General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Mural by Diego Rivera depicting Aztec/Mexica musicians, singers and dancerws

If you want to study Aztec music in depth...

We recently received an enquiry from a Bristol University student seeking advice on good sources for researching Aztec music and its legacy. It seems like a good idea to share these suggestions with anyone else out there keen to delve into this whole fascinating area. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Robert Stevenson’s classic work; letter to Mexicolore from Dr. Stevenson (22/8/06)
Pic 1: Robert Stevenson’s classic work; letter to Mexicolore from Dr. Stevenson (22/8/06) (Click on image to enlarge)

Much depends, of course, on whether you can read Spanish or not! We will start by assuming you don’t. Our student rightly pointed out that the first ‘port of call’ will most likely be the major study of Music in Aztec and Inca Territory by Dr. Robert Stevenson, (retired) Professor of Musicology at UCLA (California), published in 1968. Many of us have well-thumbed copies of his highly erudite and pioneering yet accessible book (few can boast, as we can, a personal letter of encouragement from Dr. Stevenson, full of gems of wisdom, including (see pic 1) ’Any discussion of sound sources that does not dwell on disciplined learning in [the] calmécac goes astray...’) You can learn more about Dr. Stevenson’s eminent career - ‘one of the most prolific American musicologists of the 20th century’ - below.

Pic 2: 4 more books in English to consult for serious study of Aztec music
Pic 2: 4 more books in English to consult for serious study of Aztec music (Click on image to enlarge)

Luckily, the work of some of the early, equally pioneering, Mexican musicologists is available in English. Foremost among these is Samuel Martí, amongst whose books we recommend these:-

Dances of Anáhuac; the Choreography and Music of Precortesian Dances (1964, written with Gertrude Prokosch Kurath)
Music Before Columbus (1971).

Of more recent note, two solid research tomes we would recommend are:-

Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs translated, with intro and commentary by John Bierhorst (1985)
The Singing of the New World: Indigenous Voice in the Era of European Contact by Gary Tomlinson (2007).

Pic 3: 4-barrelled flute, collection of Roberto Velázquez Cabrera
Pic 3: 4-barrelled flute, collection of Roberto Velázquez Cabrera (Click on image to enlarge)

There are good introductory summaries of Aztec music available to online subscribers of the world famous and encyclopaedic New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, accessible via Grove Music Online, now part of Oxford Music Online - follow link below (the excellent article on ‘Aztec Music’ was written by Dr. Robert Stevenson). Search also for ‘Mexico: Traditional music: History: Pre-Columbian cultures’.

A ‘new’ name to look out for is our good friend and member of our Panel of Experts Dr. Arnd Adje Both, who has quickly become a world authority on Mexica music. If you peruse his website (link below) you will find some articles of his available in English.

Pic 4: Special edition of ‘Arqueología Mexicana’ on pre-Hispanic Music
Pic 4: Special edition of ‘Arqueología Mexicana’ on pre-Hispanic Music (Click on image to enlarge)

Now, if you read Spanish...
• Adje Both contributed to a splendid introduction to Pre-Hispanic Music, which includes articles on Mexican Music in New Spain, in the magazine Arqueología Mexicana, vol. 94 (Nov-Dec 2008)

• An earlier, more extensive survey, written by Juan Guillermo Contrero Arias - which also contains a long section on the music of New Spain - was the Música volume in the series Atlas Cultural de México (1988)

• Going further back, knowledge of Spanish will access for you the classic works of Samuel Martí (such as Instrumentos Musicales Precortesianos, 1955) and Vicente T. Mendoza (La Música y la Danza in Esplandor del México Antiguo vol. 1, 1978)

• Other works we’ve found useful include:-
La Música de México: vol I: Historia: 1. Período Prehispánico edited by Julio Estrada (1984)
La Música precolombina by Enrique Martínez Miura (2004)
Horizontes de la música precortesiana by Pablo Castellanos (1970).

Picture sources:-
• Aztec musicians, detail of a mural by Diego Rivera on the history of Mexico in the National Palace, Mexico City: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• 4-barrelled flute: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Read the original enquiry...

Oxford Music Online (the new home of Grove Music Online)
Adje Both’s academic publishing house on Music Archaeology
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