Sunday, 17 January 2010

A Life in the Day of Joaquin Barreira Pereira- Organist of the Cathedral Church of Santiago de Compostela

"I usually wake up at 8am in my flat which is about 10mins walk from the Cathedral. I turn on the radio and the coffee maker. I listen to the news and drink my café con leche, sometimes with my eyes still closed. I usually have just toast for breakfast. Then I get ready and set off for the first appointment of the day which is almost always the Mass of the Canons at 9.30 in the Cathedral. Often I’m nearly late and have to rush into the Cathedral and up the narrow stone stairs to the organ gallery to play for the entrance procession. I find this first mass of the day the most satisfying and interesting. It is the principal daily celebration when the Chapter of Canons sing Lauds, a mixture of Psalms and other scripture readings then they sing the Mass. I play for the Canons as they sing the Office of the Church and then at the Offertory and the parts of the Mass. I play a voluntary at communion and then again at the end of the service. During Holy Years, when the Feast of St James falls on a Sunday the order of things changes a little at this Canons Mass and they sing the great prayer, the Benedictus, towards the end of the Mass.

I love this job and I am very happy to be playing in this great Cathedral. The last full time organist was a priest in the cathedral and he had been playing for many, many years. When he retired the Cathedral authorities called a meeting of a number of musical advisers. They began the search for a new organist. Eventually they had 5 candidates to consider, 4 from Spain and 1 from France. But decisions are taken slowly in the Church and by the Holy Year in 2004 the matter had still not been resolved. My friend, Manuel was playing part time to fill in and he asked me to help. The Cathedral authorities liked the arrangement and asked me to stay. Manuel and I still share the playing to this day.

I have many wonderful memories of events in this Cathedral. Fabulous weddings. Royal occasions like the Feast of St James in a Holy Year when the King and Queen of Spain attend Mass. Sometimes there are huge, complicated processions and at other times such as Midnight Mass at Christmas the atmosphere is much more intimate.

Every day of the year at 12 noon I play for the Pilgrims’ Mass. There are few pilgrims in January but by the late spring the Cathedral is bursting at the seams. Pilgrims sit everywhere. On steps, on the floor. They come with their rucksacks if they have just arrived in time for Mass. Priests who have walked the Camino walk in the procession and you can see their boots under their vestments. My fondest memories are not of when the King was there, or Cardinals but rather Pilgrims’ Masses. I remember one in May a couple of years ago when there were an enormous number of Germans. When Sister Maria Jesus the nun who sang at that time intoned the Kýrie eléison at the start of Mass the response from the congregation was so loud it was as if everyone was singing at the top of their voices. There is a telephone just behind the pulpit which links to a telephone on the organ. Maria Jesus telephoned me to suggest that we use the rest of the same musical setting of the mass as for the Kyrie, the plainchant Missa Orbis Factor. Everyone sang everything. It was magical.

Maria Jesus has now moved to Madrid cathedral and I miss her a lot. She started singing at the Pilgrims’ Mass 10 years ago. Before 2004 there was only an organist at the mass when the Botefumeiro was in action. Traditionally whoever is singing chooses the musical programme. I tend to arrive no earlier than 5 minutes before mass begins and the nun calls me on the telephone to tell me what to play. I then turn on the organ and the little television that sits on top of it. On that I can see the procession so I know when to begin playing.

Like most other professional organists I pick up other jobs to earn a living. Sometimes I have a few pupils but I don’t really like teaching. Playing and performing is my thing. Anyway the daily commitment to the Cathedral makes it difficult to take on other work. After the first mass I generally go to the Hotel Costa Vella to have coffee and read the newspapers. Then back to the cathedral for 12 noon. At 1 pm I try to eat something, but I’m not a big eater. I try to practise on the organ or on a piano every day. Sometimes I’m in the cathedral late into the night when the cleaners have gone home. Then it is peaceful and I can have the place to myself.

There has always been music in my life. My father sang really well and played the classical guitar. I was also very lucky that when I went to junior school at the age of 5 in my home town of Caldas de Rei on the Camino Portuguese. We had a superb music teacher who was also a church organist. From the age of 9 – 13 I went to the Escolania, the Music School of the Cathedral. There were 28 boys. We had normal schooling and lots and lots of music. I then went to the Conservatoire in Santiago for piano lessons and then to Barcelona for organ tuition. At first I went there for 20 days at a time. Then they enrolled me full time for 4 years organ study.

I love the organ in the Cathedral. The present instrument is the result of 300 years of evolution. It looks Baroque and has Baroque features. It also has some later Romantic elements. The rest is 20th Century. Until 1947, when there was a huge renovation, there were two organs, independent of each other on each side of the Nave. It then became one organ with two bodies. From 1947 only one organist was needed! Some of the organ is original. The Cornetta stop with its 5 ranks of pipes dates from the 1780’s.

This Holy Year we are having 4 Pilgrims’ Masses every day to cope with the huge numbers expected. There are Masses at 10am, 12 noon, 6pm and 7.30pm. The King will be here on 25th July and there are rumours that the Pope will also come to Santiago. Funnily enough traditionally the biggest and most important feast is not on the 25th July but rather it is the Feast of the Translation when the arrival of St James’ body is commemorated.

In the evening I might have my most favourite meal which is fried eggs and rice. I’m currently re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I frequently dream and a recurring dream is me sitting in a flying chair visiting places all over the world. I have few wishes. I suppose I would wish for health, music always in my life and peace in the world. Strangely enough if I could only have one piece of music it wouldn’t be on the organ it would be the Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina which for me encapsulates everything that is wondrous in music.

I often don’t go to bed until very late. Sometimes 2am. Currently I’m working on a secret project. Last year I played for the 25th Anniversary Service of the Confraternity of St James in London. It was a wonderful visit and it had been arranged that I would play the organ in Westminster Abbey. At the Confraternity Service they had a re-enactment of the Botafumeiro and everyone sang the Hymn to the Apostle or what is known as the Botafumeiro Music. Afterwards I told my friend Johnnie Walker the history of the piece. The tradition used to be that every Holy Year a new Hymn to St James was composed to accompany the Botafumeiro. That stopped in 1920 when people liked the new hymn so much it is still being used today. Inspired by this he suggested that for this Holy Year I compose an organ voluntary for pilgrims incorporating melodies from many countries. So far I’ve worked out 15, but he has now set the target at 25. It is driving me crazy. But maybe it will be unveiled later in the year… "


  1. I hope New Zealand has been included ;-) But maybe not.... if ever I was to be in that Cathedral and heard it, I might cry ;-)

  2. Thanks so much for sharing behind the scenes!! There is so much that goes into a Camino that we pilgrims often are blissfully unaware of! Next time, I am taking a complete and total tour...Even if it means adding to vacation time taken,

  3. fascinating. I hope the American tune is "Yes We Have No Bananas." But I´d settle for "Amazing Grace" or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

  4. It's behind the scenes stories that really give an extra level of appreciation. I will listen "harder" to the organ next time. In fact, there seems to be a whole other world to explore behind the scenes in the cathedral. I'd like to know more, please John. That is . . . how do we find out what's on in cath., apart from the obvious hugging of St James, etc? Climbing in the rafters? Music? Is it possible to get in when tour groups are not spruking? Apprecciate any help.

    Wonder what the OZ music is? Cheers Carole

  5. I met Joaquìn last August in the Cathedral, together with our friend Pablo Barreiro Rivas... I could take many shoots of the console, the old dismissed blowers, pipework etc from very privileged position... Very fine person, indeed. He's not very fond of "bumps" in his life routine, i suspect... ;) The first thing I heard when I entered the Cathedral were the organ reeds being tuned for an upcoming concert. The organ appearance is breathtaking. The whole of organ + Cathedral kept me with tears in my eyes on the verge of bursting in a cry during all the time I stayed in there or in the churchyard. It was just above me.