Church ensembles of Spaniards across the Spanish Empire regularly impersonated African and other non-Castilian characters in the villancicos they performed in the Christmas Matins liturgy. Although some scholars and performers still mistakenly assume that ethnic villancicos preserve authentic Black or Native voices, and others have critiqued them as Spaniards’ racist caricatures, there have been few studies of the actual music or of specific local contexts. This article analyzes Al establo más dichoso (At the happiest stable), an ensaladilla composed by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla for Christmas 1652 at Puebla Cathedral. In this performance his ensemble impersonated an array of characters coming to Christ’s mangers, including Indian farm laborers and African slaves. The composer uses rhythm to differentiate the speech and movement of each group, and at the climax he even has the Angolans and the angels sing together—but in different meters. Based on the first edition of this music, the article interprets this villancico within the social and theological context of colonial Puebla and its new cathedral, consecrated in 1649. I argue that through this music, members of the Spanish elite performed their own vision of a hierarchical and harmonious society. Gutiérrez de Padilla was himself both a priest and a slaveholder, and his music elevates its characters in certain ways while paradoxically also mocking them and reinforcing their lowly status. Building on Paul Ricoeur’s concept of the “three worlds of the text,” the article compares the representations imagined within the musical performance with archival evidence for the social history of the people represented and the composer’s own relationships with them (the world behind the text). Looking to the world projected “in front of” the text, I argue that these caricatured representations both reflected and shaped Spaniards’ attitudes toward their subjects in ways that actively affected the people represented. At the same time, I argue that Spanish representations mirrored practices of impersonation among Native American and African communities, especially the Christmastide Black Kings festivals, pointing to a more complex and contradictory vision of colonial society than what we can see from the slaveholder’s musical fantasy alone.
Imitating Africans, Listening for Angels: A Slaveholder’s Fantasy of Social Harmony in an “Ethnic Villancico” from Colonial Puebla (1652)
Andrew A. Cashner, PhD (2015, University of Chicago), is assistant professor of music at the University of Rochester. Winner of the 2015 AMS Alfred Einstein Award, he is the author of Hearing Faith: Music as Theology in the Spanish Empire (Leiden: Brill, 2020) and the editor of two volumes of Villancicos about Music from Seventeenth-Century Spain and New Spain (Web Library of Seventeenth-Century Music no. 34, 2017, and no. 36, 2021).
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Andrew A. Cashner; Imitating Africans, Listening for Angels: A Slaveholder’s Fantasy of Social Harmony in an “Ethnic Villancico” from Colonial Puebla (1652). Journal of Musicology 1 April 2021; 38 (2): 141–182. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jm.2021.38.2.141
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