General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Royal court musicians

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Rose Saxtorph: Hello Mexicolore. I’m an artist who is very interested in Mexico and its history. Since I am recently working on a comic book taking place in Tenochtitlan around 1480, I’d like to know a pair of things that has been impossible for me to find any good information about. About the Aztec Royal Court Musicians. Did they live at the palace where they were working, or did they live elsewhere? Was it only boys who could become such musicians or was girls allowed as well? Did they get trained at the Calmecac, the Telpochcalli or maybe a whole third place? It would be wonderful if you could answer these questions for me, and just (if that’s not too much to ask for) give a description of the daily life for the Royal Court Musicians (Answered by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Artist’s impression of Aztec musicians performing at a public ceremony in front of the ‘Templo Mayor’
Pic 1: Artist’s impression of Aztec musicians performing at a public ceremony in front of the ‘Templo Mayor’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The answer below hopes to answer some of your questions. The truth is, however, that some aspects of Aztec daily life are still unknown to us…
Through the analysis of archaeological evidence and primary sources, some scholars have distinguished two types of Aztec music: that of the temple, and that of the court. Both (2007, p99) states that, as opposed to Aztec priest-musicians, court musicians, called macehualcuicanimeh or tlapizque, were of common and noble descent and belonged to a professional group or guild called the Mixcoacalli (House of the Cloud Serpent). According to Book VIII of Sahagún’s Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España, the Mixcoacalli would have consisted of rooms inside the palace of the Aztec leader (Tlatoani) where musicians were at his disposal. Here, instruments would be played, as well as produced. It is not clear whether musicians lived in the palace. However, if macehualcuicanimeh did not live in the Mixcoacalli, they must certainly have spent a lot of time there. High-ranking court musicians were sometimes charged with teaching in the commoner’s school, the Telpochcalli (House of Youth), where their roles as instructors would have lasted long into the evening. The Tepochcalli would have directed students to the Cuicacalli (House of Song) where they learnt to sing and dance, and, occasionally, the Mecatlan (School of Musicians) for all youths who hoped to make courtly music their profession.

Pic 2: Huey Tecuilhuitl, the festivity in which the goddess Xilonen dies and women sing for twenty days. Primeros Memoriales, fol.251r, detail
Pic 2: Huey Tecuilhuitl, the festivity in which the goddess Xilonen dies and women sing for twenty days. Primeros Memoriales, fol.251r, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

On the other hand, noble-born priests produced a different class of music. They would have studied and lived at Calmecacs (religious schools) which were attached to temples, and directed their music not to the courts, but exclusively to the worship of the gods. The participation of females in the ritual delivery of music is well documented. For example, women playing the parts of goddesses in religious festivals might play an instrument. In one example, the impersonator of the goddess Xilonen played a snake rattle before she was sacrificed. In another, priestesses played gourd drums during the festivity of Huey Tecuilhuitl. Women musicians also performed in courts. Jacques Soustelle tells us of richly dressed women performing ‘mimed songs’, which were dramatic events of dance and song that were acted in front of great leaders (Soustelle, 2002 p240). The sources below will help you get a good idea of the daily activities of both types of musician.

Sources:-
• Both, Arnd Adje. Aztec Music Culture. The World of Music, Vol.49, No.2 (2007), pp 91-104
• Sahagún, fray Bernadino de. Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España. Editorial Porrúa: Mexico City, 1963
• Soustelle, Jacques. The Daily Life of the Aztecs. Phoenix press: London, 2002.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Detail of drawing by Miguel Covarrubias, scanned from our own copy of The Aztecs, People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso
• Pic 2: Public domain.

‘If you want to study Aztec music in more depth...l’

‘Music, Song and Dance among the Aztecs - a short introduction’

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