Niños Cantores de Morelia

The Boys Choir of Morelia1

by Peggy Muñoz

 

It was the night of September 26, 1951. The Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City was filled to capacity with music lovers who had vaguely heard that there was something exciting going on in the way of a new boys’ choir down in the tiny provincial town of Morelia in the State of Michoacan; a rumor substantiated by glowing newspaper reports on a concert given some months before in the capital city. At the time, most of them had been too busy doing other things to attend. But tonight the choir, known as the Niños Cantores de Morelia, was going to sing the great Mozart Requiem with the Jalapa Symphony Orchestra, another provincial organization already in good standing with the metropolitan public.

The audience didn’t expect much that evening, but they heard a great deal. Romano Picutti, director of the Boys Choir of Morelia, conducted Mozart’s Requiem with a brilliance that left everyone gasping. And the choir, which consisted of thirty-five boy singers in the treble parts and some sixty-five voices from the Cathedral Chorus of Morelia, was - to put it mildly - "sensational."

"Those aren’t children, they’re angels!" came from all sides, as the listeners rose to their feet and applauded with a violence of Latin enthusiasm that hadn’t been heard in the old Palace for years.

Maestro Picutti accepted the ovation calmly, then packed up his boys and went back to "the sticks" to begin the work of preparing their next concert. He knew he had a great choir. But in Mexico City the public and critics were left in a state of astonishment, and for the first time began to have hopes that Mexico was at last going to produce a musical organization capable of competing with the best in the world and perhaps coming out on top. Up until then, the country had only given a few individual singers like Fanny Anitua, Irma Gonzalez and Oralia Dominguez, as well as the extraordinary talents of composer-conductor Carlos Chavez, to the art of music.

When a representative of the National Concert and Artists Corporation of New York City heard Picutti’s boys sing last year, he was equally impressed. The result was a contract for a nationwide tour of the United States to begin in January 1954. This is the first time in history that any Mexican musical organization will make such a tour. Picutti, of course, is happy about the whole thing, but what he really wants is to take the choir to Europe so that his old colleagues in Vienna can hear what he has done with a group of little Indian boys virtually picked up off the streets of a provincial town in Mexico.

"And then they still probably won’t believe it," he adds with a grin. "But we’ll show them that the Choir Boys of Vienna aren’t the only kids in the world with voices. Yes, sir, those boys over there are going to have to work hard if they expect to keep up with my little Mexicans."

Picutti’s optimism is by no means a vain boast, for he himself was conductor of the Vienna Choir Boys for a number of years, and in 1946 became Artistic Director of the entire Boys Choir Institute in Vienna, succeeding Ferdinand Grossmann after the war. During the three years he remained in charge of the Institute, he took his young singers on tours through Switzerland, France and Germany, presenting over a thousand concerts, and also directed several choral symphonies with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. After his choir performed at the Salzburg Festival in 1946, a critic for the New York Times did not hesitate for a moment in naming Romano Picutti as "the best director of boys voices in the world today."

The maestro was invited to Mexico in 1949 by Miguel Bernal Jimenez, Director of Morelia’s School of Sacred Music, and one of the country’s leading composers and organists. Anxious to get his family as far away as possible from war-torn Europe, Picutti accepted with hesitation. He knew it would mean starting all over again from nothing, but Mexico seemed like a promised land after living through the bombardments of Vienna, and he always had liked the idea of pioneering anyway.

When Picutti arrived in Morelia, he found a small sleepy city which was just beginning to wake up to the fact that it was the site of the first conservatory on the American continent (the Conservatory of the Roses, founded in 1743), and that across the street from that venerable old building, the students of the Schola Cantorum were making music all day long under the guidance of seventy year-old Canon Jose M. Villasenor and their beloved composer Miguel Bernal. Even if Morelia still didn’t know it, Romano Picutti soon found out that the latter institution had already provided an astonishing renaissance in the composition and performance of sacred music in Mexico.

He didn’t think too much, however, of the small chorus that awaited him; a group of youngsters prepared only for participation in the ecclesiastical services of the local Cathedral. With the help of the Schola Cantorum, he quickly gathered together some 1,000 boys who appeared to have at least a little talent, and from those he picked 400 of the most promising voices. Then he formed three separate choral groups for concentrated study.

Headquarters for the choir was the old Conservatory of the Roses, recently returned to the Church by former President Miguel Aleman for the purpose it had originally been intended for - musical education. And there were ten hours a day of musical education going on within its mellowed walls for Morelia’s most talented youth; classes in theory, long hours of singing exercises, a stepped-up training program in the skills of reading music and then of approaching the notes with art.

Picutti gave most of his energies to the first choir which was made up of older boys whose voices he could force without harmful effects. After only three months of study, this group presented its first concert before the Inter-American Congress of Sacred Music in Mexico City. The boys sang Palestrina to the satisfaction of the strictest perfectionist in that distinguished group.

Special appearances before the President of the Republic, the Diplomatic Corps, and at the private residence of the Archbishop of Mexico, followed. The authorities were more than pleased; they were thrilled.

But no one offered money. No one bothered to think that the youngsters needed uniforms, that it might be a good idea for the choir to have a bus in which to make its tours, or that there were milk and grocery bills still unpaid back at Las Rosas. And no one, including the boys’ parents, thought much of Picutti’s idea to have his young singers live in a dormitory within the Conservatory itself so that he could have them always right at hand for study and rehearsal. Everybody was impressed by the "miracle" he had performed. But he knew it wasn’t a miracle; that it was the result of a lot of hard work, and that he and his choir still had a long way to go toward fame.

"Well then, we’ll go out and earn what we need," he said grimly.

And that’s just what they did. The boys sang Masses in churches all over Mexico for anything that was offered them. They sang for weddings, they sang for funerals. They sang for anybody who could afford to pay them for it.

Picutti bought his boys uniforms and he found them an old bus that would serve their purposes. The next problem was the dormitory. By now they had been heard at the Palace of Fine Arts, and had made tours throughout the republics of Mexico, Guatemala, and San Salvador, to say nothing of the southern part of Texas. The ball was rolling at last. Now was the time to intern the youngsters and to take advantage of the resulting discipline and increased study hours to make the group into one of the greatest boys’ choirs in the world.

In 1950, Jose Yves Limantour, director of the Jalapa Symphony Orchestra, heard the angelic voices of Picutti’s Niños in a private concert in the patio of Morelia’s museum. He immediately contracted the group for an appearance in Jalapa, capital of the State of Vera Cruz, where the idea was born to perform the Requiem of Mozart with boys’ voices in the treble parts. The talks between Limantour and Picutti later materialized into that unforgettable concert in the Palace of Fine Arts on September 26, 1951.

The Niños Cantores de Morelia now boast an amazingly large repertoire, dating from early sacred music through the classical masters, right up to such modern composers as Bernal Jimenez and Benjamin Britten. They have also been recently contracted by Columbia to record popular Mexican folk songs for international distribution, which has meant learning a new style of singing, quite different from that used in the performances of classical music.

These results have been attained thanks to the knowledge of the director and to his insistence on constant work and discipline. A boy doesn’t wiggle around or let his thoughts wander during a rehearsal with Maestro Picutti. He pays attention to his singing, he strives to blend his voice with those of his companions and to remain in perfect pitch. He always watches his dynamics carefully. If he doesn’t do these things, he is more than likely to hear a string of Italian curses flung at him and to feel the entire score of the music he was supposed to be singing descend on the top of his head with all the force of the Maestro’s grownup arms. Music is a serious business at Las Rosas.

There are always problems to be solved in any worthwhile undertaking, and the Niños Cantores de Morelia have already marked up an imposing list of triumphs on the other side of the ledger. When the budget doesn’t quite balance, Picutti can find comfort in the memory of how the editor of the Laredo Times, who had heard the boys sing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, made arrangements for the choir to cross the border without benefit of government visas or passports, and to sing a special program for the people of Laredo, Texas. And then there was that memorable night when the Niños arrived at the Mexican-Guatemalan frontier only to find the gates closed. Their director had them sing the National Anthems of both countries. Immediately the guards came piling out of the barracks to let them across without further question.

Next year, Picutti’s "humble" little Indians will be heard in all the principal cities of the United States under the name of The Singing Boys of Mexico. They don’t feel humble or underprivileged anymore. They are musicians with a great artistic future ahead of them, for their Maestro insists with pride that they will be the composers, conductors, singers and instrumentalists of Mexico’s tomorrow.

1  Reprinted from the June 1954 issue of ETUDE Magazine

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