The Music of the Missions
Today you can fly there but 450 years ago a wilderness lay beyond the falls

In this story we join music student Imogen Hares who in 1998 travelled to the heart of South America to find the lost music of the 18th century Jesuit Missions of the 'Green Hell'

An Immense Land

Parts of this immense land are still unexplored. It's a world of scrub forest, huge swamps and two of South America's greatest rivers, the Paraguay and the Parana. Floods are common - on one occasion the water was so high that these falls virtually disappeared. Huge trees were thrown about like toys. The spray could be seen from miles away rising above the forest like a plume of white smoke and the roar was deafening. 
Here was the homeland of numerous tribes, some nomadic, or simple fishermen, or hunters. On the way they collected honey, insect grubs and a few wild berries. Not too long ago their ancestors used the shells of giant armadillos for shelter. Today the land is shared by three countries Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. The central part is known as the Chaco.

The Green Hell



Chaco, native American

The first European to cross this Green Hell between the Atlantic and the Andes mountains far to the west was a Portuguese sailor, Alejo García.   He joined a band of wandering Guaraní for the journey but never survived to tell his story. He was murdered on the way back to the coast. Alejo García was following a trail of silver known to the native Americans. They said it came from distant mountains.  The race to reach the silver treasures in the Andean realm of the Inca/ Inka had started.

The route through the 'Green Hell' was terrible and as history tells it was Francisco Pizarro from Trujillo in Extremedura, Spain who was the first to get the prize.  Pizarro reached the Andes from the Pacific side.





Numerous adventurers followed Alejo García and in 1661 a Spaniard,Nuflo de Chavez Ñuflo de Chávez reached the foot of the Andes and founded the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a name he gave after his home village in Extremadura, Spain. The next three centuries saw little progress with the route. In fact there was a political tension between the Spanish who had settled in the east and those who controlled fabulous silver mines in the west. The native Americans were hostile and The Green Hell remained something of a no-mans' land. The Spanish authorities would have welcomed true settlement but it never happened. Just a few fortified outposts were established around the Chaco and it was left to the determined followers of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits to pentrate the wilderness and 'pacify' the native Americans. The Jesuits were active throughout South America but they are most remembered for their dedication to the remote lands of the Paraguay, Parana Rivers and the Chaco. There they built an almost autonomous state, out of reach of the Spanish goverment. One nucleus of Jesuit power was in Chiquitos some 300kms northeast of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra - Bolivia
Ox carts, Santa Cruz 1961
When Bolivia gained independence from Spain in 1823, the lands granted to the young Republic included the northwestern Chaco and Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The city became the centre of a Department in 1826.  For much of the 19th century and well into the 21st Santa Cruz was isolated.

Whichever way they chose it took a very hardy traveller to make the journey whether from the Andean side or from Paraguay. To put this in perspective, the first hard-topped road link to Cochabamba, the nearest Bolivian city was not completed until 1950. Ten years later the streets of the city were still unpaved and deep in mud. The best local transport was a horse, after that a wooden cart drawn by oxen, and for a few - the 'Willys Jeep'.


Santa Cruz,1963
Santa Cruz, 1997
All that has changed and Santa Cruz is now one of the fastest growing and prosperous cities in South America. It is rich from the agricultural land that was once forest and from natural resources such as oil, gas and iron ore. From a population of 60,000 just 45 years ago Santa Cruz is now home to over a million.
The Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos
Imogen at the half-way point of her 18 hour bus trip

Once away from extensive level, open farmland that has brought prosperity to Santa Cruz, roads to the east lead to undulating hills, covered with remnants of forest. The name Chiquitos comes from Chiquito a local native American tribe.

Imogen Hares a music student travelled to the 17th century missions. One journey by bus along a dirt road took 18 hours. In recent years the main roads have been paved.

In the 17th century Jesuit missions were built around a central courtyard. The church occupied one side and the bell tower was separate.

Mostly the churches were wooden with clay tile roofing  and over the years they became derelict. In the late 1970's renovation work began and the Chiquitos  missions are now classed as a 'World Heritage Site'. 

Of ten original missions in Chiquitos six have survived   - San Javier, Concepción (right),  Santa Ana, San Rafael, San Miguel and  San José de Chiquitos 

The mission at Concepcion
Imogen in the old plaza, Concepcion
The restored mission church at Concepcion
The restored mission church at San Javier

Restoration of the missions at Concepción 1756 (above)  and at San Javier (1692), (left) the oldest of the six, were the work of Father Martin Schmidt, a priest from the canton of Lucerne in Switzerland and German architect Hans Roth.

Part of the Jesuit philosophy was to teach the native Americans crafts such as carving, gilding and painting. The forest people were already skilled in many of these including woodworking,  painting body designs, making weapons and building their homes. The Jesuits found  willing pupils and introduced their European styles and religious icons.

By the mid-18th century, the Jesuits were very successful with their teaching and all powerful in this part of South America. The Spanish Crown was concerned by their strength and in 1767 the Jesuits were  expelled. 
Apart from a few local settlers who remained, the mission centres were abandoned. 
Restored gilded woodwork
The Music
The priests discovered a latent talent for music among the native Americans.  They introduced European instruments including violins and harps which local craftsmen copied. The missions soon possessed a repertoire of locally composed hymns and other music and it  was left behind when they were abandoned. Many sheets somehow survived the tropical climate and the first were unearthed from piles of old church documents in the 1980's. The work was begun by Gabriel Garrido an Argentinian specialist in Baroque music
17th century carvingOriginal music, 17th century sheet, Zipoli17th century carving
Part of an original 17th century paper sheet of music used in the Missions of Chiquitos. The work  by  Domenico Zipoli from Prato, close to Florence is part of an extensive collection preserved  by Bolivian specialists. This fragment is from Ave Maria Stella a Vespers hymn sung on Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary

South American Pictures and Imogen Hares [now Imogen Atkins] would like to thank Piotr Nawrot SVD, the late Hans Roth and the office and the Director and staff of the Festival Internaciónal de Musica Renacenista y Barroca Americana 'Misiones de Chiquitos'

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