radar of choir directors. The hope remains that a European publisher does take up these pieces. When the Covid pandemic was at its peak, for many events they offered a good way to make beautiful music in a short time and with small, variable numbers at one’s disposal.


As a schoolboy, Nikolai Ott spent a year in Argentina, where he came in contact with the south American baroque music tradition. Since 2019 he has been a church musician in the Tübingen area, active in the Swabian Choir Association. He is also a member of the board of the incorporated Society for Music History in the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg.



Translated from German by Irene Auerbach, UK

[1] Jesuit reductions are a technical term for villages built in South America between the 16th and 18th centuries for the common good of the local population – with echoes of today's kibbutzim in Israel – and at the same time as protection from colonial troops who were eager to capture locals and sell them into slavery. More information on this fascinating subject can be found at [addendum made by the editors]. 

[2] Waisman, Leonardo: “Ich bin Missionar, weil ich singe, spiele und tanze”.  Martin Schmidt als Musiker.  In: Kühne, Eckart: Martin Schmidt 1694-1772.  Missionar - Musiker - Architekt.  Ein Jesuit aus der Schweiz bei den Chiquitano-Indianern in Bolivien.  Luzern, 1994, p 60. 

[3] Fischer, Rainald: P. Martin Schmid SJ 1694-1772.  Seine Briefe und sein Wirken.  Zug, 1988. p 103 f.

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