Almost since its founding, Mission San Juan Bautista has been known as the “Mission of Music.” Prominently displayed in the Music Room of the Mission museum is a barrel organ built in the 1730’s, a standing bass (looking like a five foot high violin) and in a nearby room the books and hymnals of music sung by Native American choirs in years past.
In keeping with this tradition, plans are underway by the Mission San Juan Bautista Preservation Fund for a late January concert featuring composers of many of the popular songs heard in both Catholic and Protestant church services. “Mission San Juan Bautista: An Evening of Music and History” will be at 7 pm on Thursday, January 28, 2016, in the 200 year old Mission. Admission is free but those who are able may donate $10 for the evening. The musical performances will be interspersed by narratives of the Past, Present, and Future. The Past will acknowledge the Native Americans who are the First Peoples and the Present will touch on the preservation of the Mission.
There will be a special appearance by one of the St. Louis Jesuits, Dan Schutte, whose compositions include “Here I Am Lord,” “City of God,” and “Sing a New Song.” In addition to being translated into many other languages his compositions have found wide use in Protestant communities.
Also performing will be Bob Hurd, whose compositions include “Taste and See,” and “Pan de Vida.” Jaime Cortez, author of “Rain Down,” and Anna Betancourt, who has recorded with Bob Hurd, Jaime Cortez and Eleazar Cortes of Watsonville will also be performing. Additional performers include Rodolfo Lopez, and John Flaherty. All are accomplished composers, musicians and singers who are affiliated with Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), sponsors of the concert benefitting the Mission.
Continuing the musical tradition of the Mission, a piece of music was written specifically for the Mission in the recent past. It has been obtained and is being sent to the OCP performers so it can be featured at the concert.
The musical heritage of the Mission began with the acquisition of an English barrel organ in the early 1800s by Father Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta. It was reportedly constructed about 100 years prior and transported to California by an English sea captain. Initially given to Father Fermin de Lasuen, it is over five feet high, two feet in width and a foot and a half deep. Ornamental wooden pipes adorn the front and the barrel cylinder sits on top. There are 3 cylinders each containing 10 songs. Song titles include “Go to the Devil,” “Spanish Waltz,” “College Hornpipe,” and “Lady Campbell’s Reel.”
The music was better suited for the English sailors than the Mission congregation but the barrel organ was used by Father de la Cuesta in his travels to convert the Native Americans in the surrounding area. He would set it up, turn the crank and fascinate the Native Americans, who grew to like it after initially being fearful of the strange sounds.
According to material gathered for docent training, a Native American war party from out of the area once came to the Mission to make trouble. Father de la Cuesta brought out the barrel organ which he played furiously. The warring natives, first fearful then puzzled by the sounds, were later calmed by the music and a potential disaster was averted.
The music books on display in the museum show a color coding system developed by Father Esteban Tapis to teach the Native American choirs. The pages are of sheepskin covered with rawhide and closed with iron clasps. The colors enabled each voice to carry the tune in their respective tones. The notes are in the square shape popular in that time.
The Preservation Fund, a qualified 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization, is currently mounting a campaign to raise funds for a massive preservation project. Expected to cost $14 million, the project will rebuild and replace the huge Mission roof and strengthen the adobe walls by reinforcing them with steel rods. Contributions may be sent to the Fund at PO Box 222, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045. In addition to the roof and walls, many other tasks are needed to extend the life of the oldest building in San Benito County and prepare it for the next 200 years.