Jungle Baroque: Sacred Music in the Bolivian Amazon

The discovery of a throve of musical manuscripts in Bolivia in the 1990s has revolutionized our knowledge of the musical culture associated with the Jesuit missionary centres of the 17th and 18th century. The archives, sometimes dubbed “the Chiquito repertoire”, were astonishingly diverse. They include masses, vespers, hymns, motets, Christmas carols, sacred operas, sonatas and many other musical forms. Their origins could be found in some musical centres in Italy, but once they reached Bolivia and a few other South American towns, they were copied and most likely modified to varying extents by the Indians who ‘adopted’ this music, performed them during sacred festivals, in church, schools or outdoor.

Music was the means by which the missionaries communicated with the natives. Once a missionary settlement was founded, a choir and an orchestra were created, consisting of 30 to 40 musicians. In each village, there would be a school where the children of the nobility of the town took lessons, reading, writing music and dancing. Children with the best voices would be chosen to sing in the choir, and the strongest would play the wind instrument. The school also has a library whose music collections were renewed constantly with copies of works from neighbouring missions and new ones from Europe. Two principles governed the selection of library materials: the works had to be from the best composers and had to be sacred music. From this arose a tradition in which the enjoyment of the music and the natives’ great musical talent gave rise to a unique repertoire of South American sacred music comparable in originality to the outstanding European musical traditions of the Baroque period, a tradition that continues today.

The psalm Beatrus vir is an example of this unique Baroque musical genre. The title comes from the Latin, “Blessed is the man” which are the first words of Psalms 1 and Psalms 112 in the Bible. This piece is a solo soprano, with a choir of three, two violins and basso continuo. It forms part of the five vesper psalms (evening song) attributed to the Italian composer, Zomenico Zipoli (1688 – 1726). The vespers were sung in the missions to introduce solemn festivities observed by the Indians. The Bolivian collection also have other arrangements of vesper psalms, but this seems to be the most refined and appreciated of its time. Zipoli’s name is not found on the 300-year old Bolivian scores for Beatrus vir (and Zipoli never visited the Bolivian missionary settlements); rather, they were copies of his music made by the Indians who probably modified the piece to suit the local context.


Beatrus vir, Bolivian Baroque vesper psalm. Attributed to Domenico Zipoli (1688 – 1726). Performed and recorded by Florilegium (UK) in association with Bolivian soloists, 2004. Lyrics follow after the video.

Lyrics – Beatrus vir

Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
Who takes delight in all his commands.
His offspring will be powerful on earth;
the children of the upright are blessed.
Riches and wealth are in his house;
His justice stands firm forever.
He is a light in the darkness for the upright,
he is generous, merciful and just.
The good man takes pity and lends,
he conducts his affairs with honor.
The just man will never waiver.
He will be remembered forever.
He has no fear of evil news.
With a firm heart he trusts in the Lord,
with a steadfast heart
he will not fear.
He will see the downfall of his foes.
Open handed he gives to the poor;
His justice stands firm for ever.
His head will be raised in glory.
The wicked man sees and is angry,
grinds his teeth and fades away,
The desire of the wicked leads to doom.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning
is now, and ever shall be
for ever and ever.

Keeping the Tradition Alive

The six Chiquito Indian stations in Bolivia that are UNESCO world heritage-sites represent one of the country’s great cultural riches. Located north-east of Santa Cruz in Bolivia’s lowlands, part of the Amazon basin, these remote colonial churches are simple, barn-like constructions of wood and adobe, gloriously painted inside and out with swirling floral patterns, angels and saints in modest shades of ochre and tan. Spiralling columns are crafted from entire tree trunks, and exquisitely carved retables and confessionals abound. Every two years they provide an extraordinary backdrop and context for the performance of Baroque music.

The biennial Festival of American Renaissance and Baroque Music is based in Santa Cruz but spreads through this precious chain of enchanting jungle churches and attracts performers and scholars from the Americas, Europe and the Far-East. All are eager to join the proud and friendly local musicians and communities who are passionate about their musical heritage, a legacy from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which saw the fusion of European and Indian cultures. The inspiration flows in both directions, with concerts in these vast cathedrals full to capacity (the locals leave just a few rows at the front free for visitors such as ourselves) creating a magical and unique atmosphere, seemingly frozen in time and yet flourishing and alive.

For more information about the festival, check out this site:


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