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  • The Sweet Penance of Music: Musical Life in Colonial Santiago de Chile by Alejandro Vera
  • Hannah Snavely
The Sweet Penance of Music: Musical Life in Colonial Santiago de Chile. By Alejandro Vera. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. (Currents in Latin American and Iberian Music.) [ix, 436 p. ISBN 978-01-9094-021-8 $99]

Alejandro Vera's The Sweet Penance of Music offers a holistic overview of colonial Santiago de Chile's music across the religious, private, and public spheres. This comprehensive, sweeping work addresses the musical continuities and changes that occurred in the cathedral of Santiago, convents and monasteries, public festivals, and the domestic sphere during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Centering the stories of both key performers and composers as well as lesser-documented musicians, Vera concentrates on a broad range of genres, with repertoire extending from plainsong, polyphony, and villancicos to keyboard sonatas, dances, and theatre works. As such, the book vividly depicts the musical practices of a city often overlooked in musicology and is a crucial contribution to English-language musicological scholarship of the Americas.

The Sweet Penance of Music is a testament to the substantial yields of careful, extensive archival research, as well as the humbling fact that historical synthesis is never complete. Conducting research primarily in Santiago, but also in historically linked cities such as Lima and Seville, Vera consults an impressive range of primary sources, including musical scores, ship entries, wills, inventories, ecclesiastical council agreements, and account books. He describes the process of archival work and is explicit about what data he can confirm and what is cautious speculation; he nuances his conclusions and clarifies errors through cross-referencing data across various documents. He consistently converses with twentieth-century Chilean scholars, particularly Eugenio Pereira Salas and Samuel Claro Valdés, to support their claims or refute previous assertions using his own archival findings, and he builds on growing trends in Chilean urban musicological scholarship and broader monographs about music in the New World. Historical explorations are bolstered with musical score analysis, though perhaps not as many as a reader would desire, primarily due to the lack of space in an already sizeable work. Despite this, the musical analyses, present in each chapter and accompanied by transcriptions, effectively enable the reader to comprehend how compositional techniques reflected theological and cultural values and connected to genres across musical traditions and periods.

In the Introduction, Vera uses eighteenth-century harpist Josefa Soto's expression 'sweet penance' as a conceptual springboard off of which to theorise duality, or [End Page 177] 'the union of "two different characteristics" in a single "person or thing"' (p. 2), as an ever-present trait within Santiaguino colonial structures and music. According to Soto, playing music was both a difficult, tolerated job and a selected vocation; it was a pleasurable punishment. Expanding on her assertion, Vera postulates the dualities of Santiaguino life through two compelling arguments prominent throughout the book. First, he demonstrates that sacred and popular musics were not clearly divided, but rather were performed in both domains and actively influenced one another. Second, while acknowledging the hierarchies of the colonial system, the author reveals how Santiago was not simply a peripheral city, but also simultaneously a centre for musical practice and circulation. The reader discovers that similar ostensible contradictions abound: dualities emerge in the complications of balancing tradition and modernity, the incongruent social status of belittled minstrels who performed highly esteemed music, and the paradoxical opinion that music can manifest both virtuous and reprehensible ideals, to mention a few.

Chapter 1 focuses on the cathedral of Santiago as an extended institution interconnected to multiple spheres of urban life, overviewing the cathedral's organisation, structure, and often fraught financing during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as several staffing and budgetary reforms throughout the eighteenth century. Within this chapter, Vera evinces how the cathedral remained highly connected to Lima, Mexico City, and Spain, despite the city's relative geographic isolation. In terms of repertoire, liturgical plainsong, specifically the subgenre 'in tone' song, was ubiquitous in cathedral life, performed during the Mass, Offices, and Feast Days, while polyphonic music became more present in the eighteenth century. Vera concludes...


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pp. 177-180
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