Chanticleer tours California’s mission era music

Special to The Times

MOST California schoolchildren learn the basic facts about the state’s mission history in the fourth grade. Established from 1769 to 1823 by Franciscan monks from Spain to spread the Roman Catholic faith among the area’s Native American population, the series of strategic-religious outposts spanned 650 miles of California coastline, from San Diego to Sonoma, providing Spain with a powerful presence on the Pacific frontier. Today, these monuments are among the state’s oldest buildings and most popular tourist destinations.

Yet despite the importance of the missions to California’s development, relatively little is known about the music that formed the backbone of Franciscan rituals and teaching. “The repertoire that was jotted into the mission choir books still remains largely unknown, even to musical historians,” says Craig Russell, an expert on Mexican Baroque music at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “Similarly, the musical archives in Mexico City Cathedral preserve stacks of gorgeous and erudite sacred music that are largely neglected but worthy of professional attention and performance.”

This month, however, many Californians’ knowledge of this music is due to expand, courtesy of Chanticleer, the San Francisco-based 12-member male vocal ensemble. Beginning Thursday in San Luis Obispo, the Grammy-winning group is undertaking a tour of eight of the 21 missions on the California coast’s legendary Camino Real, including two concerts in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, where it made its inaugural public appearance in 1978.


“This music is part of both our history and California history. It forms the artistic and musical fabric of the West Coast,” says Joseph Jennings, who joined Chanticleer as a countertenor in 1983 and became its music director in 1984. “The mission composers were way ahead of their time,” says Chanticleer vocalist Eric Alatorre. “While on the East Coast people were writing hymns and part songs, in the Latin parts of the country they were composing full Masses and venturing into Classical terrain.”

The roots of the Chanticleer tour were unearthed a few years ago in the vast archive at the Mexico City Cathedral, where musicologists discovered close to 50 lost manuscripts by Manuel de Sumaya, the most famous Mexican composer of the colonial period of New Spain. Sumaya (1680-1756) is credited with, among other groundbreaking achievements, being the first American to compose an opera. The cache of manuscripts, known as the Estrada Collection after cathedral organist and musicologist Jesús Estrada, consisted of a unique collection of Sumaya’s villancicos -- folk-tinged church songs of a type popular in the 17th and 18th centuries that were a staple on Catholic feast days in the California missions.

“The find was a godsend,” says Russell. “Sumaya is the American Handel. He was responsible for introducing many of the most up-to-date trends of the High Baroque into the New World. Like Handel, he was a spectacular keyboardist and mastered both sacred and secular genres with apparent ease.”

In October, Russell brought facsimiles of the Estrada Collection to San Francisco to show to Jennings. The men had previously collaborated on several Mexican Baroque projects, including a Gramophone Award-nominated Mexican Baroque album in 1995, featuring the music of Sumaya and fellow New World composer Ignacio de Jerusalem, and a follow-up recording in 1997 of Jerusalem’s Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe. Together, Jennings and Russell sorted through stacks of music with a view to bringing the sounds of the California missions back to life.

A potent blend of Catholic and Native American traditions distinguishes California mission music from European musical trends of the day. Just as a striking ceiling at Mission Dolores depicting Ohlone Indian basket designs painted in ocher, red, green and white vegetable dyes offsets the florid European-style carved altarpiece, Chanticleer’s Camino Real program reflects these dual influences. Parts of the “Missa en sol,” a Mass in G minor attributed to Friar Juan Bautista Sancho, sound as if they could have been composed during the Classical period; the work features many of the qualities commonly associated with the music of Haydn and Mozart, such as varied surface rhythms, unstressed cadences and a top-dominated texture. Sumaya’s villancicos, on the other hand, sung in Spanish and flavored with folk motifs, are ethnic in feel. The same goes for some of the processional pieces, such as “Para dar luz inmortal,” transcribed by the renowned musician Father Narcisco Durán during his time at the Mission San José.

“This is sacred folk music,” Jennings says. “It was written to appeal to the people.” Some of the works on the program also feature very un-European-like percussion markings. The manuscript of the Feast of Pentecost piece “Alleluia & Veni Sancte Spiritus,” for instance, goes as far as to ask the congregation to kneel “until the drum makes a ruckus like the big metal organ stop of the organ.”


Russell sees the inclusion of percussion in mission music as a small sign of cultural exchange. “Apparently the drum was not discarded from Native American worship but instead was folded into the Christian liturgy at the appropriate moments,” he says. Jennings, for his part, is still debating whether to reproduce that effect in Chanticleer’s concerts. “It may be a bit much,” he says.

Figuring out how to transform this utilitarian church music into a concert program was one of the biggest challenges facing Chanticleer. The group has performed in some of the world’s grandest venues, among them the Musikverein in Vienna, London’s Barbican Centre, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the adobe-walled California missions are much more modest structures, requiring a sensitive vocal approach.

“We’re not attempting to re-create an entire religious ceremony, but we need to perform this music with regard to its original purpose and surroundings,” says Jennings. “The trick is to let go of our grandiose ideas about huge cathedrals and opulent chapels.” To that end, the singers are honing their Spanish pronunciation and working to match their sound with the space.

“The missions have very simple architecture, and the composers wrote music to fit the specific atmosphere of these structures,” Alatorre says. “The buildings give you lovely, hard, reflective surfaces to play with. Music that’s too busy for the echoey, light acoustic sounds like mush. But when things move a little slower harmonically, as they generally do in this music, you can pick out individual tints among the wonderful washes of color.”

An inspired pairing

KNOWN both for its peculiarly American countertenor-centric sound and its Mexican Baroque recordings, Chanticleer may be uniquely capable of connecting 21st century audiences with this historical repertoire.

“There’s a kind of translucency to the ensemble’s texture that allows you to hear the counterpoint that is at the heart of the music,” San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman says. “The group doesn’t produce sound in big, weighty blocks like a ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. Each of the 12 parts can be heard and has a distinctive character. When the singers are on their game, they simultaneously enable us to picture the individual threads that make up the musical tapestry and the tapestry as a whole.”

The irony contained in the idea of a group of mostly white choristers performing music in the very settings where European settlers once foisted that music on the native population is not lost on the missions’ staffs. Andrew Galvan, Mission Dolores’ curator, is a descendant of a Bay Miwok Indian who was baptized in the church -- the oldest intact mission in California and the oldest building in San Francisco. Galvan acknowledges the double-edged legacy of the Franciscan missionaries’ use of music to “civilize” the local tribespeople. But he’s enthusiastic about Chanticleer’s efforts nevertheless.

“Mission choirs typically consisted of Native American men, so hearing an all-male choir sing this music is appropriate,” he says. “It’ll be great to hear the mission voices that have been silent for so many years once again.”