Jesuit missionary, Fr Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), introduces the Guaraní indians to the oboe in The Mission.
This week the Chapel resonated with music and song with our young men displaying their wide-ranging talents in the Chapel Concert. For more than an hour we enjoyed a smörgåsbord of delights. From the earliest days of our Colleges and missions, music has always found such a place.
Many readers would be familiar with that stirring movie, The Mission. It tells of the innovative, sensitive, but ultimately doomed attempt by Jesuits to preserve the life and culture of the indigenous people of Paraguay in the so-called Reductions some four hundred years ago. In that bold attempt at spiritual humanism, music and song had a place at the very heart of the endeavour.
One of those missionaries sent to the Americas, Fr Manuel de Nóbrega, was said to have remarked, “Give me an orchestra of musicians and I will convert all the Indians for Christ!” This was the doorway through which the Jesuits would enter the culture. Once Indian townships were established, superiors ordered the development of a music school. The Jesuits sent to Paraguay were polymaths – artists, musicians, architects, mathematicians, and experts in dance.
A Father on one of those missions at the time recorded that every village had at least “four trumpeters, three good lutanists, four organists, as well as reed-pipe players, basoonists and singers”. Another, Father Francis, noted “the Fathers were unable to claim any success in the teaching of mathematics, because no one there understood or wished to possess such knowledge, but they acquitted themselves very well with music”. Even a Protestant government official at the time generously conceded that “in a chorus of thousands of voices, a false note was never heard”. A former student of Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Zipoli SJ, was the most accomplished musician among these missionaries. In a brief ten year mission before an early death he bequeathed a wealth of sacred works and operas.
Meanwhile, half a world away, their European brothers were not to be outdone. In the early 17th century, none other than Orlando di Lasso was composing choruses for a drama in the Jesuit College of Munich. Half a century later, an eleven-year-old Mozart was commissioned to compose an opera in Latin for our College in Salzburg.
Pace the Maths Department (especially in Maths Week!), we matched those early extravaganzas in every way this week in a magnificent evening. We sing and we make music because of the sense of wonder it evokes, the creative faculty to which it gives expression, the harmony in sound and in relationships which it generates. These elements touch upon the divine and they are manifestations of God’s presence in the world. That is why an enterprise such as this is always to be found in our Jesuit tradition.