The golden era of California mission music

Loud drumming, women, and children singers within adobe walls
Early music manuscript from the Calif. missions

Early music manuscript from the Calif. missions

The following comes from a May 29 story in the Catholic Sentinel, a publication of the Oregon Catholic Press.

…. Steven Ottományi, a California liturgical music composer and musicologist, has been studying the music sung two centuries ago in those mission churches, where Spanish Franciscans melded medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, classical and native music customs to help people approach the Almighty.

“We had orchestras and choirs long before they did in the English colonies,” says Ottományi, director of music at St. John Chrysostom Parish in Inglewood, Calif. Earlier this month, he visited Oregon Catholic Press, publisher of this newspaper.

Ottomanyi

Ottomanyi wants to do authentic percussion

Ottományi wants to rewrite American history and he thinks California mission music is a good place to start. “One of my missions is to make the heritage of Spanish America better known, especially in regard to the music,” he explains. “That can give a better perspective of how we came together as a nation.”

Ottományi identifies a golden era of California mission music: 1790-1830. This missions began to wane in later years because Franciscan leaders in newly independent Mexico were not keen to support missionaries loyal to the Spanish crown.

What survives from the California missions are 20 or 30 choir books, some for individual use and some large for groups. Though it’s the largest collection of Spanish colonial music outside Mexico City, Ottományi thinks it’s a fraction of what existed at the 21 missions, which had a vibrant music scene.

The scores tend to use late Renaissance notation, but the repertoire is a mix of ancient chant with classical hints, modified Baroque dance forms and classical forms. The friars apparently kept old music forms while embracing new ones. Ottományi traces one piece of music that evolved from free flowing chant, to a moderate rhythm to fully metrical in the course of decades.

Ottományi’s research shows that friars passed down the music books through generations, making modifications as the decades moved by.

They probably added instruments to the scores— though they kept that discreet, since instruments beyond organ were frowned upon officially.

Notations in the music show there was frequent loud drumming, one of the music forms familiar to the Indians. Spanish organs like the ones used at the missions had a built-in drum that “made a huge ruckus” within the thick adobe walls of the mission churches, Ottományi says.

The choirs — sometimes with as many as 40 members — and orchestras were made up of people from local tribes, who records show had a great facility with music, despite having experience only with a kind of local flute, a one-stringed instrument and drums.

“When the missionaries introduced them to European instruments, we are told they took to them as if they had never known anything else,” Ottományi says. Some local tribe members improvised on instruments and wrote music.

Ottományi thinks there were likely women in the mission choirs at a time when that was not common Catholic practice. It has taken years of detective work, poring over musical scores to come up with the hypothesis. At first glance, the Franciscans’ scores seemed written for four male voices. But other clues made it clear that California mission music probably was written with three higher parts — for women and children — and one lower part for men. Even 300 years ago, choir directors had trouble finding men, says Ottományi, who even suspects that there might have been music sung in vernacular in the missions. Franciscans translated Christian texts into native languages.

Despite the bad press that accompanied the 2015 canonization of California mission leader, Father Junipero Serra, the Spanish approach to colonization was more respectful than that of the British, Ottományi argues.

“The Spanish always looked at the people as human beings, as potential Christians and potential Spanish citizens,” Ottományi explains.

Disease brought from Europe had terrible effects, but mistreatment of California tribes was not cruel until Americans arrived during the 1840s gold rush.

Ottományi has orchestrated some of the Franciscans’ old manuscripts and plans to offer concerts and do recordings using period instruments. He plans to add authentic percussion, something he says previous musicologists have failed at….

 

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  1. anne o. nymous says:

    This is important historical and artistic work that Mr. Ottomanyi is doing. And here’s to the memory of Fr. Owen de Silva OFM, who did such work in the 1900’s.

  2. If the Spanish were such great colonial administrators, why did every Spanish speaking South and Central American country give the Spanish King a pink slip in the space of twenty years? Seems to me the locals felt they could do better for themselves.
    Drums?? Women in the Choir?? O heaven forbid!!

  3. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing this story. There was innovation in the liturgy even back in the time of St. Serra in order to make the Holy Mass more comprehensible to the recent Native American converts!

  4. drewelow says:

    mikem, good question. i checked into what wikipedia had to say and it seems that the two big factors were: 1) the example of the american and french revolutions not long before and the deep social and economic disruption spain endured as a result of the napoleonic invasions.. from what i have read elsewhere, the spanish overlords ruled with an iron hand and were not exactly beloved. but they allowed the church to mitigate things to some degree

  5. OCP has ascertained that the seminal score “Table of Plenty” was in fact written by Father Junipero Serra.

  6. Your Fellow Catholic says:

    Oh my, drums in Church! What has Vatican II wrought!!! Oh, except that this was about 250 years ago, in the Spanish mission era.

    “Notations in the music show there was frequent loud drumming, one of the music forms familiar to the Indians. Spanish organs like the ones used at the missions had a built-in drum that “made a huge ruckus” within the thick adobe walls of the mission churches”.

  7. Linda Maria says:

    I think this is all very interesting. I would love to see a performance of this early mission music! However, it seems to me, that historically, the Indians were not exactly happy about the Spanish conquest! I am wondering how the Spanish friars adapted the liturgical music for Mass, to include Indian cultural forms, such as the loud drumming! Where would the Indian drumming tradition be placed, in the Mass? The modern world is very irreverent, crass, evil, cynical, and Godless, rejecting of all that is traditional, good, and beautiful, and all that is religious and holy. Loud drums in todays world, would be horrible, irreverent, and ugly– but I think the Indians’ loud drumming, would be directed for a Divine purpose.

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