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Baroque Catholic Music from Peking

Joseph-Marie Amiot: (Mass of the Jesuits in Beijing etc);
XVIII-21, Musique Des Lumieres/ Ensemble Meihua Fleur de Prunus/ Choeur de Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris; Michel Godard, serpent

Naïve E8910 (re-issue of Auvidis-Astree E-8642)

The oddest of the recent batch of reissues from this company must be this collection of music accompanied by Chinese and European instruments, associated with the Jesuits of Peking. The music composed by the Jesuit missionaries to accompany the celebrations of their early communities in China is fascinating and adds up to much more than a curiosity.

Like many early music recordings, this fascinating disc is a reconstructed ‘performance,’ in this case of the mass that Chinese Christians might have heard celebrated by the Jesuits, in Baroque Peking.

The core of the Mass is in Latin – the Kyrie, Sanctus and so on, and is by Charles d’Ambleville (17th century). Publishing history (the rare existence of scores in parts, not complete) suggests that it was taken by missionaries on their travels to have a Mass to sing. The accompanying madrigals and instrumental pieces are very likely to have been performed in China – Boyleau’s (16th century) exists in one of the books known to have been in the Jesuit library, and Pedrini was a famous (18th century) missionary who left these works and others in manuscript in China.

The rest of the mass – canticles and prayers, however, was written by Chinese composers (conjectures have been made) and represented translations into Chinese. These interpolations are accompanied by Chinese instruments and written in a style very similar to Peking Opera (which has not changed over the centuries, after the traditional Chinese tradition of endlessly repeating culture). The xiao and pipa, (a little refined in sound to be completely authentic), the gongs and the claquette will be extremely familiar to anyone who has ever heard traditional Chinese music. Amiot (in the 18th century) collected this music and sent it to Paris to show the King (or his librarian) what was going on in this aspect of the Christianisation of China.

This is a startling juxtaposition, therefore, of familiar pre- and early Baroque sacred music with equally authentic (but alien) traditional Chinese music, in which hearing very familiar expressions such as ‘Lamb of God’ sung in Mandarin is extremely disconcerting.

This disc raises many big questions, impossible to answer by listening to it, or without extensive research.

How much did the Chinese like Western music (Westerners gave them many instruments as a form of cultural exchange and diplomacy, so almost all the Western instruments on the disc had already become well-known In China)? How did the Jesuits and other Westerners respond to the strangeness of Chinese harmonies and instruments?  How far was this juxtaposition reflected in other art forms?

Here, certainly, we feel that East and West did not really meet, although maybe, as we can today, each could already appreciate the other’s aesthetic. It reminds us, while giving great musical pleasure, of how complex the entire subject of Orientalism, East-West cultural contacts and the pre-nineteenth century history of China was.

The collection was enriched over decades, its complicated history traversed in the extensive notes by the joint directors of the project, Jean-Christophe Frisch, who plays flute and harpsichord and Francois Picard (Chinese sheng, xiao and guanzi).

With scholarly texts and attractive illustrations, recorded in Paris 1998, this adds up to a remarkable and hugely enjoyable CD of Catholic music in China from the 16th to 18th centuries. It makes for an exotic concert which should give great pleasure to enthusiasts for sacred baroque music and equally to collectors of World Music.

Ying Chang & Peter Grahame Woolf

See other discs reviewed in this batch: Vivaldi and Handel.