Many, many years ago I acquired, from an Ermita antique shop, a huge piece of pig-skin that had a Gregorian chant written on it. It was a page from an ancient cantoral or choir book that provided the antiphon or the words and music to accompany the “Misa ni San Jose,” the proper texts for a Mass to celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph. It cost P300 at the time when art and antiques were within reach of a college student on allowance. If you can find the same item today it will cost at least P25,000! I had seen similar pages from other cantorals in European flea markets, many much older and with gilded illumination that was suitable for framing or was used as decorative lamp shades. But this cantoral in a small Ermita shop was special because it was made by a Filipino in the Philippines sometime in the 18th or 19th century. At the time I did not consider tracing the other pages to complete the cantoral, and I wonder where it came from.
Many, many years ago while visiting the Spanish colonial churches of Bohol, I came across one that was in the midst of a town fiesta. There was a drum and bugle corps practicing outside the church and as I took photos of the pretty girls twirling their batons in the air, I noticed that some of the drums used by the band were old and damaged. Two of these drums got busted with use and were repaired with pig-skin pages from a cantoral! Historians and heritage activists will surely complain, but that was one way the parishioners made use of old choir books that nobody needed or wanted anymore.
We are fortunate that some of these cantorals have survived whole, one of them used to reconstruct the “Misa Baclayana” or the choral settings for a Mass in a cantoral that came from the ancient Bohol church of Baclayon. More on this in Maria Alexandra Iñigo Chua’s “Kirial de Baclayon año 1826: Hispanic Sacred Music in 19th century Bohol, Philippines” (Ateneo Press, 2010). Another important piece of early music in the Philippines can be found in the choir loft of San Agustin Church and Museum in Intramuros, Manila. Resting on an elaborate ebony stand of Philippine hardwood known as a “fascistol,” the handwritten notes on dried pig or goat-skin were read by monks chanting around this huge book. The notes are not the eight modern notes that make a musical scale as we know it today on a G or Bass clef as “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do.” Rather the music is in Gregorian chant or plainsong ritual music named after Pope Gregory I and is considered the official liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in religious or monastic communities that have been using this unharmonized chant in their prayers for centuries. The cantoral in San Agustin Church might even be earlier than the Gregorian chant, as we know it today, that was organized and made popular by Benedictine monks from Solesmes in France and Silos in Spain.
The San Agustin cantoral has been dated by art historian Santiago A. Pilar to around 1659-1697 and is attributed to an indio artist from Malate aptly named Marcelo Banal (“Holy Marcelo”) who joined the Order of St. Augustine and was renamed Marcelo de San Agustin. Adept at music, Marcelo (I have not checked if he was ordained or took his vows as a brother) is said to have composed motets and made choir books. Not much of his music survived, but if Santiago Pilar is correct, then the Augustinian Cantoral is Marcelo Banal’s handiwork.
Unlike the medieval illuminated “Books of the Hours” that are marvels in miniature painting, the San Agustin cantoral only has three illuminated capital letters that open certain verses for singing. The San Agustin Museum has chosen to exhibit the cantoral, covered in plastic, opened at the letter “O” that is the first page in chant for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The other illuminated letters are an “I” decorated with the Holy Family and the letter “E” depicting Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. The letter “O” is the most charming because of the Christ Child drawn inside the letter best described by Santiago Pilar thus:
“At first glance it seems to be a profusely carved and painted Solomonic column twisted to form the letter, but a closer examination at the top of the curve reveals this twisted form to be a dragon trying to reach its tail. The three dimensional effect of the letter was achieved with cross-hatchings in ink. Inside the ‘O’ the Christ child is depicted in the convention of a new-born babe in a nativity scene wrapped in swaddling clothes. Typical of 17th-century Filipino painting and reflective of the novice state of the art in the country, the ‘O’ shows the painter’s obsession with animating elements, such as the hand in blessing and the sharply rendered features of the infant, like his widely alert eyes and parted mouth; all these are done as if to compensate for the tentative skills of the painter.”
It is hoped that advanced music students in the conservatories of music in the University of the Philippines, University of Santo Tomas, Sta. Isabel and St. Scholastica’s will take time to give early Philippine music a second look. It is hoped that the music from these ancient cantorals can be performed, recorded and studied to complete the definitive history of Philippine music.