Introducing Fr. Manuel de Zumaya, Composer-Priest (1678-1755)

I think I once heard someone famous claim that the Catholic Church could never produce artists of the caliber of a Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky. Maybe I heard them wrong, but I’ve been working at disproving that assertion lately. It all started when I learned that Vivaldi was a Catholic priest. And then I bumped into the beautiful polyphony of Fr. Tomás Luis de Victoria.

Of course, there have been beautiful composers of chants and polyphony since the Church began. Remember St. Romanus the Melodist? Awesome story, and amazingly beautiful music. Which brings me to this morning.

There I was just minding my own business, looking for some music to share with you, and somehow I stumbled upon another composer-priest story.

Have you ever heard of the baroque composer from Mexico named Manuel de Zumaya? Me neither. And sadly, I can’t find very much on him in English, though there is a Wikipedia page about him. He’s been called “the Handel of the Americas.” The first video shared below had this in the liner notes: ” a mexican priest and composer, from Mexico City; he was Kappelmeister of Mexico City Cathedral (1715-1738).”

That is what got me started on the quest for more information. On the site (you have to LOVE that as a website name!), I found this citation on him.


Manuel de Zumaya or Manuel de Sumaya (c. 1678 & ndash; 1755) was perhaps the most famous Mexico|Mexican composer of the colonial period of New Spain . His music was the culmination of the Baroque music|Baroque style in the New World ; of Spanish, French, Dutch, British, and Portuguese colonial composers, none stand out as much as Zumaya did. He was the first person in the western hemisphere to compose an Italian-texted opera , entitled Partenope (Zumaya)|Partenope (now lost).


Manuel de Zumaya was born in Mexico and was a mestizo (of mixed Native American and European descent).

In 1715, he was appointed chapelmaster of Mexico City ‘s cathedral , and was one of the first Americans to become one. He served there until 1738 when he moved to Oaxaca , where he followed his close friend Bishop Tomas Montaño against the vigorous and continuous protests of the Mexico City Cathedral Chapel Council for him to stay.

Manuel de Zumaya died on December 21, 1755, in Oaxaca, where he had resided since 1738.


His works are a multiplicity of his talents and styles. He was a master of the older Renaissance style and of the newer Baroque style.

In 1711, the new Viceroy, Don Fernando de Alencastre Noroña y Silva. Duke of Linares, an devotee of Italian opera, commissioned Zumaya to translate Italian libretti and write new music for them. The libretto of the first, La Parténope survives in the National Library of Mexico | Biblioteca Nacional de Mexico in Mexico City , though the music has been lost.

The Hieremiae Prophetae Lamentationes is a Gregorian chant|Gregorian —style antiquated notational piece. Zumaya authored the charmingly jolly ‘Sol-fa de Pedro’ (Peter’s Solfeggio) in 1715 during the examinations to select the Chapel Master at Mexico City’s cathedral.

Zumaya’s other famous piece, Celebren Publiquen , shows his ability to handle the polychoral sound of the high Baroque era. With his distribution of the choral resources into two choirs of unequal size, he copied the style that was favoured by the Spanish and Mexican choral schools in the early 18th century. The rich textures and instrumental writing reflect Zumaya’s “modern” style and are at the opposite end of the spectrum from his anachronistic Renaissance settings.

Zumaya’s recessional Angelicas Milicias presents his ability to superbly combine the Baroque orchestra and choir to create a sublime and stately piece worthy of the Virgin Mary herself (to which it is dedicated). The interludio, Albricias Mortales , is done in much the same style as Angelicas Milicias.

While I keep digging for more information, check out the following four pieces that I found via YouTube. I think you’ll agree that they are wonderful.

Look out below —Angelic Militias!


“Angelic militia, armies of heaven, that you protect the divine sovereign palace of the Monarch of the Holy Empire: To arms!, That the most beautiful and pure, triumphant Queen on a par, goes up, to be gratefully crowned. And this way rubs the strings, and the resound of trumpet and timpani, applauds her glories, with sweet roars of gun salutes.”

I don’t know about that translation, but the piece is sublime.

Something like “Guilt, as if?” I don’t speak Spanish, so help me out here readers! Here are the liner notes from the person who posted this,

This aria was composed by the Kapellmeister Manuel De Sumaya, New Spain’s Händel. He was born in Mexico City in 1676 and died in Oaxaca City, 1755. (some of Sumaya’s music can be heard in Jack Black’s “Nacho Libre”, when he climbs up the cliff to get the eagle eggs) Manuel de Sumaya is the most important composer of the New Spain and he’s the composer of the second american opera “La Parténope” after Torrejón y Velasco “La púrpura de la Rosa”

The Greatest Miracle music for the 1709 dedication of Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico. So says the person who posted this video.

Joyful Light of Day. Try to stop from turning pirouettes. I dare you.

I’ll keeping looking to see if I can find more information of him and his contemporary named Ignacio de Jerusalem.

  • Jonathan

    Also Catholic are Mozart, Palestrina, Byrd, and Messaien.

  • Patrick

    check out: Olivier Messiaen-extraordinary 20th century composer…also a devout Catholic. His music attempts to achieve a timeless, eternity-like atmosphere through innovative uses of rhythm and melody. Famous Pieces included: "Quartet for the End of Time" (which he wrote in a POW camp in Germany during WWII), "Turangalila Symphony" (translates roughly "Time and Love")Also, I have a feeling that Alfred Schnittke was a Catholic.

  • Frank

    Hey Jonathan and Patrick, thanks for stopping in. Do you know of others that were priests or deacons too? Let me know.

  • John McNees

    Excuse me? Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized, confirmed, and buried a Catholic, and his late setting of the Mass, the Missa Solemnis, is surely one of the greatest and most earnestly sincere pieces of religious music ever composed. Tschaikovsky belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church and composed a setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

  • Frank

    John, you're excused. Keep in mind, I didn't say it. Some know-nothing celebrity said it (I believe). Granted, whoever said it was showing "ignorance" as their trump card. ;-P.

  • John McNees

    Not to mention Haydn, Schubert, and Bruckner, all of whom wrote settings of the Mass. Nor the devoutly Orthodox Stravinsky. The remark is *so* ignorant that little real love of music can have been behind it– just mindless animosity toward the Church.

  • John McNees

    Although he only received minor orders, Franz Liszt joined the Franciscans, lived in a monastery for a time, and composed a "Christus-Oratorio."I forgot to mention Berlioz, whose setting of the Requiem Mass–the Agnus Dei, anyhow–can now be heard on the soundtrack of Terrence Malick's film, "The Tree of Life." But I think I've said enough. Just let me echo one name from somebody else's post for the sheer pleasure of it: Mozart!

  • Anonymous

    I looked up the lyrics to the hymn, and for the aria, Como aunque culpa by Manuel de Sumaya:"O feliz, culpa nuestra,que tanto Redentorque tanto Redentorlogra triunfantequa taaaaaanto que tanto Redentorlogra triunfantecon tal fineza muestra,que le obligó a nacer,vivir y padecer,el Ser Amante.El Seeeer Amaaante.[Repeat all above]"I believe those are all of the lyrics of the hymn.To translate:To translate:Oh happy, fault of ours,So much a Redeemer (idiomatically it's equivalent to 'what a Redeemer!'So much a Redeemertriumphant achieverSo much a, so much a Redeemertriumphant achieverwith such fine-ness shows,that it obliged Him to be born,live and die,the Lover-being (This is a bit awkward for me to translate, el Ser, means the Being, Amante means lover).-Steven Reyes

  • Frank

    Awesome, Steven! Thanks for that. :)

  • Anonymous

    Oh oops,the title says Como aunque culpa, which strangely is not repeated in any of the video you posted. It can mean: "As though guilt", it seems to be that the message is that Christ came down from Heaven as if by divine obligation to save us because He is Divine Lover. I'm not quite sure though.God bless,Steven Reyes

  • Frank

    So I was kinda on the right track (thanks to Google Translate). It is a beautiful piece though.

  • Anonymous

    No problem Frank!-Steven

  • Anonymous

    Schnittke was indeed a Catholic of the Roman Rite, a convert (like Mahler) from Judaism. He was Russian, so although he was a Latin he composed many beautiful settings of Eastern spiritual texts, like the Lamentations of St. Gregory of Narek (in his Choral Concerto) and prayers like the Bogoroditse Devo and the Jesus Prayer.~SeraphimPalestrina, who was mentioned above, was almost ordained a priest, receiving the tonsure (and probably minor orders; I don't remember) but never making it to actually becoming a deacon or priest.Mexico had dozens of priests who were fine composers, though few are remembered or listened to today (none of them really stand out as being really exceptional in the crowd). Another country which has a tradition of a priestly-composer class is Armenia; any time you see the title "Vartapet" or "Vartabed" (e.g., Komitas Vartapet) after a composer's name you are seeing the title of a celibate priest.

  • Anonymous

    Whatever moron made the comment that inspired this post should listen to the Vespers (All-Night Vigil) and Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom of Rachmaninov. (Russian Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic, of course, but same faith, same liturgy, and since all their valid sacraments and graces come through the Catholic Church which therefore subsists albeit in a wounded fashion in them, same Church.)Western music is a product and gift of the Catholic Church. It all developed from Gregorian plainsong, via Renaissance polyphony.~Seraphim

  • Anonymous

    Vivaldi was called "the red priest". I'm not sure where your source quote comes from. The catholic church has produced more musicians and composers than can be counted. No lack of devout composers in any era…

  • Fran

    Quite beautiful!

  • Sandy

    I second all the sentiments above which state the originator of that quote is an idiot.Some of the most exquisite art of all time was commissioned by the Church, and by the Crown… occasionally by both.Entry level music or art history would well suit this person.

  • Andy

    There are a host of Catholic composers, sadly many of whom are not heard of today, nor is their music performed either as part of the Holy Mass or in concert. Yet, a great deal of their work is sublime and in the finest sacred tradition. Such composers include the Europeans Sixt Bachmann, Jan Hugo Vorisek, Nikolaus Betscher, Meingosus Gaelle, Isfrid Kayser, Aemillian Rosengart, Robert Fuhrer and more. As you note in your BLOG, there is also a rich treasure of little-heard Latin American Baroque music. The works of Zumaya, Jose Mauricio Nunes Garcia, Luis Alvares Pinto, Marcos Coelho Neta, Jose Alves and Jose Joaquim Lobo de Mesquita are very much worth exploring.

  • Frank

    @Andy, thanks for the list of artists!

  • Dan M.

    One need look further than Giovanni Palestrina, a renaissance genius. Claudio Monteverdi was also Catholic. Whoever said that Catholics can't produce great composers are just being daft–Mozart himself was Catholic.

  • Frank

    Indeed, Catholics of all stripes have been great artists. To find the artists that held Holy Orders, though, even further puts the fire to such ignorant assertions.