In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Music in Colonial Hispanic America

  • Introduction
  • Comprehensive Histories
  • Reference Works: Dictionaries and Bibliographies
  • Cities
  • Encounter and Negotiation
  • Periods and Styles
  • Iconography
  • Performance Practice in the Early Twenty-First Century
  • Historiography and Musicological Practices

Music Music in Colonial Hispanic America
Leonardo Waisman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0316


The American territories gradually occupied by Spain since 1492 were maintained under the Crown’s dominion until its overthrow: this happened in most of the territories in the early nineteenth century (1809–1825), but in Cuba and Puerto Rico, colonization lasted until 1898. The period covered is, accordingly, longer in those islands. “Colonial” is legally a misnomer, since the American lands were referred to as “kingdoms”; the word is retained here (and in general usage) in reference to the dominion exerted by an extra-continental power. Musics practiced in this extended and varied geography were multiple. Each native culture had its own musical-cultural system, with huge differences between them, from the stately monumental practices of the large empires (Mexica/Aztec, Inca) to the ceremonial chants of hunters in the Amazonian forests. These are not covered in the present article, which deals with the colonizers and the Native-Spaniard interface. Musicological studies have tended to divide musical activity into two sets: music of Spaniards and music of the Indians (the terminology of the times is usually retained, so as to avoid euphemisms). Within the former, the privileged space for scholars has been the cathedral, with a secondary (and later) interest in convents, monasteries, and confraternities, and a sideline concerning secular, mostly instrumental, music in courts and homes. The latter includes Indian parishes and in particular the settlements—called reducciones—administered by the Society of Jesus. The bibliography is extremely dispersed, with a large percentage in Spanish and much of it in journals that are difficult to access. Musicological inquiry into colonial Hispanic America began rather late and only acquired some momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. This meant that the basic spadework of finding and organizing sources became the main task for the pioneers. Of these, two must be pointed out as fundamental for the development of the field: Robert M. Stevenson, who published hundreds of articles, mostly dealing with the history of cathedral music, and Francisco Curt Lange, whose research was focused on present-day Argentina and Brazil. The present resource tries to balance a selection that includes “the best writing” on the subject with the aim of presenting the user with some of the salient issues, perspectives, and methods developed by researchers, while not neglecting the texts that may serve as introductions to each subject area.

Comprehensive Histories

The only large-scale scholarly narratives are fairly recent: Mendoza de Arce 2001 and Waisman 2019. Claro Valdés 1970, Béhague 1979, and Stevenson 2020 are summaries grounded on the positivist interests of early research in the field. Presentations aimed at a general readership of mostly Early Music fans are Albino 2016 and Pacquier 1996.

  • Albino, Ramiro. Música colonial hispanoamericana. Mendoza, Argentina: Self-published, 2016.

    Published by crowdfunding, the volume may be of difficult availability. Written in a popular style by a practitioner of the repertoire, with a heavy emphasis on Jesuit mission music.

  • Béhague, Gérard. Music in Latin America: An Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

    Nearly 100 pages are on the colonial period. Influential as an early account, the presentation is organized by countries and centers, mostly cathedrals, and emphasizes composers and works.

  • Claro Valdés, Samuel. “La música virreinal en el nuevo mundo.” Revista Musical Chilena 24.110 (1970): 7–31.

    The earliest summary of the topic, with several musical examples, it seeks to extol the musical values of the repertoire. Organized by country and region, it displays a Hispanophile attitude.

  • Mendoza de Arce, Daniel. Music in Ibero-America to 1850: A Historical Survey. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001.

    Ample narrative attempting to embrace the whole field, including Portuguese America. The abundance of data is offset by a lack of critical evaluation of the sources employed and by the presence of unwarranted, sometimes contradictory, generalizations. The best sections are those that deal with cathedral music.

  • Pacquier, Alain. Les Chemins du baroque dans le Nouveau Monde. Paris: Éditions Fayard, 1996.

    A series of separate journalistic articles, coordinated for a book with no pretensions to integrality. Each chapter focuses on one of the repertoires performed in projects produced by the author: New Spain 1523–1572, Puebla in the mid-seventeenth century, Jesuit missions of Paraguay, and Charcas and Lima around 1700. Accuracy of detail is not always guaranteed.

  • Stevenson, Robert M. “Music in the American Viceroyalties.” In Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Encyclopedic History. Vol. 3, Source Readings in Music History: Latin America. Edited by Malena Kuss. Digital Monograph Press, 2020.

    A chronological survey centered on composers and intent on celebrating their prowess. It includes complete compositions as musical examples and a discography of early recordings. It is a revised and expanded version of Stevenson’s “The Music of Colonial Spanish America,” in The Cambridge History of Latin America, Vol. 2, edited by Leslie Bethell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 771–798.

  • Waisman, Leonardo J. Una historia de la música colonial hispanoamericana. Buenos Aires: Gourmet Musical Ediciones, 2019.

    An attempt to coordinate three different approaches for the three successive centuries: conflict between the Spanish project and local resistance for the sixteenth century; musical analysis of villancicos for the seventeenth; and modernization of styles and practices for the eighteenth. Separate attention is devoted to music in Indian townships and parishes, with emphasis on the Jesuit missions. The text also provides abundant information about cathedral chapels, including their funding and organization.

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