Magazine article The Spectator

Bolivian Treasure

Magazine article The Spectator

Bolivian Treasure

Article excerpt

Every so often in my line of business one reads heartwarming stories about manuscripts from the past turning up in unlikely places. The most favoured of these places over the years has probably been brickedup chimney stacks in Tudor manor houses, where one supposes the terrified owners once thrust documents that would have incriminated them with the prevailing religious authorities. These documents might well have included music written for whichever Church was currently out of fashion; and so it is that pieces of music thought to be long lost have reappeared centuries later, both Protestant and Catholic. There is every chance that further discoveries will be made.

Other places have included municipal and monastic libraries. The opening-up of the former Soviet libraries in the early 1990s provided a major opportunity, not least because many of them had scarcely been catalogued, though in fact some of the best discoveries have been in our own expertly catalogued collections, where unwanted material was found to have been used as binding in the spines of volumes dedicated to quite other subjects. It is an almost completely random business guessing which volumes might carry such treasures in this way, and the task of teasing them out of their rigid leather and metal graves a delicate one, as Donald Greig has so graphically described in his novel Time Will Tell. But the potential of what may yet turn up is almost limitless.

However, none of these western musical finds can match the sheer scope of what has been discovered recently in the Bolivian jungle. 'Discovering the manuscripts in the Chiquitos and Moxos Missions, in the wild region of Santa Cruz, was a worldwide event, ' says Father Piotr Nawrot, a Jesuit priest who has been working with the Indians in Bolivia since 1991. And indeed the amount of music he has found there seems almost incredible:

5,500 pages in the old Jesuit mission of Chiquitos; and a further 4,000 pages in the Moxos mission, all of them written in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and amounting to over 80 polyphonic masses, operas, sonatas and other instrumental music, with some of the pieces incorporating texts in Indian languages. Fr Nawrot argues that the repertoire probably originated with European composers such as Bassani, Brentner and Zipoli, whose works are included, which were then used as models for teaching composition to the natives. …

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