John Tasker Howard's 1934 book, Our American Music, was the first to attempt to measure the relative value of American composers. For Howard, the matter of who qualified as the first American composer came down to an unresolved competition between Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791) and psalmodist James Lyon (1735-1794). Had Howard known of the rich storehouse of Baroque music in what had once been "New Spain," he would have had to revise his focus to composers who had been born 50 to 100 years before either Hopkinson or Lyon. Indeed, in 1934 the only persons familiar with the very existence of such repertoire were monks who looked after dusty manuscripts in the cathedral libraries of Mexico, Bolivia and Peru, music that even then hadn't been touched in more than a century.
The highly successful 1994 Chanticleer album Mexican Baroque finally spread the word about Baroque music in Latin America. By 2008, research in American Baroque music remains far from exhausted, however one clear front-running composer has emerged among recordings, Ignacio de Jerusalem (ca. 1710-1769), master of music at Mexico City Cathedral from 1750 until his death. Jerusalem's music is of excellent quality, and he was exceedingly prolific, producing masses, vespers services and other kinds of Catholic service music in which liturgical function is clearly comprehensible, aiding realization. However, Jerusalem was born in Italy, and even though his music is true to form for Latin American Baroque, his relation to Mexico was as a recruit from elsewhere. Jerusalem's predecessor, Manuel de Zumaya (ca. 1678-1755), however, was native to Mexico City or its environs. As of May 2008, Zumaya doesn't yet have a CD all to himself; his music is used in collections or to plug liturgical holes in works of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, its extraordinary qualities jump out at the listener, prompting one to ask, "was this the first great classical composer born in the Americas?"
Manuel de Zumaya (also spelled "Sumaya") was likely born in the late 1670s. An entry in the Mexico City Cathedral register from 1694 grants Zumaya the right to study organ and composition in addition to a small stipend owing to the premature death of his father. It has been theorized that Zumaya was taken to Italy to study sometime around 1700; the high skill level of Zumaya's writing, his direct understanding of certain stylistic traits in the Italian Baroque, and his ability to translate Italian opera libretti into Spanish suggest this as a possibility. In 1711, Zumaya composed an opera, Il Partenope, to a commission from Viceroy Fernando de Alencastre NoroÃ±a y Silva, the first opera written by an American-born composer. Zumaya worked for many years as an assistant to at Mexico City Cathedral, and in 1714 was named principal organist. In 1715, maestro di cappella Antonio de Salazar retired, and Zumaya was forced to compete for the post of maestro di cappella with another musician; Zumaya won on the strength of his piece Sol-fa de Pedro.. Zumaya held this position for 24 years, during which time he oversaw the copying of an entire library's worth of music manuscripts for the Cathedral and expanded the resources of its orchestra. In 1738, Zumaya simply picked up and left Mexico City for Oaxaca on the request of its archbishop and remained in Oaxaca for the rest of his life. At his death in 1756, Zumaya's manuscripts were purchased, and preserved, by Oaxaca Cathedral; the earlier library Zumaya had compiled in Mexico City is likewise intact and is now at the Museo Virreinal.
Zumaya could hold his own with nearly any Italian composer of Baroque sacred music, and his extreme harmonic boldness -- just listen to the thicket of false relations in the Sol-fa de Pedro sample -- sets him apart from his contemporaries. Only one setting of the mass ordinary survives from Zumaya's pen; however, he composed several settings of mass propers, a lamentation, and numerous motets. Zumaya was especially productive in the form of villancicos, in which he displays an uncanny knack for capturing the rhythms of native-inflected Spanish speech; some villancicos-like passages likewise wind their way through Zumaya's motets as well. There is a rumor that Zumaya was either mestizo (of mixed Spanish/Mexican heritage), or even a full-blooded Mexican native. The historical record does not reflect this nor has any portrait of Zumaya survived; such assumption appears based on his name alone. Research in early music from "south of the border" isn't yet comprehensive enough to allow us to learn if Manuel de Zumaya, or someone earlier, is the first native-born American to compose classical music. However, Zumaya was born before the "Class of '85" -â€“ J.S. Bach, Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti -â€“ and the quality of his music is comparable to that generation; some of it sounds like Bach with a Nahuatl accent. If Zumaya wasn't first, he was certainly among the best, something we will all learn more about as the future unfolds and more of his music is recorded.
Chanticleer - Zumaya: Interludio Albericias mortales
Horacio Franco, Cappella Cervantina - Zumaya: Mass for 5 Voices - Kyrie
Chanticleer - Zumaya: Sol-fa de Pedro
Chanticleer - Zumaya: Hieremiae Prophetae Lamentationes
Chanticleer - Zumaya: Recessional AngÃ©licas milicias