Music in the Missions

PASO ROBLES, Calif. — Some of California’s historic missions are in danger of collapse. But a musical spirit that is very much part of the missions’ history is being revived.

The religious and dance music of the mission era is being revitalized through the devotion of a small, dedicated band of musicians, the New World Baroque Orchestra. Musicologist John Warren, founder and director of the group, sees the orchestra’s music as part of every Californian’s heritage, and his labor in researching and performing early music aims, as he says on his website, “to uplift the great composers of early colonial California from their ill-deserved obscurity into the bright light of frequent performance.”

In May 2006, earthquake-battered Mission San Miguel was designated one of America’s 11 most endangered historical places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The New World Baroque Orchestra was present at the ceremony to sing some of the old Spanish hymns. Salinan tribal elder Shirley Macagni gave an impassioned plea for the preservation of Mission San Miguel, which has been closed to the public since the San Simeon earthquake in 2003.

“We stand here today in the very heart of our ancestral lands, in front of the mission my ancestors built by hand,” she said. “The history of my people is an indelible and integral part of this whole complex. It has been painful to witness the crumbling walls and massive cracking threatening to level what has stood for so long. … We must do all we can to save this historic site from being lost, not only for my people [to whom] it is so important, but for all of us.”

Macagni traces her lineage maternally to the converts of Mission San Antonio and paternally to those of Mission San Miguel.

While the funds generated by the orchestra’s concerts go to help in the rebuilding of Mission San Miguel, the organization’s main purpose is not so much to raise money as to raise awareness of the beautiful melodies of a past era.

The hunt for original music of early California led Warren to the Stanford University Archives, where he found a Mass composed in 1795 by Father Juan Bautista Sancho, pastor and choir director at Mission San Antonio. Warren also found Father Junipero Serra’s own choir book, with notes of different colors to denote the four-part harmonies. How these treasures ended up at Stanford is a story in itself.

Father Serra, the founder of the California missions, intended the mission lands to become the property and domain of the tribes they served. His dream came to an end with Mexican independence and the secularization of the missions. Between 1836 and 1846, the Franciscans were driven away and the mission lands sold off. The buildings suffered various fates, used for everything from saloons to army warehouses. As the missions were ravaged, one far-sighted pastor salvaged many articles and donated them to philanthropist Jane Stanford. Among these salvaged articles were the Serra choir book and the Sancho manuscript.

To enter the archives, Warren was required to empty his pockets and don gloves. Aided by the librarian and several graduate students, he recovered the Sancho manuscript, transcribing it with the only tool allowed in the archive room: a pencil.

Then, on a March day in 2006, more than 200 years after the Mass was composed and 100 years after it was given to Mrs. Stanford for safekeeping, Father Sancho’s music rang out again in the hills of central California.

Warren and his troupe are working much in the tradition of Father Arroyo de la Cuesta, Franciscan missionary to a young California, who could preach in 13 Indian dialects. The first language he used, however, was music.

He strapped a large music box to his mule, lugged it out to the Indian settlements around Mission San Juan Bautista and began cranking out dance tunes. The music so delighted his listeners that they followed Father de la Cuesta back to his mission.

Music was interwoven into the daily life of the California missions, in liturgy, labor and recreation. At sunrise, a bell called the people to worship, and families were roused by a morning hymn to the Virgin Mary, “Now Breaks the Glowing Dawn.”

Christian instruction was provided through the use of hymns, chanted prayers and basic religious teachings such as the Ten Commandments set to music. Every mission eventually developed a choir and a band.

Even after the missions were secularized, the bands continued and the music was passed down to children. One photo from around 1880 shows the Salinan band that formed around Mission San Antonio. A drum seen in the photo is now on display at that mission, and the instrument is still used on ritual occasions by members of the Salinan tribe. Another photo of the Mission Buenaventura band shows the Western equivalent of a sword beaten into a plowshare: a flute fashioned from a shotgun barrel.

The internalization, through music, of religious meaning was deep and lasting in the hearts of the mission Indians. Franciscan historian Father Zephyrin Engelhardt said that even 50 years after the missions were secularized and falling to ruin, when the priests had left and Mass was celebrated only once a year, the Indians “recited all that their fathers and mothers had learned and practiced. Hence it was that they preserved the priceless treasure of their Christian faith.”

Warren’s goal is to make this music part of a living experience rather than a museum piece for a few interested scholars.

Along the way, Warren invited members of the Salinan tribe, many of whom are descended from the mission catechumens, to collaborate in his endeavor.

“This is their story too,” he said.

Almost every concert given by the New World Baroque Orchestra features the Salinan culture, with tribal members dressed in deerskin and feathers, chanting songs in honor of the animals that sustained them: the deer, the owl and the bear.

In contrast, the orchestra wears costumes with a Spanish flavor — black with red roses — and sings mostly Latin and Spanish songs. Among their collaborations is an All Souls Day ritual — the Day of the Dead — at Mission San Antonio. The ceremony begins with a procession headed by a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Spanish morning hymn to the Virgin, and a blessing of smoking sage, a traditional purification rite among the Salinans.

Following Mass, the tribe and the orchestra process to the graveyard to honor and remember their dead, with a Litany of the Saints and an extended sage blessing.

Wendy-Marie Teichert

is based in San Luis Obisbo, California.