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Bolivian Baroque

Bolivian singers in a baroque choir singing during a performance
Repertoire from the time of the Jesuit occupation of Bolivia is being brought to light through performance-based education and research into the country’s Baroque musical heritage, supported by the RCM’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

Bolivan Baroque is a research, education and performance project which aims to revive and develop performances of repertoire from the Jesuit mission church archives of the Chiquitos and Moxos Indians. Chair and Head of Historical Performance Ashley Solomon has been collaborating on the project since 2002 with Polish Jesuit Divine Word missionary and musicologist Dr Piotr Nawrot, and the Association Pro Arte Y Cultura (APAC).

The Jesuits founded ten missions deep in the Bolivian jungle from their arrival in the 1670s, finding an indigenous people who were keen to learn and make music. Each mission collected music for its worship, including masses and motets as well as instrumental and keyboard compositions.  In Moxos, south central Bolivia the mission collected over 7,500 manuscripts, whilst in eastern Bolivia the Concepcion mission held twice as many - 10,000 manuscripts. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Bolivia and over the following years the Missions closed and their music libraries became ‘time capsules’ of 17th and 18th century music.  Some of this music was written in (and brought from) Europe, but it mainly comprised anonymous compositions written by the locals.  

Fifty years ago this music was considered lost. However the rediscovery of manuscripts in recent years has helped to change our awareness and knowledge of what was written in the Missions during the Jesuit occupation, namely that 17th and 18th century reports about the performing and compositional skills of the Indians have not been exaggerated.

In 2018 the Bolivian Baroque project team uncovered texts composed in the indigenous Guarani language by the local Indian population. This discovery overturned the assumption that all musical compositions and productions were written in either Spanish or Latin to support the Jesuit’s evangelisation of communities. Uncovering the indigenous texts has given a new impetus to the project, helping to further explain how these remote communities kept their cultural identity intact during and after the expulsion of the Jesuits.

In April 2020 Ashley Solomon will lead a series of masterclasses, lectures and collaborative sessions alongside RCM Historical Performance students in Bolivia to continue helping the local community interpret this unique repertoire. The project team are also developing an education programme to enable graduates to return to Bolivia as professional teachers and musicians.

Future plans include taking these productions outside Bolivia for the first time so that global musical communities can share their remarkable discovery. Talented musicians from Guarani and Spanish-speaking backgrounds will be brought together to participate in national and international performances of the music, leading to performances and commercial recordings of newly discovered music in mission churches in Bolivia and concerts in the UK.  Performing editions of the manuscripts will also be made available for the global musical community.

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Supported by

RCM Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF)