Facing the past
Ahead of our New Worlds: South America programme, which features the work of Jesuit missionary Domenico Zipoli, we ask how the classical music world can come to terms with problematic aspects of its own history
Our New Worlds: South America programme focuses on the life and influences of Domenico Zipoli. As a Jesuit missionary in South America, Zipoli had a major impact on local musical life, but we might also view that as imposing European culture on indigenous people. How do we reconcile these two perspectives?
Born in Prato, Italy, in 1688, Zipoli trained in Florence, Naples, Bologna and Rome, with teachers including Scarlatti and Pasquini. In 1717 he sailed with Jesuits and other missionaries from Cádiz to Buenos Aires, travelling on to Córdoba, where he studied at the Jesuit Colegio Máximo and served as music director in the local Jesuit church.
Zipoli also worked with members of the ‘reduccciones’, Jesuit settlements for the indigenous Guaraní people, whom he taught to play European music. He died in 1726 and when the Jesuits were expelled by the Spanish in 1767, much of his music was lost. It was only rediscovered by chance in a box in a church in Bolivia by a Swiss architect who was doing restoration work there.
It’s a story that until recently might have inspired heroic adventure stories and films – indeed there are striking similarities with the 1986 film, The Mission (including Morricone’s famous theme, ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, which bears a resemblance to Zipoli’s style).
Today, however, we are more likely to see Zipoli’s journey in the light of conversations about colonisation and cultural imperialism. Music Director Laurence Cummings explains: ‘Zipoli was part of the colonial process, a fervent Jesuit priest who believed he was doing the right thing, but was nevertheless part of a bigger European colonial machine that made its mark around the world.’
It’s possible to perform his music without necessarily condoning the system within which he worked, though, says Cummings: ‘We’re not celebrating it – we’re seeing it as a historical fact and finding the power of music through it. Zipoli was charismatic and did a lot of good that transformed people’s lives individually, but you can’t appreciate that without taking on board the more sinister aspects of colonialism.’
One might resolve this conflict simply by not playing the music of Zipoli and his fellow travellers. But for Cummings, the solution to this dilemma lies in nuanced discussion. He says: ‘We want to acknowledge that the story is complicated. It’s important not to ignore these issues. We’re not here to change the world, but, particularly in music, we are dealing with history. We have to acknowledge the bad things, as well as the good. We have to put music and history into a context that belongs in the now, using all the tools we have.’
Join Laurence Cummings and Jeffrey Skidmore for pre-concert talks at our Cambridge and London concerts, where they will discuss Zipoli and his influences, and touch on the issues raised here.