Music was something that the Spanish padres and the Native Californians had in common.
Music had been a part of the life of the people of California long before the padres arrived. They had special songs for men to sing during their games and dances, and special songs for the women’s games and dances. There were war chants, hunting songs, songs of joy and songs of sadness. There were songs for funerals and burials. There were songs that were especially for children. The people had no written language, so they passed on their history through chants and songs.
With their singing, the people of California used several musical instruments such as drums, flutes, rattles, and clappers. They made these instruments from wood and bone.
The Franciscan padres, too, liked music. They used music as a way to communicate with the Native Californians while they were learning the languages of the people. The people were attracted to the music, and enjoyed it. Some of the padres were more musically talented than others, but each padre had to have some musical training during his college days. Every California mission had a choir of Native Californians, organized by one of the padres.
At first, the music at the missions was mostly a type known as Gregorian chant, or plainsong. This is a very old kind of sacred music with one line of melody. The native people found it easy to learn.
Later the padres added harmony to the simple melodies, creating music for two-part, three-part, and four-part singing. This music was called Catalonian because many of the padres were from the Spanish province of Catalonia.
In addition to the chants, music at the missions included hymns, or songs of praise and joy, and solemn requiems for the dead. Some of the music was not religious. There were love songs, silly songs, and dance music.
Even before the padres had time to organize a choir, there was singing in the mission church. All of the people who attended the church services took part in singing hymns together. They sang the Alabado (A Song of Divine Praise), the Cantico del Alba (Morning Song), and others.
When a choir was organized, it was only for the men and boys. The young men who were considered to be the most intelligent and mild-tempered were taught to read music and to play European-style musical instruments, in addition to singing in both Spanish and Latin. Most reports showed that the young men learned quickly.
The size of the choirs and orchestra differed from mission to mission, depending on the musical talents and interests of the padres. Padre Narciso Durán, who served at Mission San José for 27 years, was a good musician even though he had no professional training. His choir and orchestra usually had about 30 members including, at one time, 20 violins, 4 bass viola, a contra bass, a drum, and a hand organ. Sometimes his orchestra also included flutes.
The musical instruments that were first used at the missions came from Mexico or Spain. Later, some instruments were made by mission craftsmen. The mission instrument makers had to be quite creative in their use of materials and techniques in order to produce playable violins and flutes.
Padre Durán wrote out the music for the choir in a simple notation system that made it easy to read. The choirbook that he made, written on parchment and bound with board covers and leather, is in the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California.
Some of Padre Durán’s choirboys were trained at the music school run by Padre Jose Viader at Mission Santa Clara. Padre Viader’s orchestra had a clarinet, flute, cello, bass, drums, cymbals, and a triangle.
Mission San Antonio and Mission Soledad both had the help of Padre Florencio Ibánez, who was a highly trained musician. He wrote a musical play called Los Pastores, a Christmas nativity play that was a great favorite with people in early California.
The unusual music sheets of Padre Estévan Tápis were written at Mission San Juan Bautista, where he served after he retired as president of the missions. Padre Tápis wrote the choir music on large sheepskins, using one entire sheepskin for each page of music. He used large music notes printed in four colors -- red, yellow, green, and black -- one color each voice part. He used squares to show half notes, and diamonds to show quarter notes. The choir singers followed their color in order to sing their parts in the four-part harmony. The music could be seen by everyone because it was so large.
Several of the mission choirs and orchestras had uniforms that were rather military in style, with stripes down the trouser legs and caps with tassels. The groups wore these uniforms when they performed at military events and for community celebrations.
The mission musicians often were invited to play for festivals at the pueblos (villages) that were established in the early 1800s. From the padres they learned lively dance tunes as well as sacred music. Sometimes the dance tunes were played in the church services as well.
The first barrel organ in California was a gift in 1793 from Captain George Vancouver, British explorer, to Padre Lasuén when he was at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The barrel organ was like a large music box, with a wooden cylinder that had wooden pegs on it. It had been made in Europe, and played tunes when the handle was turned. Several other barrel organs found their way to various missions. One has been preserved at Mission San Juan Bautista. It still plays a variety of 13 religious and secular songs. The music of the barrel organ was very popular with the Native Californians.