Codex Mexica:
The Fall of Tenochtitlan

A musical Passion retelling the story of complex events that gave birth to five centuries of a global world, and shaped the contemporary Americas as an enduring encounter between cultures.

Birth of the contemporary Americas

500 years ago an encounter took place that irrevocably reshaped human civilization. The arrival of Hernán Cortés and a small battalion of soldiers of European, African and Middle-Eastern descent to the heart of Mesoamerica and the Aztec Empire was a domino that set into motion a sequence of events ushering in the globalized face of today’s world.

Attributed to Hernán Cortés, Nuremberg Map of Tenochtitlan and the Gulf Coast (1524), The Newberry Library, Chicago

The project

To commemorate this landmark event’s 500th anniversary, and against the backdrop of a global pandemic echoing the devastating arrival of smallpox to Mesoamerica five centuries before, composer Cristóbal MarYán teamed up digitally with a group of today’s leading citizen-artists. Recorded remotely by 60 musicians of OAcademy representing 20+ nations of the Americas, and produced by a Grammy-winning team of engineers, the work is a testament to the power of music to give voice to isolated communities. Brought to life by game-inspired animation, the audio-visual result is a fresh retelling of a five-hundred-year-old tale, Codex Mexica Passion: The Fall of Tenochtitlan.

Yo-Yo Ma
cello
Carlos Miguel Prieto
music director
Johnny
Gendelsman

violin
Alejandra Gómez Ordaz
mezzo soprano
Juan Blanco &
Brisa Vega

visuals & animation
Cristóbal MarYán composer & project director

Listen & watch full Codex

Cast of characters

Moctezuma

A man in the middle of a new world imposing itself on an old one, Moctezuma struggled to comprehend and interpret the arrival of the colonizers in Mexico. Caught between his beliefs and mysticism, his leadership failed to dissuade the Spanish advance on Tenochtitlán.

Hernán Cortés

Considered one of history’s greatest generals and strategists but also called machiavellian, Cortés waged his military campaign in Mexico without the consent of the Spanish crown and was eventually prosecuted for it. A pillar of controversy, he died impoverished and without title.

Malintzin

First delivered to Cortés as a slave, Malintzin learned Spanish and became indispensable to Cortés’ military campaign in Mexico. Called a traitor by some and an entrepreneur by others, she is the mother of Martin (Cortés’ son), a symbol of the first intercultural child of the continent.

Cuauhtémoc

“The descending Eagle”, Cuauhtémoc was the last of the Aztec tlatoanis. He reorganized Aztec forces and fought Cortés’ army during the siege of Tenochtitlán. Cuauhtémoc was eventually defeated and tortured by Spanish forces till his death.

Velazquez

Once Cortes’ superior and perennially jealous of Cortes’ unexpected success and vision, Velázquez mounted a political campaign against Cortés and ordered Pánfilo de Narvaez to travel from Cuba to apprehend him. They fought in Veracruz, where Cortés defeated Narvaez.

Pedro de Alvarado

Cortés’ hot-headed right hand, Alvarado lacked Cortés’ tempered strategic vision. While Cortés fought Velázquez in Veracruz, Alvarado ordered the massacre of Aztec nobles and religious leaders during Tóxcatl (an important celebration), sparking the first indigenous insurrection.

Tlaxcala warrior 

After fighting the Spanish for 18 days and realizing victory was impossible, the Tlaxcalans joined the Spanish and helped Cortés secure victory over the Aztecs. In the words of Federico Navarrete “the Mexicas were defeated by Tlaxcalans and Texcocoans, not by Spaniards”.

"I chose the mixtec and zapotec style for the visuals as it is the most consistent across the historical documents of that time, and the viewer unequivocally will associate them with ancient Mexico. I hope it feels like it was made by a "tlacuilo” - a traditional codex artist."

- Juan Blanco, artist and animator -

Did you know?

The codex was the historical ancestor of the modern book. Instead of being composed of sheets of paper, it used sheets of vellum, papyrus, or other materials. The term codex is often used for ancient manuscript books, with handwritten contents.

Codex explained: scene by scene

Awe and loathing of ‘The Other’
0:00 – 02:56

Codex Mexica begins with the threatening sound of countless birds from a foregin land, immediately contrasted by the bright, mysterious, and massive sound that represents the fascination of seeing Tenochtitlán for the first time.

Faith, fate and destiny
02:57 – 05:28

The cosmovision of both Aztecs and Spaniards was deeply rooted in religious and spiritual beliefs. Each formulated their own ideas of destiny, fate and their relationship to the other through that cosmovision. A quote from Bach’s Erbarme Dich and a quote from Moctezuma begin and end this section.

Identity
05:29 – 06:23

The encounter between Cortés and Moctezuma altered the history of pan-american identity forever. Even today it informs identities of struggle between the perceived relationships of colonizers and natives.

Greed
06:24 – 8:33

Where is greed found in this story? While some sections of the orchestra play, other sections deliriously scream “gold!” and “oro!” A universal desire, greed appears in both expected and unexpected places.

Love
8:34 – 11:33

Alluding to the last supper and Christ’s “love one another” commandment, the possibility of love for the other is both presented and immediately challenged by the Templo Mayor massacre. The Spanish version of this incident asserts that the conquistadors intervened to prevent a ritual of human sacrifice; the Aztec version says the Spaniards were enticed into action by the gold the Aztecs were wearing.

Rage, anger and sadism
11:34 – 13:29

When love fails, rage reigns. An unavoidable syndrome of war and the repulsion for the other, rage ignited the first indigenous insurrection after Pedro de Alvarado killed members of the Aztec nobility and religious leaders at Tóxcatl, an important religious celebration.

Betrayal, despair, and regret
13:30 – End

Key figures in this story have been called traitors by some and heroes by others. Here Malintzin and Moctezuma look at us directly, challenging us to judge who has betrayed who. The threatening birds from the beginning appear again, and the brass and wind sections inhale and exhale air as if crying. A lament is played by the soloists, Erbarme Dich is heard again… the end.

“Both through historical and creative investigation, I learned the story was infused with emotion: belief, greed, love, identity, anger, betrayal. I found the musical form of The Passion, also plagued with these concepts, to be a powerful template to write the work and discover fresh, wonderful, and sometimes uncomfortable new symbols within the narrative.”

- Cristóbal MarYán, composer -

A living story: Codex Mexica​

The lessons, tragedies, and tropes that exist within the story of the encounter between Cortés and Moctezuma are still as present, relevant, complex, and alive today five hundred years later as they were in their own time.

16th-century rendering of the Americas as a bridge between Pacific & Atlantic

East & West connected

Within a decade of the encounter in 1519-1521 between Cortés and Aztec tlatoani (emperor) Moctezuma in what is today Mexico City, permanent sea trade bridging the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans had begun. This commercial network soon led to the decimation of large-scale civilizations from the Andes to the Space Islands, to the pillaging of natural spaces from the Amazon, and made Spain the largest and richest empire the world has ever known, but ultimately led to its collapse a century later having become the world’s first mono-economy. This example became the original trope in an ever-changing line of resource-dependent nations across the Americas and beyond that continues to the present day.

José Clemente Orozco – La Malinche y Cortés, 1926 (mural)

The power of technology

The encounter between Cortés’ men and the indigenous peoples of MesoAmerica visibly established the power of technology and disease in shaping human history. The advantages given by the introduction of horses, dogs, sail-powered boats, and steel weapons, machinery and armor — reinforced through the exchange of powerful viruses previously separated by impassible continental isolation — made for an uneven battlefield. This story set the course for centuries of ongoing struggles and conflicts in the new world where these factors continue to play a central role in separating those who gain from those who lose.

Edgar Flores (aka Saner)- The Conquest Of The New World By Spanish Conquistadors, 2013

Complex tapestry of identities

Within a generation of the first encounter between Hernán Cortés and Aztec tlatoani Moctezuma, a growing community of hybrid cultures connecting origins from Europe, Africa, and the New World had begun. These communities evolved into and created the precedent for what would become the defining feature of today’s complex tapestry of the Americas’ evolving cultural identities, marked by diverse origin stories and complex relationships.

Jorge Gonzáles Camarena – The Conquest or The Fusion of Two Cultures, 1960

Enduring legacies of oppression

By giving rise to what would become the first contemporary city and collection of new cultures to define today’s Americas, the events of 1519-1521 also cemented complex questions of identity and ethics surrounding the role of oppressed and oppressor — victim, victor and betrayer — themes which are as ever present today across the New World as they were in the fog of war five centuries ago.

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