As I embarked on mapping the musical traditions in colonial Mexico, my teammates and I were quite frankly overwhelmed with a vast time period, the vast geography, and despite the amount of music being made, we were faced with a scarcity of primary and secondary sources alike. One way in which we were able to come into contact with primary sources is through the online database at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. This database has a large amount of the Villancicos which were a popular form of music at the time. A villancico is now known as a Christmas carol, but during the colonial period in Mexico, these songs were often set to love poems, poetry, or religious text. They were sung in the vernacular and had an alternating refrain and verse. Moreover, villancico’s varied widely and there were different genres such as a villancico negrilla which depicted the style and dance of African slaves in the colonies1.

Before we begin, I do want to clarify what a chapelmaster was. During the era of colonization, chapelmasters were in charge of all music at a cathedral and often composed and performed in the cathedral. The job of Chapelmaster was reserved for individuals with musical talent and Spain sent chapelmasters from all over Europe to preside over the cathedrals in the Spanish colonies. Furthermore, cathedrals were the place in which all ‘art music’ was performed. basically, they were the concert halls of colonial Mexico2.

The villancico I would like to look at for the purpose of this blog post is by a chapelmaster named Antonio Slazaar and was written between 1650 and 1715. The name of this song is “Va de vejamen” which translates to “goes from humiliation”. Antonio Salazar was originally born in Spain and became the chapelmaster of the Puebla Cathedral and later at the Mexico City Cathedral. Antonio Salazar is also one of the most famous composers of the Baroque period in Mexico.

“Va de vejamen” is a part of Salazar’s set of 6 songs called “A sies de la Natividad de Nuestra Señora” or “6 to the nativity of our lady”. Salazar’s piece is about the Christmas season, but not all villancicos were and I want to be clear about that because it is often assumed all villancico’s are carols. I inserted a modern recording of Salazar’s piece below. Something interesting to note is how similar it sounds to a renaissance madrigal. This similarity is common with villancico’s. There is also percussion instrumentation and a strummed string instrument.

The piece itself luckily was preserved well and we have digital access through the National Autonomous University of Mexico database. It includes the parts for the different instruments and voices all written separately. I would encourage you to listen again and try and follow along in the score, especially the tenor3.


1“Repertoire.” San Francisco Bach Choir: Antonio de Salazar. Accessed December 12, 2021.
2Pedelty, Mark. Musical Ritual in Mexico City: From the Aztec to NAFTA. Austin, UNITED STATES: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Duke Ellington


Duke Ellington, or Edward Ellington, was born in 1899 in Washington D.C. and began playing the piano at the age of six. He then began his career as a professional musician at the age of seventeen. He played piano, led his jazz orchestra, and composed the music they performed. In his time and ours, Ellington has been regarded as one of the greatest composers in the U.S. and also a vital figure in the success of Jazz as a genre1


Ellington was wildly successful and won twelve Grammy Awards, nine of which were when he was alive. He also performed globally in places like Carnegie Hall and was even awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon1,2,3. All of this is made more difficult and therefore more impressive because of his disadvantage as a black man in the United States, especially before the civil rights movement.

What I also think is interesting, is that not only do we see Duke Ellington now as crucial to the development of modern music, but he was also recognized as such during his own time. The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, published an article entitled “Duke Ellington to Lead Billikens”. This article was about a parade Ellington lead that attracted over half a million people. At the end of the article is a page listing Ellington’s successes and in it, the author states, “He is regarded as a creator of a new, rich, and distinctly American musical idiom”. They go on to say, Ellington “has contributed more to modern music in originality, melodic material, and arrangement technique than any other contemporary”. Historically, I would argue the rarity of an artist being appreciated for their contributions to the art form in their own time. Therefore, to have this level of accreditation attached to his name speaks volumes for his talent.4

However, of course, this newspaper was published by black writers and written for a black audience, however, the Grammys he won as well as the crowds he attracted are definitely noteworthy and point towards the recognition of Ellington’s talents and contributions to music during his time. While the majority of his success was probably due to his talent and musical upbringing, I can’ help but wonder how he managed to make music and succeed with the racial climate of the fifties in the United States. I think part of it could be due to the fact he was part of the larger movement of the Harlem Renaissance, and partly due to his geographical position in New York. While I do not have these answers yet, I would be interested to read more about his experience as a composer and performer during this time period. Perhaps this is a future blog post?

I included below a performance of Duke Ellington.

1Butler, Gerry. Edward “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) •, May 19, 2021.

2“Duke Ellington ~ Duke Ellington Biography.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, March 31, 2020.

3“Duke Ellington.”, November 23, 2020.

4“Duke Ellington to Lead Billikens: Composer to Greet 500,000.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Aug 01, 1959.

Charles Ives’ Essay

When I think about modern music Charles Ives’ name rings synonymous. Ives was born in 1874 and died in 1954. He composed many works that pushed the boundaries of music. While the ideas of romanticism were included in his work, his compositions were largely experimental. He enjoyed merging European art music with the vernacular of the United States.1

Charles Ives - Wikisource, the free online library

Furthermore, Ives was also a believer in transcendentalism and admired greatly the works of transcendentalist creators. Transcendentalism, in a nutshell, is the school of belief that states the universe goes beyond reason and that there is a higher ‘spiritual’ power in nature, but not really a god. In addition, this school believes humans are not born evil but corrupted by society and materialism2.

One piece of Ives’s work in particular hones in on this movement. His composition Concord Mass has four movements each capturing the essence of a Transcendentalist author. The four authors are Emerson, Hawthorne, “The Alcotts”, and Thoreau in that order. While Ive’s composition is of great value, I find his musical connection to the transcendentalist movement in his Essays Before a Sonata to be even more interesting3.

Ive’s essays are a collection of essays written about each author or in the case of the Alcotts authors, of the piece with a prologue and epilogue. His prologue is what I want to dive deeper into today. Ives essentially argues in his prologue that music can not be representative of life, rather it is part of life. He questions,

“How far is anyone justified, be he an authority or layman, in expressing or trying to express in terms of music (in sounds if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is normally expressed in terms other than music?”.3

Ives was trying to counter the idea of the romanticism movement that portrayed music as a way of conveying life experiences or emotions. This kind of rational or logical thought is typical of a believer in Transcendentalism.

He also quotes Thoureagh when he says it is “not that ‘life is art,’ but that ‘life is an art'”. I think what he was trying to convey here is that we can not use any art form to convey life as if it is easily communicated through paint or song. Lastly, Ives also argues that if everyone gets a different meaning from art, how can it portray life?

He explains, “Suppose a composer writes a piece of music, conscious that he is inspired, say, by witnessing an act of great self-sacrifice- another piece by the contemplation of a certain trait of nobility he perceives in a friend’s character- and another by the sight of a mountain lake under moonlight… suppose the same composer at another time writes a piece of equal merit to the other three, but holds that he is not conscious of what inspired it… what will you substitute for the mountain lake, for his friend’s character, etc?”.3

Certainly, I can not go into every detail of Ives’ essay in the span of a blog post, as much as I wish I could. However, I encourage you to read it. It offers so much valuable insight into Ives as a person, the man behind the music, and his inspiration.

1Swafford, Jan. “Ives the Man: His Life.” Ives the man: His life. Peermusic Classical. Accessed September 27, 2021.

2Goodman, Russell. “Transcendentalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, August 30, 2019.

3Ives, Charles, and Howard Boatwright. Essays before a Sonata: The Majority, and Other Writings. New York: Norton, 1999.

Lily Strickland

Spirituals are a popular topic for discussion in vocal music because they bring about many questions to consider. The genre was created by black enslaved people and later notated and arranged by various composers. However, their origins make us pause to consider whether or not predominately white ensembles or vocalists should be allowed to perform these works. I think the general consensus on the subject is “yes, but…”. Conductors should be careful not to tokenize the spiritual in their repertoire for the night, perform it last as is often the case, provide informative program notes about every piece, and they should ensure the song is sung appropriately. There are many more things to say about this subject, however, you get the picture. Likewise, I would argue, and I think most would agree, that while we should perform spirituals by black composers, performing spirituals arranged by white composers is highly problematic. Lily Strickland is one such white composer from South Carolina, and the song in question today is “Dah’s Gwinter Be Er Lan’slide”.

Strickland was born in South Carolina in 1884 and died in 1958. She wrote many songs ‘inspired by her southern upbringing and black spirituals and dialect and then her later music reflected her experiences in the continents of Asia and Africa and also wrote works imitating songs of indigenous people. She was wildly successful and her works were played by famous ensembles including the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Furthermore, Melissa Walker, a writer for the South Carolina encyclopedia claims that Strickland wanted to rebel against cultural norms for women in the South1. Arguably, Strickland’s work and success were highly unusual for a female composer in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and so it is really hard as a feminist to face the fact that most of her music plays into harmful practices of cultural appropriation, especially pertaining to her numerous papers on Asia which perpetuate orientalism that I came across while searching through the St Olaf library. Therefore, celebrating or performing her work seems impossible and highly problematic today with our modern lens.

One of her pieces I stumbled across on the Sheet Music Consortium database is the aforementioned “Dah’s Gwinter Be Er Lan’slide”. This song is allegedly “A Negro Sermon” about the coming of Christ. The lyrics imitate southern black dialect and contain phrases like “All who don wanter get lef’ in de lurch, Had bedder cum up now an’ jine de church…”2  From the song title, to the fact that she calls it a “Negro Spiritual”, to the imitation of black dialect, this song is already racist for so many reasons. First of all, the text was written by Teresa Strickland. Teresa Strickland was Lily Strickland’s mother, but it was also lily Strickland’s middle name. Therefore, I’m unsure as to which of the women wrote the text. Regardless, it was written by a white woman, and therefore the language is an unacceptable form of appropriation by today’s standards, and also a blatant falsehood to call it a sermon written by a black person.

Lastly, what frustrated me as I did my research was the lack of critical lens applied by scholars to Strickland’s work. I saw books and scholarly articles that all celebrated her pieces, books, and artwork, but nothing that took a deeper glance into the racism she partook in and the implication of performing her works, and especially the spiritual I discussed.



1Walker, Melissa. “Strickland, Lily.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies, November 18, 2016.

2Walker, Melissa. “Strickland, Lily.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies, November 18, 2016.

Howard University 1910: Students Refuse to Sing

Trigger warning: This blog post contains racist language.

Throughout history, the music of black Americans has been commodified and enjoyed as ‘other’. When slavery still existed throughout the United States, enslaved people were often made to make music for enslavers and enslaved people that could play an instrument or sing would be ‘worth more’ at an auction. Even after the abolition of slavery, the music of black Americans continued to be seen as a product for the enjoyment of others.1 A black musician could be talented and their music upheld as great, but their work would still be seen as ‘different’ or ‘weird’ as it was often called, and the performer themselves would still be treated poorly by the very folks who came to watch the performance.

For the purpose of this blog post, I decided to focus on an article from the Cleveland Gazette, published in January of 1910 entitled, “Will not Sing ‘Coon Songs’. This article is about students at the all-black college, Howard University, standing up to the president of the University, Dr. Thirkield, and refusing to sing what he called “old time plantation “coon songs” and religious rags”2

According to the journalist, the president justified his actions by saying “It was well for Negro students to keep alive the traditions of their ancestors and emulate the spirit of contentment and happiness expressed in the folklore and plaintation melodies of before the war”.2

There is a lot to unpack in this single quote. Besides the blatant racism, the president treats the antebellum period with nostalgia, disregarding intergenerational trauma. These students very well could have had enslaved relatives and even parents, given that slavery was only abolished between 23-30 years before they were born. To suggest that enslaved people were happy on the plantation and these students should look back on that period with fondness is insulting. Additionally, this comment furthers the romanticism of the antebellum period that still occurs today.

Later, we find out the President of the university wanted them to sing these songs to entertain important visitors.

“On the occasion of a vist recently by a government officer the president’s effort to start an old time “coon” song failed because nearly all the students would not sing”2

The students in this case refused to be a commodity or curiosity for visitors, much to the outrage of Thirkield. Thirkield, like people throughout America’s sordid past, wanted to present the perceived ‘otherness’ and trauma of his students as entertainment.

To conclude the article, the writer takes the side of the students and states “Howard’s students are right and should stand firm”.2


1Southern, Eileen. “Entertainment for the Masters.” Essay. In The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: Norton, 1997.

2“Will Not Sing ‘Coon’ Songs. Students of Howard University Very Properly Revolt Against the President’s.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), January 1, 1910: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.



Higinio Ruvalcaba

I knew Mexico was home to classical composers and had its own history in classical music, however, I am ashamed to admit I had no idea about the extent of its history. Mexico was creating music in the classical style at least as early as the seventeenth century during the baroque period. Unfortunately, many of these great composers have been forgotten or been written about so little. For that reason, this week I would like to discuss Higinio Ruvalcaba, a Mexican composer, and violinist who lived from 1905 to 1976.

Higinio Ruvalcaba

Doing research on Ruvalcaba has certainly been very challenging. There are very few resources and documents about him in Spanish and even fewer in English. His son Euginio Ruvalcaba did publish a book on him in 2003, but I unfortunately did ot have access to it. For the purposes of this blog post, I will summarize the sources I could find and link the texts in the footnotes.

I could write an entire paper on his life, but I think his daughter Marcela Ruvalcaba does an excellent job of summarizing it in her article “In Memory of the Virtuoso Violinist Higinio Ruvalcaba”. I would highly reccomend checking it out. It is in Spanish and for the purposes of this post I read it in spanish, however you can hit the translate button and get the genral idea of the article. According to his daughter, Ruvalcaba was born in Jalisco, Mexico in 1905 and was a child prodigy on the violin and with composition. he began composing for strings at a young age. He learned the violin at four years old by listening to a mariachi player and imitating the sounds coming from his violin on his own instrument. Throughout his life, Ruvalcaba played in many orchestras including the National Symphony Orchestra and the Mexico city Philharmonic. He also conducted and composed many works1

The first piece of of Ruvalcaba’s work I came across was his piece “Chapultepec” (listen here) in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox archive. This particular recording was performed in 1923 in New York, New York by the International Novelty Orchestra. The piece is labeled a foxtrot. A foxtrot was popular during the 1920s and is in 4/4 time with a lilting beat2
.Ruvalcaba’s foxtrot “Chapultec” has the style of a foxtrot with some added instrumentation and musical ideas that bring in Spanish culture. One example of this cultural blending is the utilization of castanets in the recording. Castanets are an instrument popularized by flamenco music and dance and they are made of wood and make a unique wooden clicking sound.

Another interesting fact about this piece is that every recording I found utilizes different instrumentation and stylistic add ons such as the addition mordents, the melody being played by a salterio instead of a wind instrument (I struggled with identifying the instrument used in the 1920’s recording). A salterio is a traditional instrument used in Spanish music dating back centuries3.

In some ways, the recorded version of the piece performed in America is definitely more Europeanized, but since I could find little evidence or notation of Ruvalcaba’s piece I am unsure as to which recordings are more true to his intentions. Given that he was classically trained in what was accepted as the western canon, but also raised around and inspired by Mariachi I could see his vision going either way. I attached some other recordings below so you may compare them yourself.

The first is at this link!

Overall, I wish I had more answers About Higinio Rulvacaba and his life, but I was and still am excited by what I did find.

1Ruvalcaba, PorMarcela Flores, Marcela Flores RuvalcabaBailarina, Bailarina, See author’s posts, and Nombre *. “A La Memoria Del Virtuoso Violinista Higinio Ruvalcaba.” Periodismo del sector cultural al estilo GRECU, April 20, 2020.

2Norton, Pauline. “Foxtrot.” Grove Music Online, January 20, 2001.

3James W. McKinnon, Nelly van Ree Bernard, Mary Remnant and Beryl Kenyon de Pascual. “Psaltery.” Grove Music Online, July 30, 2020.


A Critical Look at a Liberator Article



TW: racism and violence

Francis or “Frank” Johnson, an African-American composer and performer, is said to have helped pave the way for Jazz and Ragtime, and therefore modern music as we know it. Johnson published works in a variety of genres and he was the first black composer to have his sheet music published and also the first black musician to tour Europe. His music was enjoyed by white and black people alike and he reached immense fame. However, he was still confronted by racism, hatred, and violence1

The text I would like to focus on this week is an article entitled “Riot Near Pittsburgh— Frank Johnson’s band mobbed”. The article was published in the Liberator in 1843 and covered the violence against Johnson and his band on March 17th in Pittsburgh after a performance benefitting the temperance movement. The writer reports 

A large rabble of men and boys gathered around the doors and windows, and by their hooting and yelling did what they could to mar the pleasure of those within, who had previously paid their money for a rare musical treat”“Francis Johnson”2

My first instinct was to applaud this author for condemning the appalling racist behavior of the mob. However, upon digging deeper and thinking more critically I came to the realization that they were not condemning racist behavior per se, but disruptive behavior. Behavior that made themselves and their peers miss out on something they paid for. A commodity. There was no mention of the effect on Johnson or his band members beyond their physical injuries. The author then goes on to describe the attack on Johnson and his band after the show. 

“The mob followed Mr. Johnson and his company shouting (a racial slur)… and hurling brick-bats, stones, and rotten eggs… One poor fellow was severely, it is feared dangerously wounded in the head, and others were more or less hurt… Every well disposed citizen deeply regretted the disgrace thus brought upon our city…”2

The word choice leads us to believe the author was less concerned about the safety and well-being of Johnson and his band, but rather how the actions of the mob made the city look.

 I do want to be clear that the article was written in a time where condemning the violence at all was very progressive, but I cannot help but wonder at the reasoning for the condemnation. Beyond the feelings of being sighted out of a show they paid for, the author likely has other motivations.

 In their parting words in regards to this event, they state “of course no friend of the temperance enterprise could be engaged in this cowardly affair”2

Clearly, not only is the writer offended by the ruining of their evening, but they also want to use it to push their own political agenda. By stating only people against the temperance movement would engage in violent mob behavior the reporter demonizes those against the abolition of alcohol. 

Overall, the fact the creator of this article condemns the actions of the mob is a step in the right direction, but their motives do not feel pure to me.


1“Francis Johnson.” University Archives and Records Center,

2 “Riot Near Pittsburgh— Frank Johnson’s Band Mobbed.” Liberator, 9 June 1843, p. 93. ProQuest, Accessed 26 Sept. 2021.