A plain metal locker at the San Fernando Mission archives belies its magnificent contents--a 200-year-old homage to God and proof of the glorious, long-denied heritage of Old California.
But the treasure, much like the period of history it represents, remained hidden for centuries, all but forgotten.
It was finally rediscovered in 1992 by a musicologist who stumbled upon the set of three Masses by Italian Mexican composer Ignacio de Jerusalem, the choirmaster at the Mexico City Cathedral in the mid-1700s. Scholars believe that the complex, fully orchestrated Masses were brought here in the early 19th Century and performed by Native American Christian converts.
The Masses of the San Fernando Mission are the most recent--and perhaps most elegant--examples cited by those who believe that California's most important post-Columbian cultural legacy comes not from pioneers moving west, but from those moving north.
Settlers from Mexico and the native people who entered their communities brought skills--from animal husbandry to high art-- that some scholars contend are too often discounted when compared to the European-influenced culture of the East Coast.
"We no longer have to accept a rather dim, rather sleepy, rather lazy kind of distant view of Spanish California," said William Summers, an expert in Mexican American music. "We can see Spanish California as a vibrant, exciting, productive, artistically stimulating period in our history."
If other scholars are not quite ready to rewrite their history texts, they are willing to listen to the Masses and to their advocates' views of musical history.
Richard Crawford, a University of Michigan professor and a leading scholar of American Colonial music, acknowledges that an Eastern-centered view of Colonial-era culture predominates in academe. The Jerusalem Masses, he said, could give scholars a new lens through which to view the West.
"It would be wonderful to hear (them)," Crawford said. "The discovery of the (pieces) imposes a certain obligation on the scholar to account for this."
Musicologist John Koegel came upon the Masses just before the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing in America, when he went to Mission San Fernando and, out of curiosity, asked for a stack of music vaguely referred to in a footnote of a 1941 book. The footnote made no mention of Jerusalem, just early Mass music.
"No one had ever asked to see them before," said Msgr. Francis J. Weber, the archivist of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. "That's one that slipped through the cracks."
Weber rummaged through the metal cabinet, which is housed in a locked vault containing mission documents from throughout California. He brought Koegel a manila folder labeled simply, "Mass Music."
The loose pages were just slightly yellowed, as if they were no older than the average library book. The composer's name had been omitted. The musical notes were carefully drawn, the Latin text written in black ink.
Surviving accounts from travelers to early California detail accomplished Native American orchestras that reportedly rivaled Europe's own. Shipping logs, filled out by the mission fathers and sent to Mexico City, list requests for violin strings, flutes, orchestra gowns and sheet music.
But before Koegel saw the mission Masses, the few musicologists who studied early California could not prove the level of artistry that they thought must have existed.
"It was beautiful music," Koegel said. "I heard the music in my mind as I looked at the pages (and) here were all the parts of the instruments and the singers."
He imagined the sounds of the Mass in D, with trumpets, horns, oboes and all the fanfare of a battle Mass; the lyrical Mass in F, which emphasizes woodwinds and gentle, heavenly tones. And he imagined the two-choir echoes of the joyful "Polychoral" Mass in D, which at times exults in a combined voice and then breathlessly splits into light, complex lines that rush through chord progressions like a river rushes through rapids.
That most of the period's music has been lost does not surprise Koegel. Land deeds and other legal documents were protected from the elements and periodic house cleanings at the missions, when excess papers were burned. Music, often stored with a musician's personal property, was not as well protected.
The last area colonized by the Spanish Empire, California is among the few places where musical manuscripts can still be found; missions in the South and other parts of the Southwest contain few if any such treasures.
After his discovery at Mission San Fernando, Koegel first called colleague Craig Russell, who was soliciting works for a concert, "After Columbus, the Musical Journey."
Russell immediately suspected that two of the Masses were composed by Jerusalem because of the rhythmic style typical of his work. He confirmed his hypothesis when he found the single-choir Masses in the Mexico City Cathedral's microfilmed copies of Jerusalem's work.
Jerusalem, a violinist and composer, was born in Lecce, Italy, in 1710 and was recruited to play in the Mexico City equivalent of a Broadway theater in 1742. Jerusalem became that city's choirmaster in 1749, directing the choir and composing liturgical music until his death in 1769.
A composer as well as a musical historian, Russell filled in the Masses' missing parts.
He began with the "Polychoral" Mass in D and what he called an effort at honorable "musical forgery."
He pretended that he was Jerusalem while composing the Masses' missing lower-register parts and correcting obvious copying mistakes.
"If you know the violins are doing one thing, you ask what natural harmonies would underscore that and support the melodic line," said Russell, a music professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "Are leaps allowed? How far? What sort of range would a cello player use? You look at his music and music of the time and try to find something to match the time and him."
Chanticleer, a vocal group from San Francisco, already was scheduled to sing at Russell's conference. When members read through the "Polychoral" Mass, they readily agreed to perform it along with a selection from another Mexican composer, Manuel de Zumaya.
"When we performed it for audiences here, they all asked, 'When are you going to record it?' " said Louis Botto, Chanticleer's founder and artistic director. "No one knew that this stuff from two Mexican composers could be so exciting."
The group recorded both selections on its 1993 release, "Mexican Baroque."
After the missing parts were reconstructed, there still were matters of history to resolve. Russell, Summers and Koegel wanted to show that these works were not only artistically brilliant but genuinely American.
"American history is written by people who stand on the East Coast and look west, so they have a very hard time giving credit to the Spanish accomplishments throughout the United States," Summers said. "Where you would have simple psalm singing in churches on the East Coast, in California you would have orchestras and choruses performing marvelous concerted Masses."
Summers has long chastised colleagues for setting one standard for composers of British ancestry and another for those from Mexico or the West Coast; the former are held to be American musicians, he said, while the latter are not.
"(Many historians think) the music by Ignacio de Jerusalem, performed in California, isn't American music, it's Spanish music, so we don't have to integrate it into our view of the American past," Summers said. "Historians have a hard time admitting Hispanic culture into American culture, whereas they have no such difficulty with the English culture."
As an example, Summers cites Hanover, N.H., where he teaches music at Dartmouth University. The town was founded in 1769--the year Father Junipero Serra established the first California mission in San Diego.
It was not until 1807 that Hanover developed its first choral group, the Handel Society, and not until 1830 that a major orchestral work was performed. That same year, the town had 100 head of sheep and cattle.
By contrast, the missions had full orchestras and choirs when the Jerusalem Masses were brought here in 1804.
At its most successful point in 1817, Mission San Fernando--which was founded 28 years after Hanover--had 12,800 cattle, 7,800 sheep and 780 horses. Hanover did not have 1,000 residents until 1870; the mission's population topped 1,000 as early as 1804.
"It was everything the Eastern Seaboard colonies would have liked to have been," Summers said.
To Russell, that people ask for comparisons between Jerusalem and better-known European composers illustrates early California music's identity problem.
"We ask ourselves the wrong question," he said. "We ask, 'Is someone as good as Bach or as good as Mozart?' That's like asking if enchiladas are as delicious as salmon. What an irrelevant question. The question is, does listening to Jerusalem's music enrich my life, and it's an unqualified yes."
Russell and Summers suspect that the Masses made their way north through Father Juan Sancho, an accomplished musician who came to California in 1804 and whose handwriting matches the notations on other pieces of music found with the Masses. They hypothesize that Sancho brought the Masses for his orchestra at Mission San Antonio de Padua near what is now King City in Central California.
At the time, all of California was one diocese, so church documents were shifted around throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has housed its archives at Mission San Fernando since 1981.
It is not clear where these Masses were performed, because mission padres shared their music. Scholars can document the expertise of musicians at missions San Antonio de Padua, Santa Barbara, San Jose and Santa Clara de Asis. A famous 1860 photo depicts a small ensemble of Native American converts and their instruments at Mission San Buenaventura.
The California musicologists also do not dispute that Native Americans had a vibrant pre-Colonial society, or that it was ravaged in part by mission fathers. Their arguments are with the historical record of Colonial development.
And they would like that record updated. Koegel, Russell, Summers and others see the Jerusalem Masses as an opportunity to re-examine the state's cultural roots and their legacy for Californians today.
"In academia we've been asleep at the wheel, and slow to look in our own back yard--Mexico, California, wherever that might be--and acknowledge it as a legitimate place to understand and find beauty and elegance," Russell said. "What we find in the mission doesn't invalidate Mozart any more than Arthur Miller invalidates Shakespeare, but there's room for both."
And it goes beyond Jerusalem, they say.
They talk about a day when Zumaya, born in Mexico around 1678 of Native American and European ancestry, will be as well-known and as admired as other musical masters of the baroque.
In 1711, for instance, Zumaya did something no one born in the New World is known to have done before then. He wrote an opera.