Bringing western music to ancient China – Jesuit built China’s first pipe organ, helped negotiate Sino-Russian treaty

20 March 2016

In the late 17th century, a Portuguese Jesuit built the largest pipe organ in East Asia, in a church in Beijing. Thousands came to hear him play the instrument, which included sounds of birds, animals and humans. It was a novel way to bring the Chinese close to Christianity.

This pipe organ was one of the many achievements of Father Tomas Pereira, who worked at the court of Emperor Kangxi for more than 30 years and was the official musician. He built a close and privileged relationship with the Emperor.

He and an Italian priest who succeeded him, the Vincentian Teodorico Pedrini, were the two men who did most to introduce western music to China.

This was the subject of a seminar “Introduction of Western Music in China and the Philippines” at the Macau Ricci Institute (MRI) of Macao on the 25th April 2015. Both priests spent time in Macao before being sent to the imperial court in Beijing.

Pereira is also famous in China for being one of two Jesuits in the Chinese negotiating team that successfully negotiated the Treaty of Nerchinsk with Tsarist Russia, signed on 27th August 1689. It was the first peace treaty between China and Russia and fixed the border for the next 171 years; the official version was in Latin, the language of the Jesuits, with translations into Russian and Manchu.

The two priests spent their adult lives in Beijing and were buried there in the Jesuit cemetery that exists today. The site now belongs to the Communist Party school of Beijing.

Childhood in the kingdom of pipe organs

Pereira was born on the 1st November 1645 in the village of São Martinho do Vale, located in the municipality of Vila Nova de Famalicão, in the district of Braga in northern Portugal. “The northern district of Braga is well-known for its organ-building,” said Cesar Guillen-Nuñez, a research fellow at the MRI in Macao, who gave a talk at the April seminar in 2015 on the contributions of Fathers Pereira and Pedrini.

Pereira studied at the University of Braga and came to China in 1672, when he enrolled in the College of St Paul in Macao. “By then, the Jesuits had introduced religious music in Macao, where the Church of St Paul used a choir and two western organs at Mass for the European and Chinese believers.

“It was Matteo Ricci and Diego Pantoja who first introduced western secular music and instruments to China. This is recorded at the time of the court of Wan Li (who ruled from 1572 to 1620). Three keyboard instruments were introduced, the pipe organ, as well as the stringed instruments, the harpsichord and the clavichord, the last one also considered a percussion instrument.

“Ricci and Pantoja were clever amateur musicians but a more professional development of western music only occurred in Qing China at the hands of Tomas Pereira and flourished to an even greater extent with Teodorico Pedrini,” said Nuñez.

Moving to Beijing

Pereira was sent from Macao to Beijing because of his skills as a musician. He used the instruments that Matteo Ricci had brought. He played secular music, both Chinese and European.

“Emperor Kangxi was very impressed by Tomas Pereira,” said Nuñez. “He was attracted by these foreign instruments. Pereira heard Chinese tunes, annotated them and played. This was a first in China, where there was no such music tradition.” There musicians learnt their tunes by memory and had no system of writing it down; so Pereira’s method aroused curiosity and admiration.

The Emperor appointed him musician to the court. Pereira was an innovative musician. For the Society of Jesus, all their members in Beijing were missionaries. Music was a means to an end. It aroused the curiosity of Chinese intellectuals to understand western civilization, including Christianity. It aimed to build bridges. But the Emperor did not think of proselytizing. He was not converted.

“Pereira taught music to the Emperor and the eunuchs. He also taught mathematics to the Emperor.”

Building the organ

Pereira’s next project was to build a comparatively large organ in the Nantang (South Church, today the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception). This church had been built in 1650-52 by a German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall. The Emperor Shunzhi liked Schall and the church and visited it no less than 24 times.

Constructing the organ was a major undertaking. It was the largest of its kind in East Asia and the first in the mainland. Pereira found the materials and the skilled helpers needed. “It was elaborate and had many stops, including the sounds of birds, animals and humans,” said Nuñez.

“When Pereira played it, it became a major crowd-puller. Thousands came to listen. He played both western and Chinese music. The Emperor had a very close relationship with Pereira.”

The church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1720, rebuilt and then severely damaged by another earthquake in 1730. It was razed to the ground by the Boxers in 1900, like most other churches in Beijing. In 1904, the fourth church on the site, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, was completed; it is in use today.

Making peace with Russia

Pereira’s next mission for the Emperor was to help negotiate China’s enormous border with Russia, the longest in the world. At that time, China had no Foreign Ministry and no diplomats.  It did not need them, since it considered itself the centre of the world and other countries tributary states.

“Officially, Pereira and the French Jesuit with him were interpreters and part of the Chinese delegation. But they were clearly not only interpreters. Pereira took the lead,” said Nuñez. “He was instrumental in negotiating a peace which lasted a long time. This is his greatest contribution to China. Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Unlike the other members of the Chinese delegation, the Jesuits had experience of foreign countries and diplomacy. The authoritative version of the Treaty of Nerchinsk was in Latin, with translations into Russian and Manchu, but these versions differed considerably. Under the treaty, Russia gave up the area north of the Amur river as far as the Stanovoy Mountains and kept the area between the Argun river and Lake Baikal. These remained the border until 1860.

Pereira died in Beijing in 1708 and is buried there. Emperor Kangxi, once his pupil, offered 200 ounces of silver to cover the funeral expenses and ordered that a suitable epigraph by inscribed on his tombstone. He is best known among Chinese for negotiating the famous treaty.

Italian priest took over

Pereira’s mantle as imperial musician was taken by Teodorico Pedrini, an Italian Vincentian priest. He was born on the 30th June 1671 in Fermo, on the Adriatic coast of Italy. He attended university in his local town and in December 1697 joined the Vicentian order.

After meeting Pope Clemente XI, he was sent to China as a missionary and part of the Papal legation to China in 1702. After a marathon journey that included South America, Mexico and two years in the Philippines, he arrived in Macao in January 1710.

Emperor Kangxi had requested a new court musician to replace Pereira; so the young man set out for Beijing, where he arrived on the 6th February 1711.

“He was a very talented musician, who played the violin, the clavicord and other instruments,” said Nuñez. “The National Library of Beijing has a collection of sonatas he composed. They are the only copies in the world.” These are the only compositions of western Baroque music in China in the 18th century.

“Perdrini asked for and received scores of music from Europe and played them. He played both western and Chinese music. He completed in Chinese a treatise on western music which Pereira had started.” This was the first such treatise ever published in China and was included in the Siku Chuanshu, the largest collection of books in the country’s history. It consisted of 36,381 volumes with more than 79,000 chapters, comprising about 2.3 million pages and approximately 800 million characters, with Pereira and Pedrini’s contribution forming just a section of it.

Pedrini worked for three emperors – Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong – and taught the three sons of Kangxi. He mended the musical instruments he found at court, as well as constructing new ones.

Doctrinal dispute

He lived as a missionary in China from 1710 to 1746 and never returned to Italy.

He had the great misfortune to be caught in the middle of a devastating doctrinal dispute, which finally led to the expulsion of the Catholic missionaries. Many believe it to be the gravest error ever committed by a Pope toward China.

The issue was whether Chinese Christians were allowed to conduct Confucian rites, that is ceremonies to respect their ancestors. The Jesuits considered them non-religious and allowed their converts to conduct them.

But other orders, including the Vincentians to which Pedrini belonged, considered them sacrilegious; the Pope adopted this position.

Pedrini was trapped in the middle; a majority of missionaries in Beijing were Jesuit. In 1721, the Jesuits imprisoned him in their residence; he was only freed on the orders of Emperor Yongzheng two years later.

In 1723, he bought the residence of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, also known as Xitang (western church), where he established the first non-Jesuit church in Beijing. He died during the night of 10th December 1746 in his house and was buried in the Catholic cemetery in the city, with the funeral expenses covered by Emperor Qianlong.

Xintang was twice destroyed after his death and twice rebuilt. It operates as a church today on the site where Pedrini built it, on the main road between the Forbidden City and the old Summer Palace. An inscription on one of the walls reminds the faithful who founded it. (Macao Magazine, by Mark O´Neill, photos by Eric Tam, courtesy of Baroque and Rococo in Latin America, Dover Publications and of Portugal’s Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino)