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California Mission Music Collection

Identifier: CoU-AMRC-16

Scope and Contents

Materials related to the early California missions, from the Sister Mary Dominic Ray Library. Portions pertaining to the research, teaching, and preparation for Sister Mary’s book Gloria Dei have been brought together in this collection. Many of the materials in Series I and II are photographic copies of original documents held by other institutions. Includes articles and related writings relevant to the missions.


  • ca 1770-1830



Publication Rights

All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the American Music Research Center.

Brief History of California Missions

Between 1769 and 1834 Spanish-speaking Franciscan missionaries established and maintained a number of missions in the land Spanish and Mexican officials called Alta California. Designated to Christianize the Indians of California, each of the twenty-one missions was a one-day walk from its nearest neighbor.

The old adobe mission buildings sheltered the padres and the Indians who were taught to work as weavers, tanners, potters, carpenters, blacksmiths, and herdsmen or farmers. Great herds of cattle, sheep and horses surrounded the missions and storage rooms were full of cattle hides, corn, wheat, and other agricultural commodities.

During the mission period great bronze bells tolled the hours, start and end of the day, called the Indians to prayer, announced meal times, warned of approaching danger, and celebrated special events. Music was always important to the Indians of California missions. Their music and musical traditions came down to them from out of the deep and long forgotten past and had become an integral part of daily life. Carved and ornamental flutes, some of them as much as 2,000 years old, as well as other simpler musical instruments, drums, clappers, and whistles, have been found near these old missions. Music was used by the Indians for light-hearted entertainment and for the most solemn religious ceremonies.

In 1769, Padre Junipero Serra obtained official Spanish government permission to establish a series of missions in Alta California. Padre Serra was very musical, as were other padres among the missionaries who came to California. Music was important to all Franciscans, and became an essential element in the mission way of life. California mission music was primarily sacred music, and a large part of this was Gregorian chant, commonly known as plainchant or plainsong.

As time went on in the California missions the padres increasingly embellished the chant by writing it or arranging it for two-, three-, or four-part singing. This style of music is referred to today as Catalonian since many of the California missionaries were from the province of Catalonia in Spain. Along with chants there were also hymns of all kinds and solemn requiems. On the secular side, there were love songs, silly songs, and every other kind of song including lively dance music complete with trumpet, guitar, violin, drum and other instrumental accompaniment. The music of the missions was rich and diverse, including the whole range of Spanish Renaissance music.

There were many gifted and competent musicians in early California missions including Padre Florencio Ibanez, Padre Estevan Tapis, Padre Jose Viader, and most recognized Padre Narcisco Duran. Padre Duran held the respect and admiration of his Indian neophytes, created a choir and orchestra, and devised his own simplified notation system for writing choir music. His greatest musical accomplishment was his Misa de Cataluna and Misa Viscaina.

In 1834 a decree of secularization was passed by the provincial legislature of the Mexican province of Alta California. These decrees effectively closed down the missions by placing them under secular administrators who sold all the properties and instructed the Indians to move out into society and act like other free citizens of the time. Few California Indians were ready, willing, or able to compete for a living in agriculture or other fields in an individualistic, free enterprise society. Some missions continued as parish churches, and some missions managed to continue for a time without losing all their Indian neophytes. By 1846, when California became a part of the United States, and the gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the whole mission system collapsed, just sixty-five years after the first mission was established.

California mission music shows the influence of 17th- and 18th-century music from Spain and South America and was clearly a primary tool of the early Franciscan missionaries. The mission music was also very important to the historical heritage and musical tradition of California.

Text from Gloria Dei:The Story of California Mission Music, by Sister Mary Dominic Ray, O.P. and Joseph H. Engbeck, Jr., State of California, Department of Parks and Recreation, 1975.


5 linear feet

Language of Materials



Arranged by topic.

Physical Location

Housed in the American Music Research Center

The California mission music collection
An inventory of holdings at the American Music Research Center
Conversion Draft
Cassandra M. Volpe
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written inEnglish.

Repository Details

Part of the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, Rare and Distinctive Collections Repository

1720 Pleasant Street
184 UCB
Boulder Colorado 80503 United States