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Mission Era Music Rings at Mission Church

For more than a decade, a dedicated group has brought the music of the California missions to Santa Clara’s Mission Church on the anniversary of the death of Santa Clara’s own holy man, Padre Magin Catala (1761 – 1830), and the Feast of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

After a year’s absence, the celebration was back on Nov. 22. Conducted by Santa Clara resident Michael Hey, the choristers brought to life Missa de Cataluña, attributed to one of the Mission Era’s most prolific musicians, composers and teachers, Father Narcisco Duran (1776 – 1846). The traditional Latin Mass — the Catholic liturgy as it would have been celebrated in the missions — also included medieval Gregorian Chant and Renaissance sacred choral pieces.

“Mass” refers to the texts of the western Christian liturgy, usually sung, dating back to the early centuries of the first millennium, and continues to be the principal liturgy of the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox — where it’s called the Divine Liturgy — Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Old Catholic churches. The Latin form of the Mass remains the “traditional” form of the Roman Catholic Mass.

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By the Renaissance, the Mass had become one of Europe’s most important music compositional forms and continues to be an inspiration to composers throughout the world today. When the friars established the missions, they brought this body of music with them, and musicians like Duran composed music with a distinctly American sound.

Duran was a very prolific composer and teacher, not only composing Latin liturgical music and vernacular devotional songs but also developing methods of musical notation and pedagogy that simplified reading music.

Among his innovations were writing each voice in a separate color, rather than in individual part books, and a simplified choral notation. Some scholars believe that Duran also supervised a “scriptorium” — a place where manuscripts were stored and copied — at Mission San José.

Missa de Cataluña is one of the best-known compositions of the Mission Era.

“These masses were specifically composed for the missions,” said contemporary sacred music composer Frank La Rocca, currently Composer in Residence at the San Francisco-based Benedict XVI Institute and Professor Emeritus of Music at California State University.

La Rocca’s 2018 Mass of the Americas premiered in San Francisco before traveling throughout the U.S.

“The Mission music has a texture that is distinctly different from the complex, intertwining melodic lines that would have been heard in European churches,” said La Rocca.

“If you’ve heard a mariachi ballad, there’s a type of harmony where the voices move in parallel motion,” said La Rocca. “This is a feature of Mission music. The harmonies and the sweet melodic sound are very common in Latin American music today.”

La Rocca also notes that because of the padres, the newest European music was being heard in the California missions.

“Baroque [1600-1750] orchestral music was being performed in California before it was on the East Coast,” said La Rocca.

They were also performing it on instruments built by expert Native American craftsmen.

“People are becoming more interested in the Mission music,” said La Rocca. “Some are ethnomusicologists, others are interested in socio-religious or cultural expressions. For whatever reason, if you want to understand California culture you need to understand this blend of Californian and European culture.”

To learn more about Mission music, visit the California Mission Foundation or on YouTube. You can hear part of the Missa de Cataluña sung at Mission Santa Clara in 2019 on YouTube.

Frank La Rocca’s new Mass for Junipero Serra will premiere at San Francisco’s Mission Dolores in July 2022. La Rocca says his composition is influenced by Mission music.

The Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco publishes information on traditional liturgies in the Bay Area.

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