Navidad en México

December 2012

Program Notes


Sancta Maria e!


Hernando Franco (1532-1585)

Tleycantimo choquiliya

Gaspar Fernández (1566-1629)

* * * * * *

Arullo del Niño

Trad., arr. Rámon Noble (1920-1999)


José Galván (Castañeda)

* * * * * *

Duermete Niño

Domingo Lobato Bañales (1920-2012)

Por el Valle de Rosas

Miguel Bernal Jiménez (1910-1956)

* * * * * *

Eso rigo e repente

Gaspar Fernández

Las Bienaventuranzas (The Beatitudes)

Jorge Córdoba Valencia (b. 1953)
World premiere, commissioned by Chicago a cappella

* * * * * *

Cabalgata de los Tres Reyes

Jiménez, arr. Jorge Córdoba Valencia

Exsultate Justi in Domino

Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (1595-1664)


Posada Mexicana Trad., arr. Rámon Noble
     Para pedir y dar posada  
     La Fiesta  

* * * * * *

Cinco Villancicos Rocío Sanz (1933-1993)
     ¿Adonde váis, zagales?  
     Aquella Flor del campo  
     Villancico de los pastorcillos  
     Villancico de los negritos  
     Villancico de las zagalas  
poems: Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz

* * * * * *


Blas Galindo (1910-1993)

Convidando Esta La Noche

Juan García de Zespedes (1619-1678)
encore: Digan, Digan Quien Vio Tal Antonio de Salazar (1650-c. 1715)


¡Bienvenidos a Navidad en México!
(Welcome to Navidad en México!)

You are about to embark on a musical journey through the history of Mexican Christmas music. You will hear songs from the 1500s to the present day. You will hear Spanish, Latin, Nahuatl (the traditional Aztec language), and a Creole sort of Spanish with a strong influence from Africa. You will hear emotions of joy and excitement in anticipation of El Niño Jesus, bravery to make the trek to Bethlehem, sweetness of lullabies to rock the infant to sleep, boisterousness to accompany the breaking of the piñata, and even sentiments of lament. You’ll also experience the world premiere of Jorge Córdoba’s beautiful and atmospheric setting, created just for us, of Las Bienaventuranzas, the Spanish version of the Beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

* * * * * *

This is a very unusual program, of a sort that is hardly ever done anywhere, not even in Mexico. Jorge Córdoba, our Guest Music Director, informs me that Mexican choirs are so busy singing European Christmas music that they tend to neglect their country’s own, especially songs in languages other than Spanish and music from the early years of the choral tradition. Jorge’s assistance in the programming of this concert has been invaluable. With his help, we can present to you not only a wider span of music than would have been possible with our usual research resources—since some of the music is unavailable and/or out of print, except in Mexico—but also a program that gives honor and dignity to the many influences that have formed the Mexico of today.

According to Jorge, there is a certain apologetic embarrassment among many “Indio” Mexicans, who feel that their native heritage makes them somehow less Mexican than people of pure-bred Spanish blood. Cultural stereotypes are not much help here; Baby Jesus is typically depicted in Mexico as having white skin and blue eyes, an image that does not mesh with the average Mexican’s appearance. People who speak languages other than Spanish are hesitant to teach these special tongues to their children, because they don’t want their children to feel less Mexican. These trends hearken to the assimilationist pressures felt by so many minorities in the USA, in decades both past and present. It is our duty to honor those traditions that are hesitant to honor themselves—someone has to celebrate this rich musical heritage!

* * * * * *

The seeds of this program were sown in the spring of 2008, when Chicago a cappella presented a program called Voces latinas, including some terrific recent music from Mexico. Among all of the Mexican works on the program, the one that many of us (singers and directors) found most compelling was the cycle of Siete Haiku by Jorge Córdoba. I had learned of Jorge’s work through the Gregg Smith Singers’ recording of the Haiku cycle, and I was hooked. How to get to work with Jorge Córdoba became a bit of a quest. My colleague Philip Brunelle, whose Minneapolis-based ensemble VocalEssence is known for innovative partnerships, had already brought Jorge up to the Twin Cities for several residencies and commissions over the course of a few years. I currently serve with Philip on the board of Chorus America, and between committee meetings one weekend, I learned that Jorge is something of a national treasure in Mexico—easy to work with, generous of heart, and a great musician.

By the fall of 2011, Chicago a cappella’s staff and board knew that we wanted to do a Navidad en México program. I was hoping that Jorge was the composer who would write a new piece for us. He was very amenable to this, and we began the usual conversation about it. I also knew that we would be hiring Guest Music Directors for three programs this season, including Navidad. But imagine my surprise when, in our search for Guest Music Directors for the current season, whose CV and cover letter should appear in my inbox but Jorge’s! The project suddenly got more exciting for me. Not only did we have the prospect of a great new piece by one of Mexico’s choral stars, but the star himself wanted to come to Chicago to prepare the singers. It was a combination too good to pass up. Working with Jorge has been a true pleasure. I know that the singers and I will always remember the opportunity to learn first-hand, from a master, the nuances of Mexico’s rich traditions and the glories of the Spanish language that occur when set by great composers and when sung with fidelity to tradition. We are so happy that you are here to celebrate, with us, the work of Jorge and our ensemble in Navidad in México. ¡Feliz Navidad!

—Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director



Speaking of Christmas in almost any part of the world is inspiring and generates a spirit of hope. Speaking of ‘Christmas in Mexico’ is particularly interesting due to the confluence of the three roots that have shaped our current reality:

a) The indigenous peoples (Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotec, to name a few)

b) The presence of the Spanish conquerors

c) The involuntary, but decisive, infiltration of African slaves who ran away from
the ships that arrived on our shores.

It can be said that there is evidence of these three roots in various manifestations of our culture, such as the food and clothing of the different regions of our 31 states. We have some states adjoining the U.S. border, others that border Guatemala, some with a border overlooking the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, Baja California surrounded by the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific, and other states in the so-called Bajio area and the central part of the Mexican Republic. In several of these areas, you can find a range of delicious dishes in which one, two or all three influences are present. In clothing, one can see in the outfits of Veracruz men and women, a strong and direct influence of the outfits of flamenco dancers, traditional costumes, as well as the influence of other things such as the weather and the availability of the material of which the garments are made.

Various writings mention that one of the strongest advances made by the Mexican people was the spiritual gain made through evangelization, through exchange of subtle and necessary polytheistic belief to the monotheism brought by the Catholic religion. Of course, the music could not be free of all of these influences, and in fact, the comings and goings of European music and musicians during the viceroyalty is something that was planted very deeply into several areas in Mexico. The quality and quantity of musical compositions found in the archives of the cathedrals of Puebla, Oaxaca and the very cathedral of Mexico City give obvious testimony to the musical activity during the sixteenth, seventeenth and part of the eighteenth centuries. Music practiced in Europe soon came to the viceroyalty or Virreinato (hence the name Virreinal, or colonial, music). It was of great importance that the clerics in Mexico were astonished at the ease and speed with which natives of this part of the world learned the rules of European musical theory. Great Spanish and Portuguese musicians and composers came, and occupied the post of Kapellmeister at the Cathedrals in the country. Hernando Franco, Gaspar Fernández, Juan Garcia de Zéspedes, and Antonio de Salazar, among others, left us an enviable musical heritage. The fusion of European ways of speaking and various local dialects is what generated some of the works that you will hear in today’s concert, in which the composers decided to use the Nahuatl language, thus inviting practitioners to be more connected with Catholicism. Another of the influences mentioned above only recently has been seen as the third root; in music, it is called Guineos. Some of these carols are in not just another “new language,” but rather are derived from the actual speech of slaves, their new language: Spanish combined with some words and inflections of their roots, and always with reference to the rhythms arising in those parts.

This is why, in part of today’s program, we are showing that music can be called “rescued” with this fusion of languages and rhythms. There are various Christmas celebrations in Mexico, and over time the transformation of celebrations gave us local songs that were very unique to each of the 31 states.

The course of this Mexican musical history was interrupted in a hard way and regardless of anything else because of a bloody fact: The Mexican Revolution. This dramatic shift meant that music called “sacred” also suffered the ravages of the Revolution, towards a mostly secular Nationalist spirit. Hence sacred music in Mexico has received an unfair isolation, resulting in the concealment of such musical works. But composers such as Miguel Bernal Jiménez and Domingo Lobato, just to name a few, left a legacy that allowed us to discover and know our sacred music.

The adaptation of Blas Galindo’s “Arrullo” is an example of something that might be a new approach to the subject of sacred Nationalism. Rocío Sanz’s music gives us some archaic and contemporary carols with famous poems by the wise Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. José Galván gives us a taste of the twentieth century with his prayer to the Virgin.

You could say that “Navidad en México” is a stylistic and idiomatic musical show of the different ways the holiday is celebrated—this being one of the most important holidays in Mexico. Listening to music sung in old Spanish and in the current mode, in Latin, in Spanish derived from black slaves, and in the indigenous languages, really is a fascinating musical ride through time.

We could not neglect another example of a tradition that continues to be upheld in our modern Mexico: “Las Posadas.” The holiday is religious and is expected to be as such by all participants, but the sacred and the secular come together at times. The processional singing is eminently sacred in that it follows varying paths to each of nine inns prior to Jesus’ birth. It begins on December 16, with the presence of pregnant Mary and Joseph on their grueling journey, repeated nine times on nine consecutive days and is finally successful on the ninth try. Once they are accepted, this is the time to bring the sun to the world! This event is celebrated with sweets, punch and the inevitable piñata. The piñata represents the Star (The Devil) with seven points (symbolizing the seven deadly sins), which must be overcome. By hitting and breaking the piñata, we receive the gifts (purity of mind) symbolized by the goodies and fruit that are in the cheerful and colorful piñata.

With all this music not being arranged chronologically in our program, and because of the nature of each of the pieces, I chose to compose “The Beatitudes” as the commission to be premiered by Chicago a cappella. Why did I choose these beautiful words of the New Testament? First, because I thought it would be important to include in the concert not only the allegorical birth of Jesus, but also some of his spiritual legacy; and second, because I believe that in these words, wisdom is totally locked, and I know them to be the core of Jesus’s thinking. The treatment of these verses is completely at odds with what else is heard in the concert. It is a highly dramatic piece with a series of twentyfirst century atmospheres that allow the listener to hear, from many angles, truths that for me are eternal and unchanging. All you will hear makes this “Navidad en Mexico” a “short walk” over more than four centuries in only a little time. I invite you to fasten your seatbelts and accompany Chicago a cappella on this exciting musical journey!

—Jorge Córdoba


Hernando Franco (1532-1585): Sancta Maria e!

This is a prayer in Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs. It has been attributed to Hernando Franco, who was born in Spain, trained as a choirboy and composer at a cathedral in Segovia, and came to the New World sometime in the mid-1500s. Surviving records show him working in Guatemala in 1571, and later he came to take the vacant maestro de capilla spot at Mexico City’s cathedral. While the composer’s name in the manuscript source is also “Hernando Franco,” it is more likely that a native composer took Franco’s name when converting to Christianity, a common practice of the time. The grand, though slightly clunky block chords, and occasional unusual dissonances in the music support this hypothesis; while these are wonderful musical devices and show great local character, composer of the Spanish Franco’s training would have shunned such elements in the music.

Gaspar Fernández: Tleycantimo choquiliya

Here is another piece in Nahuatl, mixed with Spanish. Like Franco, Gaspar Fernández was born in the Old World—Portugal. Like Franco, he came first as a working musician to Guatemala in 1599 and then in 1606 to Mexico, where he worked in Puebla (east of Mexico City), one of the five most important colonial Mexican cities. Though classically trained and completely adept at writing high-quality Renaissance-style church music with Latin texts, he also wrote and collected villancicos—literally, “songs of the villages”—in vernacular styles, not only in Spanish and Portuguese but also in Amerindian and even a faux-African dialect that appears later in this program. He even wrote a piece all inNahuatl, as well as this catchy tune, Tleycantimo choquiliya.

Despite the jaunty 6/8 meter and the F-major key, all is not sweetness and light here. The text partly expresses the tension between the belief in a single God, as dictated by the Christian conquerors, and the more pantheistic native religion, which described many aspects of divine beings.

Trad., arr. Rámon Noble (1920-1999): Arrullo del Niño

This is a tune sung by countless mothers to their children. Jorge Córdoba told the singers in rehearsal that the rhythm of the tune was originally an even pulse, but it has been adapted here to feel more like a heartbeat, as a baby would hear when held close to its mother’s breast. The setting is by Rámon Noble, the towering and tireless promoter of choral music in Mexico, who worked closely with the Chorus of the Ballet Folklorico de México and the Mexico Boys’ Choir School of Music.

José Galván: Nochpochtzine

Long before the Pilgrims set sail, the text for this hymn was written down. The text comes from the manuscript source known as Nicán Mohopua, versicle 63, written down by the Indian scribe Antonio Valeriano between 1540 and 1545. It has been set to original a cappella music by José Galván Castañeda. An active singer, composer, arranger, and conductor, the Mexico City-based musician is probably best known as the founder and director of Voz en Punto, an eclectic a cappella sextet that has toured the world in its mission to spread the joys and traditions of Mexican choral music. Galván’s treatment of the text is an unusual combination of sweet lyricism (at the start) and angular, unusual harmonies (later on) to set up the final joyous “Amen.”

Domingo Lobato Bañales (1920-2012): Duermete Niño

This sweet lullaby was written by Domingo Lobato, who was born in Morelia, Michoacán in 1920 and died just last month, on November 5, 2012. One of the greats in Mexican church music, he was a pillar of the musical community in Guadalajara, where he was appointed chair in composition in 1946 at the School of Sacred Music, and he was honored during his lifetime by the states of Jalisco and Michoacán. He founded the School of Music at the University of Guadalajara and directed it from 1956 to 1973. He was known as a dedicated, tenacious teacher, determined to pass on high-quality teaching to his students. He wrote music in many styles and forms, includes a great deal of piano music, choral music, a cantata, and the ballet Insóchitlincuícatl.

The poem here has a charming image of the baby Jesus as “sweet honeycomb,” sort of like calling a baby “cupcake” or “sweetie pie.” The flowing, tuneful melody borrows some of its gentle character from the Gregorian chant that Lobato studied intensively as a young man.

Miguel Bernal Jiménez (1910-1956): Por el Valle de Rosas

A composer, musicologist, and performer, M. B. Jiménez is considered the most important mid-20th-century Mexican composer of sacred music. He started his musical career at seven years as a choirboy in Morelia’s cathedral, going at age 18 to Rome to study at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music. Returning to Morelia in 1933, he headed the School of Sacred Music there for twenty years. His styles are rather conservative while including traditional Mexican elements—which he knew well, having discovered the first archive of colonial (18th-century) Mexican music. This song, one of his earliest compositions (1941), is a well-known Christmas lullaby, contrasting great sweetness with careful use of chromatic dissonances.

Gaspar Fernández: Eso rigo e repente

There is a long tradition of Africans in Mexico, including the area in Guerrero and Oaxaca, where several groups of Africans have made their home since the 1500s. Fernández captures the playful spirit of a group of African Mexicans who are preparing to visit the baby Jesus. There are several mentions of musical instruments and of charming gifts for the baby. Astute readers will notice the “dissing” of Africans from elsewhere—among other less-than-politically-correct sentiments—but it all seems to be in a sporting spirit, for the music if full of powerful joy and enthusiasm. You may be singing “sumbacasu cucumbe”
in the shower tomorrow, for this is one catchy chorus!

Jorge Córdoba Valencia (b. 1953): Las Bienaventuranzas (The Beatitudes)
World premiere, commissioned by Chicago a cappella

Jorge Córdoba wrote the following about this new piece:

Escribí esta pieza tomando en cuenta las palabras de Jesús en el Sermón del Monte del Nuevo Testamento del Santo Evangelio según San Mateo; y que para mí son el reflejo de una convicción personal y también como lo escencial de las enseñanzas
de aquel mítico personaje.

La sencillez de estas verdades y la constante comprobación de las mismas, fue el impulso que recibí para plasmar un tratamiento musical de estructura abierta, lleno de sorpresas sonoras con la idea de reforzar y abrir otros horizontes sonoros, convergiendo
y dirigiéndose éstos, hacia un punto común, que como dice la frase: No existe un solo camino, existe un solo final: Dios.
I wrote this piece considering the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament of the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, and that to me is a reflection of a personal conviction as well as the essentials of the teachings of that legendary character. The simplicity of these truths and constant verification thereof, was the impetus for me to shape a musical treatment of open structure, a sound full of surprises with the idea of strengthening and opening sonic horizons, converging and moving them to a common point, as the saying goes: There is only one way, there is only one end: God.

The atmospheric mood created by the repeated melodic fragments evokes a sound-world somewhat reminiscent of the composer’s Siete Haiku. We are honored to present this composition in its world premiere.

* * * * * *

Jiménez, arr. Jorge Córdoba: Cabalgata de los Tres Reyes

Originally for voice and piano, this vigorous piece has been arranged for us by Jorge Córdoba. The pounding, driving rhythm in the lower voices sets up the mood, which is one of “epic” intensity: as in an epic or heroic story, one must press on despite fatigue, hardship, and disappointment to reach the goal. In this case the goal is the manger in Bethlehem, and the heroes are the three wise men. “Los Tres Reyes” (Jan. 6th or Epiphany) is actually more important in Mexican culture than December 25th; children across Mexico feel about the Three Kings the way kids in the USA do about Santa Claus, for in Mexico all good children are rewarded with gifts from the Three Kings, just as Jesus was given gifts.

Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (1595-1664): Exsultate justi in Domino

Gutiérrez was born in Málaga, Spain, and came to Puebla Cathedral in 1620. At the time, Puebla was a more important religious center than Mexico City. He worked tirelessly, leaving more than 700 compositions. This joyous setting of Psalm 33 is a double-choir version in a bright key, reminiscent of the two-choir works of the Gabrielis in Venice.


Trad., arr. Rámon Noble: Posada Mexicana

This is the traditional music to which Mexicans typically re-enact the scene at the posada, or inn, where Joseph and Mary are trying to find a place to stay. Rámon Noble, one of Mexico’s iconic musical figures, has created a choral setting of the typical melodies that are sung during the festivities. The final movement is sung while whacking at a piñata!

* * * * * *

Rocío Sanz (1933-1993): Cinco Villancicos  poems: Sor Juan Inéz de la Cruz

Born in Costa Rica but spending most of her career in Mexico, Rocío Sanz wrote chamber and orchestral music as well as music for theatre and ballet. This cycle was championed by the Gregg Smith Singers, who recorded it 1995. The villancicos (Christmas songs from villages) employ unusual dialects, including an African variant of Spanish in the fourth movement. The composer shows unusual skill in setting these five poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), who was a child genius; by age eight, Juana had read everything in her grandfather’s library. She took the nun’s veil at age 16 and soon was serving as accountant and librarian in her convent. However, her real contribution to the world is in her poetry and prose, which is extensive, imaginative, and wide-ranging.

* * * * * *

Blas Galindo (1910-1993): Arrullo

This lovely lullaby is by Blas Galindo, who was born in San Gabriel in Jalisco state, of Huichol Indian descent. He began his study of music unusually late in his life, teaching himself organ at 19. He studied clarinet, counterpoint and composition at the Mexico City National Conservatory. He formed the “Grupo de los Cuatro” (Group of The Four) with Ayala Pérez, Salvador Contreras and José Moncayo, with the express purpose of using Mexican instruments and melodies to make Mexican music. In 1941Galindo began studies with Aaron Copland at the Berkshire Music Center on a Rockefeller Grant. In those same years he taught harmony, counterpoint and composition at the National Conservatory of Mexico, before becoming its director, a position he held from 1947 until 1961. This song shows careful use of traditional Mexican elements, such as parallel thirds in the women’s voices at the words “Todos los angelos” and again at “y en su claridad Te cobjara” in the men’s.

Juan García de Zespedes (1619-1678): Convidando esta la noche

Born in Mexico, García was an accomplished musician. He studied in Puebla with Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, whose music closes the first half this program, and succeeded Gutiérrez in 1670 as maestro de capilla of Puebla Cathedral. This is probably García’s best-known piece, a joyous song that has contrasting slow and fast sections. The slow sections are more serious, with lyrics that evoke a traditional image of the newborn infant. The fast sections are marked “Duo guaracha,” indicating a zippy style of music that might typically have instruments playing along (the guaracha is a musical style now closely associated with Cuba). The overall effect is sort of like a hymn alternating with a jam session.

—Notes by Jonathan Miller