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Reviving a musical tradition

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Jesuits came to the New World as missionaries and established settlements where they taught the indigenous people and converted them to Catholicism. In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from the new territory, and most of their missions were completely abandoned. However, in the small region of the Chiquitos in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, the people continued to teach and play the music, carrying on the Jesuit tradition.

After about  100 years, the tradition slowly began to fade. In 1985, Hans Roth, a Swiss architect, traveled to Bolivia to restore the churches and happened upon these musical manuscripts. Now, Gustavo Leone, PhD, professor of music, has spent the past several years traveling to Bolivia to retrieve and restore these manuscripts to give life back to this music.

“The Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos are unique because these are settlements that remain largely in tact, allowing this area to become one of the last surviving settlements in Bolivia,” says Leone. “The fact that the culture was stopped by the expulsion of the Jesuits and remained encapsulated and alive in the generations of indigenous people is amazing.”

Leone first went to Bolivia in 2010 to begin his research. He returned to Bolivia in 2012 to find more manuscripts to continue his project and find more music to revive. While there, Leone combed through the catalogues to select the pieces he wanted to restore. Then he took pictures of each page to bring back to the United States, as the actual manuscripts had to remain in Bolivia.

Looking at the deteriorated manuscripts, Leone had to fill in missing parts by looking at stylistic patterns and musical repetitions while still honoring the authenticity of the piece.

“The hardest part [of restoring the manuscripts] was respecting the stylistic simplicity of the music because the music, like any student, was still developing,” Leone says. “These were students of the Jesuits, and not even the Jesuits were expert musicians.”

Leone’s research project is being funded by a research grant from the Joan and Bill Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage (CCIH). Mark Bosco, S.J., professor of theology and English and director of the CCIH, says Leone’s research is important because it brings to light elements of Jesuit history and heritage that may be overlooked.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how much music and art were part of Jesuit missionary activities throughout central and South America. To evangelize was not this forced thing, but it was done through the beauty of music,” Father Bosco says. “It’s important that people understand that Roman Catholicism is not just a doctrine of faith, but it is actually embedded in cultural productions.”

The music that Leone is restoring will be presented as part of a colloquium on April 10. Starting at 10 a.m. in the Klarchek Information Commons, there will be lectures and panel discussions from several musicians and composers who have worked with and reconstructed other Jesuit missionary music. At 3 p.m., Madonna della Strada Chapel will host a concert featuring Leone’s work, performed by the Bella Voce choir and Chicago Arts Orchestra.

For more information on the event, please click here.

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