The four Spanish scripts call for music in a few instances. In contrast, choral singing and occasional instrumental flourishes supplemented the spoken performance in each of the Nahuatl plays, to varying degrees. People were to play drums and horns at some scene changes, particularly when the council of Pharisees assembles for a meeting. More notably, Latin chants accompany a number of scenes. Typically these musical interludes are noted in the stage directions with the term mehuaz ‘it will be raised’ or ‘it will be sung,’ and a few words of Latin, generally misspelled by the copyist. Deciphered, these Latin phrases lead us, very often, to a choral book published in Mexico in 1604: the Franciscan friar Juan Navarro’s Liber in quo quatuor passiones Christi Domini, which sets verses from each of the four Gospel accounts of the Passion to plainchant melodies. Navarro’s book can be viewed here on archive.org. Other Latin passages come from antiphons and hymns from the Latin liturgy or to motets, short, polyphonic songs. Usually these song choices exactly match the accompanying action in the play. Choices differ from play to play, though some pieces of music are used in multiple plays. 

Colonial Nahua towns had choirs of singers (cantores or cuicanimeh; these included young boys), led by church officials called maestros de capilla, or chapel masters. These singers would sing Latin liturgical chants during church services. The chapel masters took part in the production of plays—for example, the Passion play at Princeton is signed by chapel master Gregorio Eusebio—so it is not surprising that they would invite their choirs, or at least some members, to enhance the Passion performances with their vocal talents. We have no descriptions of how this was done, but it seems likely that the actors would pause in the spoken script while the choir sang. In some cases, such as the eating of the Last Supper or Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet, action on stage could continue while the choir sang; in other cases, the actors may have frozen in a tableau for the audience to gaze at while listening to the singers.

Adding songs to the scripts did more than turn spoken plays into partially musical performances and give more community members a stake in the spectacle. Taking formal music from the church, in the language of the church, outdoors into the Passion play added an additional layer of sacredness and rituality to the event. It was another means of asserting Indigenous control over the Roman Catholic media of worship. Given how many people enjoy music even when they cannot understand the words, the fact that hardly anyone knew what the Latin meant may not have been a big issue.

Annotations to the translations of the plays identify the musical passages and provide the words in Latin and English (or Spanish). In many cases, musical scores and video or audio performances of these pieces can be found online.

Louise Burkhart 3/23/21