Colonial Mexico was a spectacular land of opportunity for musicians—composers and performers alike.
By the end of the sixteenth century, Mexico’s great cities were some of the wealthiest cities in the world. Flush with wealth brought in from the lucrative silver trade, the great churches of the region recruited a steady stream of musicians and composers from Europe. A Chapel Master in Mexico City could make a fortune relative to his peers in Italy or Germany, and many musicians eagerly immigrated to the New World to enjoy a standard of living they could never attain in the Old.
Once set up in the New World, these musicians discovered the rich, vibrant musical traditions of the native peoples. These musical stylings hit composers like a thunderclap and led to a revolution in composition that fused European traditions with those of the indigenous people. Soon church composers were taking things a step further, composing religious motets in native languages, such as the Aztecs’ Nahuatl, to reach and engage local audiences that couldn’t speak Spanish or Latin. The result is a stunning musical tradition that crackles with rhythm, drive, and excitement.
Mexican Baroque music was born.
And some of the most delightful Mexican Baroque music being written was to celebrate Christmas, at times using texts in native languages.
That means that yes, there were Aztec Christmas carols.
As early as the 1530s—only a decade after the Spanish Conquest—Christmas had established itself as an important Mexican holiday. And by 1600, semi-sacred songs written in a popular vein called villancicos were a well-established part of religious services and special celebrations.
Villancicos had mixed reputation in the colonial world. In these colorful miniatures, composers tossed aside the strict conventions of formal church music and freely made use of popular rhythms, instruments and stories. In doing so, they pushed the boundaries about what was allowed in a church service. Several ecclesiastical leaders such as Domenico Pietro Cerone, complained that such exuberant songs were scandalous, and “threaten to turn God’s Holy temple into a common theater!” Others wryly noted that the announcement of a service of villancicos all but guaranteed a packed house. “No man is more pious than when he hears villancicos are to be performed. Suddenly, he demands that the whole family be gathered up and bustled off to Church at once,” quipped one Archbishop. Christmas-themed viallancicos were particularly popular, holding a pride of place similar to English Christmas Carols.
One of the greatest composers in this emerging style was Gaspar Fernandes, who lived from 1565 to 1629. Fernnades, originally from Portugal, immigrated to the New World by 1599, taking a job as an organist at the cathedral of Santiago, Guatemala. From there here moved to the prestigious position of Chapel Master at the great cathedral in Puebla, Mexico, remaining there until his death.
Fernandes created a great deal of Latin ecclesiastical music, but he took equal delight in composing vernacular religious songs, too. Xicochi conetzintlé, was done in this style, a deliberate blending of European and Native American traditions. It is a Christmas lullaby, written in the Aztecs’ language of Nahuatl, making it immediately accessible to the large number of congregants who spoke neither Spanish nor Latin.
Xicochi, xicochi conetzintlé
ca ōmitzhuihuixocoh in angelosmeh.
Go to sleep, go to sleep revered baby;
the angels are already rocking you.
As a simply lullaby, it could not be more beautiful. Fernandes creates a lilting rhythm that perfectly captures the natural inflection of the Nahuatl language, but also implies a gentle rocking that underlines the message of the text. It is absolutely stunning, and has enjoyed performances outside of those by period music specialists—a version has even appeared on Linda Ronstadt’s album, A Merry Little Christmas.
Of course, adding traditional percussion helps it work as a spirited dance as well… especially in this version which includes the traditional work Xochipitzahuatl as a contrasting passage.
Another classic was Tleycantimo choquiliya. The text is partly in Spanish and partly in Nahuatl. The Nahuatl sections are set to a traditional central Mexican rhythm that contrasts with the more lyrical Spanish sections.
Mis prasedes, mi apisión.
Dejal to el llando crecida,
miral to el mulo y el buey.
Ximoyollali, mi rey.
Tlein mitztolinia, mi vida?
No sé por qué deneis pena,
tan lindo cara de rosa.
Nocpiholotzin, niño hermosa,
Jesós de mi goraçón,
no lloreis, mi pantasía.
Why do you cry,
Source of my pleasures, my passion.
Leave aside the growing cries
of the mule and the ox.
Take comfort, my king.
What bothers you, my beloved?
I know not what pains you,
Such beautiful rosy face,
Noble Lord, handsome child,
My gem, my white-plumed bird.
Jesus of my heart,
Do not cry, my dream.
A bit more controversial (in terms of musicology, not musical quality!) are the Nahuatl villancicos attributed to Hernando Franco, who lived from 1532 to 1585. Franco was an immigrant from the Spanish region of Extremadura, who worked in Santiago de Guatemala before settling in the great cathedral of Mexico City. It is not clear that he wrote the Nahuatl works that bear his name—some scholarship suggests that the works might have been composed by a recent convert to Christianity who took Franco’s name as a way to honor of the man who baptized him. But regardless, the works themselves are wonderful. One of the most popular is Dios itlaçonantziné, honoring the Virgin Mary who brought Jesus into the world.
ma topan ximotlatolti
yn ilhuicac ixpantzinco
in motlaçoconetzin Jesu Christo.
Ca onpa timoyeztica yn inahuactzinco
Yn motlaçoconetzin Jesu Christo.
O loving little Mother of God,
we earnestly implore you:
intercede for us
in heaven in the presence
of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
For you are there, near
to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Cualli netlācatilizpan—Merry Christmas—to all who celebrate!