“Growing up, I always heard rumors of some ancient music we used to have in the [California] missions,” says musicologist Steve Ottományi. “It seemed like a big mystery. Nobody really knew about it.”

But thanks to the work of a handful of music detectives — including Ottományi — that mysterious ancient music will be heard in a concert at Mission San Gabriel on June 9. 

The founder and artistic director of Cantate Domino of Southern California, an organization established to spotlight new liturgical music by emerging composers, Ottományi was able to feed his interest in the Mission music mystery while working on his master’s degree at Cal State Long Beach. Connecting with experts in the field and visiting various California missions, he became more intrigued by the progress that had been made in discovering and understanding this historic music — and he noticed something that no one else had picked up on.

“Something caught my eye in the notation that told me this is not written for a men’s choir, as it appears,” explains Ottományi, organist at St. Cecilia Church in Tustin. “Something told me it was really transposed SATB [soprano, alto, tenor, bass].”

In other words, the music was written for voices in both high and low ranges — but the notes were written all on one staff (instead of writing notes for the lower register in the bass clef, and notes for the higher register in the treble clef). Singers simply transposed and sang the notes in the appropriate range for them. 

He describes his theory as a hunch — but pursued clues that seemed to support its truth. An 1841 manuscript at Mission Santa Barbara, for instance, includes an “Amen” with parts labeled for treble, tenor, bass and contralto — but the contralto part went below the bass part. “You would not write soprano down where tenors sing,” Ottományi adds. 

“This was clear evidence that the women’s parts are transposed up an octave, and the men’s parts are written at pitch.”

Since the end of the Mission era in the mid-19th century, the music of the Missions — what little survives — has never been performed correctly, he asserts; it’s always been performed with two tenor parts and two bass parts. But on June 9 the men and women of the California Mission Schola will sing these harmonies together, joined by violins, horns, classical guitars, a cello, a bassoon, a harp, and an organ. 

“It’s a typical Spanish classical orchestra,” explains Cantate Domino executive director Patrick Johnston, the choir director at Mission San Gabriel.  

At a recent rehearsal, the group of 18 sang a cappella in deep, rich harmonies that brought to mind the music of Mozart and Palestrina, in a language that sounded like Latin spiked with Spanish.  

“These [composers] are Franciscan priests, who weren’t really musically trained,” says Jalin Hsu, an alto with the Schola. She also recorded the alto and soprano rehearsal CDs that allowed the singers to begin learning the music prior to their first group rehearsal. 

“To me it just seems like musical genius,” Hsu adds. “This is as sophisticated as Mozart and as beautiful as Beethoven and Schubert.”

For Leo Sarmiento, who is singing tenor with the Schola, the music has an even greater depth because of its historicity — and the musical mystery behind it. 

“It’s an incredible opportunity to do something that’s part of our culture, that’s uniquely Californian, and at the same time, uniquely Roman Catholic,” says Sarmiento, who points out that this is not a paying gig for the singers. Those who are participating are doing so for the love of the music and the joy of bringing something new to an appreciative audience. 

Ottományi and Johnston, who hope to offer concerts by the Mission Schola at other California Missions, are eagerly anticipating the inaugural event. 

“This is going to be a dream come true — the culmination of 12 years of wishing and praying and working and working and working,” says Ottományi. “The mission I’ve taken on is to revive this music, so it’s not just echoes; it’s here and now, our own special and utterly unique musical heritage.” 

The California Mission Schola will perform “Mission Echoes: The Music of the California Missions Revived” June 9, 7:30 p.m. at Mission San Gabriel. Admission: $20. Information: (562) 665-9464. 

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