Friday, October 30, 2015


During a recent visit to a local used books shop I came across a copy of Life in Mexico by Frances Calderón de la Barca.  The book takes the form of a long series of letters written by the author to her family in New York from Mexico.

The story of travel and adventures in 19th Century Mexico begins with the marriage of Frances Inglis to Ángel Calderón de la Barca in 1838 at about the time the Argentine-born aristocrat was appointed to be the first Spanish Ambassador to Mexico following that country's establishment of independence from the Spanish Empire.  They make an arduous trip from New York to Vera Cruz by sailing ship and then travel overland by horse-drawn carriages to the Mexican capital which becomes their base for exploring central Mexico.  Given the author's social position and her husband's diplomatic status, the judgments exhibited regarding Mexican life are not without racial and class biases, but the author nevertheless shows herself to be a keen observer of Mexican society in the troubled times following independence.

Warring creole-led factions contested control of the capital city.  Bandit gangs often ruled large parts of the rural countryside, so that travel was only marginally safe even with armed escort.  In spite of these hazards, Don Calderón and his wife, during the two years of their residence in the country,  managed to navigate the complicated social and political scene with aplomb, and they undertook epic tours of Central Mexico's historic landscapes, often involving many days on horseback over treacherous roads.

In addition to writing letters home to her family about her adventures, Frances and Ángel also maintained a correspondence with the historian, William Prescott, and undertook the acquisition of information crucial to the development of his ground-breaking History of the Conquest of Mexico.  Prescott at one point even sent the couple a complete Daguerreotype outfit for the purpose of recording images of some of the country's historic sites.  That effort, using the recently-invented photographic process, apparently met with little or no success, but the couple was able to provide significant documentation supporting Prescott's quest.  The historian was later able to reciprocate by aiding Frances in the publication of her book, and providing a preface to the first edition.

The importance and difficulties of mail communications is alluded to many times throughout Life in Mexico.  Letters, packages and commercial goods commonly spent a couple months in transit, and each successful arrival was a cause for celebration.  Frances' straight-forward, unadorned writing style was well suited to communicating a good word-based approximation of her adventures and the exotic places she visited.  At the same time, she was clearly conscious of the limitations of the written word and she tried in several ways to communicate a fuller representation of her experience through non-verbal means -- an idea which today would be subsumed by the concept of multimedia.

Daguerreotypy was too new in 1840 to offer any real chance of success to a couple enthusiastic amateurs.  Frances, however, had better luck with a much older, better developed non-verbal communications form, music and musical notation.  In her sixteenth letter Frances recounts a trip by coach which passed the great pyramids of Teotihuacan on the way to the country estate of a friend.  Writing from the hacienda she reports that :

"In the evening here, all assemble in a large hall, the Señora de _____ playing the piano; while the whole party, agents, dependientes, major-domo, coachmen, matadors, picadors, and women-servants assemble, and perform the dances of the country: jarabes, aforrados, enanos, palomos, zapateros, etc., etc."

Frances includes in her letter the verses of three of the popular songs played at the gathering and says: "The music married to the "immortal verse," I have learned by ear, and shall send you."  In the twenty-sixth letter, the scores of three of the pieces played at the hacienda appear as Frances wrote them out.

These episodes of the book which focused on 19th Century Mexican popular music were the most vivid parts of the story for me.  As someone with no musical talent or education, I had never given much thought to scores and notation, thinking of them always to be little more than recipes for reproducing compositions.  What was clear from the stories told by Frances, however, was that musical notation could be used to communicate the sounds of a specific performance, one that took place at a great remove of time and place.  This may seem a trivial observation to those who are musically literate, but I think it is an idea still worthy of some reflection.

The resources which Frances Calderón de la Baca had for reproducing and transmitting sounds involved processes which are identical in fundamental ways to modern sound recording and production.  She had a method for encoding and decoding sounds, a transmission channel, and technical instrumentation for reproducing the recorded sound patterns.  The great difference between then and now, of course, is that a very high level of operator skill in both recording and  performance was required to achieve fidelity in reproduction.

To put those ideas into context, imagine the receipt of the letter containing the musical scores.  It seems very likely that the Frances' New York family would have gone into the music room after dinner.  A relative or friend who was the most skilled pianist, or perhaps the most familiar with Frances' playing style would sit down at the piano, smooth out the letter's paper, prop it on the music holder and play the tunes that Frances and learned and recorded in a far-away place.  I picture her mother closing her eyes briefly and imagining Frances there at the piano.  I propose this scenario with some degree of confidence because I was able to re-enact that scene shortly after finishing the book.  I am not able to play the piano we have in the house, but when Margaret's accomplished piano teacher came by one evening she played the three tunes for me.  So I closed my eyes too for a moment, and Frances was there in the room.

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