Friday 23 February 2018

The composer who made music his mission in life

'Baroque', as applied initially to the music of the period that included Handel and Bach, was scarcely a compliment. The word, from the Italian for distortion of a logical argument, had derogatory overtones.

What now seems to epitomise exemplary precision was altogether too complicated for the ears of those who came after.

These days, 1600 to 1750 is generally regarded as a time of untold musical riches. Handel and Bach scaled the summits, but the Italians led the way.

From Monteverdi, the first to push back the boundaries with this new music that celebrated melody, harmony, and most of all, a driving bass line, baroque developed through names still familiar -- Corelli, Scarlatti, and Vivaldi.

Another who belongs in this company, though less renowned for reasons which will become clear, is Domenico Zipoli. He was born in Tuscany in 1688, 10 years after Vivaldi, and started off on the organ in Florence.

In the usual way of things, he moved around to take lessons from the established names, going to Naples and, ultimately, Rome.

Known as a composer for organ and harpsichord, he secured the prestigious post of organist at the Jesuit church. What might not have been expected was that he would actually join the order.

Zipoli left Rome for Seville. While the rest were making their names across Europe, he was preparing for a life in the missions.

He was sent to South America, and spent 10 years in Córdoba in what would become Argentina. He never actually became a priest, for though he finished his studies, there was no one to ordain him.

The Jesuit missions across the subcontinent brought more than religion to the local population. They offered education, taught the basics of commerce, and added the finer aspects of European culture. Contemporary music -- baroque -- was part of that.

Zipoli was in charge of all things musical in Córdoba, and wrote prolifically while he was there. He'd moved on from compositions for the keyboard, now focussing on church music.

His Missa San Ignacio is a wonderful example of what he wrote there and the music spread way beyond Argentina.

Zipoli died from TB at just 37, but his reputation was secure. The position of the Jesuits wasn't. Spain and Portugal, the colonial powers, were unhappy at the extent of their influence. They were expelled from South America and, along with much else, Zipoli's music was lost.

He might have been forgotten but for a chance find in the 1970s. An architect working on the restoration of an old mission church in Bolivia came upon a store of pages of original scores.

Among them was music by Domenico Zipoli.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

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