Cicely Winter and Ryszard Rodys
Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca

A manuscript in the Archives of the Oaxaca Cathedral contains the earliest documented organ music in Mexico to date. The name of the nun organist Sor María Clara del Santísimo Sacramento appears on the cover, and she seems to have compiled, though not composed, the scores during the mid-nineteenth century. Although the music has been published and disseminated, the identities of the nun and the composer had remained a mystery. Recent research in local archives by the Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca has brought to light information not only about the nun, but also about her relatives whose activities as musicians in the Regina Cœli convent and the Oaxaca Cathedral and as organ technicians in various local churches spanned nearly a century. Finally, we propose one of these relatives as the likely composer of most of the music in the notebook.


The richness and diversity of the historical pipe organs found in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, has been well-documented; careful examination of the 69 known, extant organs or what remains of them and of public records has yielded significant data regarding their construction history and physical characteristics. Until recently this wealth of detail contrasted with a dearth of information about the people who built and played the organs and wrote music for them. Over the past seven years we have been able, through the analysis of a music notebook compiled by a nineteenth-century nun organist, the fortuitous discovery of her will, and a painstaking examination of public archives, to make a beginning in filling this significant gap. This has allowed us to delineate the activities of a dynasty of organists and organbuilders in Oaxaca and to speculate about the circumstances which created this notebook.

Our investigation began in the Historical Archives of the Archdiocese of Antequera Oaxaca (AHAAO) which houses an impressive collection of manuscripts of mainly eighteenth-century music. Included in the collection is a most unusual document, the Notebook of Psalm Tones for Matins of Sister Maria Clara of the Most Blessed Sacrament (Cuaderno de Tonos de Maitines de Sor María Clara del Santísimo Sacramento).1 Although it was catalogued in 1998, at the time its significance was not appreciated. As it turns out, this notebook may contain the only existing organ pieces by Mexican composers previous to the twentieth century. The music was analyzed and published in 2005 2 and has since been widely disseminated, but the identity of the nun whose name appears on the cover was illusive. A glance at the notebook would lead one to believe that she was the composer of the music, but a closer look at the pieces reveals several scripts different from than of the title page, implying that other people had been involved in the composition of the works.

By chance we discovered a document in the Notary Archives of Oaxaca (Archivo Histórico de Notarías del Estado de Oaxaca or AHNEO) that included the same name as that which appeared on the cover of the notebook. The document proved to be a will made in 1835 by Doña María Clara Martínez Ramírez when she was about to enter the Regina Cœli convent in Oaxaca City under the name of Sor María Clara del Santísimiso Sacramento (from now on referred to in this text as “Clara”).3 It states that Clara, the daughter of Don Nicolás Martínez and Doña Bárbara Ramírez, and already a novice in the convent, willed all her earthly possessions to her five siblings, since she was renouncing the secular world forever. Then there is a curious error. The scribe had noted that she would be taking the customary “black veil” (“velo negro”), but then crossed out the word “negro” and substituted “blanco” (white). The significance of this will be discussed below.

Clara’s will provided enough leads to direct our research, and as one reference led to another, we were able to uncover information about her family going back several generations. The initial results were published in the Fourth Newsletter of the Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca A.C. (IOHIO) in 2006.4 However, ongoing research, particularly in the AHAAO,5 has brought to light new data about the identities and activities of Clara’s relatives, revealing her family to be a dynasty of organists, musicians, and organbuilders that had a major impact on the organ culture in Oaxaca over the course of a nearly a century. The following analysis of the notebook and the description of Clara’s family proposes to show how they were related.


The notebook is a typical example of an “organist book”, a collection of pieces compiled over time by one or more persons for liturgical use. The manuscript consists of 57 pages of short pieces of organ music plus the title page bearing Clara’s name. This indicates that the book was in her possession at some time, even though it “belonged” to the convent since, as a cloistered nun, she theoretically could not own property. The music was intended to be played at the daily office of matins which was celebrated just before dawn.


FIG 1. SMC Verset in the First Tone "Flautaudo con Clarines"


FIG. 2. SMC Verset in the Sixth Tone, "Flautado Mallor"

Each of the eight psalm tones is represented, and the chants are followed by a series of short pieces or versets. With a few exceptions, the sets are titled in fine script according to the corresponding tone and include a brief chordal introduction (“cuerda”), followed by the chant with figured bass accompaniment and sometimes a tempo indication. The versets that follow were conceived in classical rather than baroque style and conform to the structure of major and minor keys rather than the old church modes. However, church music at that time may still have retained the terminology of the past. One can imagine that the light, happy, uncomplicated character of the versets alternating with the chants would have animated the nuns at the start of a new day.

An analysis of the script reveals as many as four different hands, either of the composers or the copyists, and these are identified by their different styles of clefs and braces.6 There seems to have been a principal composer who wrote settings for all eight psalm tones, including two for the first tone, and his settings will be referred to as the “core group.” These pieces are musically as interesting and varied as the context would allow and have a distinctive style of cadence. A second author with the clearest script of all wrote two sets of simple versets in the first tone, one of which has cadences similar to the core group, and they are titled in the same hand as the core group. The third author contributed only one untitled set in the first tone, and the fourth, one each in the second and third tone sets. The pages are sewn together and show varying degrees of deterioration along the edges. Further study could perhaps order them chronologically. Some of the pieces in the notebook have the character of “filler” music between the chants, but given the circumstances, they could not be too long or complicated.

FIG. 3. SMC Verset in a different hand


The collection may be divided into three approximately equal parts. The first part includes the versets corresponding to the first tone, the second part, those for the second and third tones, and the last part, the versets for the fourth through eighth tones. Although the collection seems a bit uneven, this is probably because most of the original chants for matins were usually composed in the first rather than in the succeeding tones. It is also possible that the other composers intended to write settings for all eight tones but never finished the project. A few of the sections are out of order and in this sense, the notebook was not compiled very carefully, but it is still musically coherent. There are also various errors throughout the notebook, either of the composer or the copyist, that are crossed out with diagonal slashes.

The versets are quite short, neither technically nor musically difficult, and probably easily memorized after repeated playing. Similar musical motifs lead one to believe that the various composers may have been in contact with each other, either as relatives or students and teachers. No composer names or dates are cited, but stylistic details—a thin, non-contrapuntal, non-chordal texture; the right hand almost always accompanied by the left, frequently with an Alberti bass; typical classical modulations, chromatic progressions, and cadences; and a light, gallant style—indicate a decidedly post-baroque date of composition.

Organ registrations (“Flautado mallor” “Clarines y trompeta mallor”), added to the opening pieces of the core group as well as fragments on the last page, are in a fifth hand that contrasts with the finer script of the titles of the sections and tempo indications. These additions appear only on the core group pieces and on none of the others. Based on the title page and the signature on her will, this seems to be Clara’s hand (the similarity of “Clara” and “Clarines” provides a good comparison). Besides the evidence of the dissimilarity of her script to that of the compositions, it is certain that in the early nineteenth century, a woman from a Oaxacan village would not have been trained as a composer. However, she seems to have organized a collection perhaps composed over time, contributed a page of musical fragments at the end, and added a cover page or even replaced an earlier cover with her own.




FIG: 4. Clara's signature on the title page of the notebook, her will, and a notation on a verset

There is no trace of, nor reference to, the organ in the Regina Cœli convent. However, the registrations occasionally indicated in the notebook include an 8´ principal, an 8´ clarín (horizontal trumpet) and an 8´ trompeta real (interior trumpet). By Oaxacan standards, this was a large organ with a brilliant sound. It probably had a traditional 45 note keyboard and a short octave, even if it were relatively new, since Oaxacan organbuilding in the nineteenth century continued to emulate earlier models. The bass line of the pieces does not include any of the notes omitted in the short octave. Although the organ probably had divided registers (registros partidos), the music in the notebook does not exploit the musical possibilities they offered, which were incompatible with the classical style of the compositions. Because of certain modulations in the music and the frequent use of the key of F# minor, the organ would not have been tuned in meantone, and in fact these versets serve as the first evidence of a more modern tuning system (equal temperament?) in a Oaxacan organ.


Documentation of Clara’s relatives dates back to the late-seventeenth century, particularly on her great-grandmother’s side of the family.7 They were all Oaxacans, and so far their known occupations were candlemaker, painter, carpenter, and weaver. We will begin our study with the first generation which did not include musicians, but which produced them.

1. Clara’s great grandparents Antonio Martínez and Narcisa Antonia Vasconcelos. Married in Oaxaca City in 1739, Antonio was a tailor by trade. Two of his more than ten children became musicians with a professional level high enough to allow them to participate in the musical activities (capilla musical) of the Oaxaca Cathedral.8

1. Clara’s great uncle Mariano Santiago Martínez Vasconcelos, brother of her grandfather Juan Martínez (1749 – after 1775).
The first son of Antonio and Narcisa was born in Oaxaca City, married in 1767, and entered the Cathedral in 1769 as a violinist and second organist, serving there until 1775.9

2. Clara’s grandfather Juan Martínez Vasconcelos (1753 – 1795).
Born and raised in Oaxaca City and categorized as castizo (a mix of Spanish and mestizo blood), he married the Spanish widow María Isabel Olivera Grijalva from the town of Tlacocolula in 1773 and settled there.10 He had five children, three of whom became musicians: María Nicolasa and Juana Gertrudis (twins born in Tlacolula), José Nicolás (born in San Dionisio del Valle, now known as San Dionisio Ocotepec), José Domingo (born in San Juan Teitipac), and María Cayetana (place of birth undetermined).11 He seems to have been the church organist in Tlacolula and in some of its surrounding towns until 1786 when he competed for and won the position of first organist in the Oaxaca Cathedral.12
The towns of Ocotepec and Teitipac are both related to Tlacolula, the county seat and economic and administrative center for that part of the Valley of Oaxaca. Fortunately, the organs in these three towns still exist (though only the Tlacolula organ is complete), so we can imagine the instruments that Juan must have played. Since organists traveled from town to town at that time (and up until the mid-twentieth century), he also may have played and maintained the organs in other unspecified communities of the area, where the organ may still exist (as in Tlacochahuaya) or where it has long since disappeared. 13
His position in the Cathedral was highly prestigious. After all, only a generation had passed since Manuel de Sumaya had been the maestro de capilla (music director) from 1745-55, and Oaxaca was still considered one of the most important musical centers in New Spain.14 The 1786 reference describes his starting responsibilities in the Oaxaca Cathedral, apart from playing the organ, as teaching children (“Maestro del Colegio de Infantes”), which probably included keyboard as a basis for organ (with classes given on the clavichord or harpsichord), solfège, and choir, as well as keeping the organs tuned and maintained.15 The 1792 census states “…on the Plazuela de Ximeno No. 12 lives Juan Martínez castizo from the city of Oaxaca, 39 years old, musician, short [of stature] married to Isabel Olivera Spaniard with two sons Joseph Nicolás, sixteen years old, musician, and Joseph Domingo, fourteen years old, the same [i.e. musician]”.16 Two daughters aged 18 and 11 are also mentioned but not named, since this survey focused on possible military service.
In 1789 Juan petitioned the Cathedral authorities for permission to compete for an organist job in the Mexico City Cathedral, surely one of the most important organist positions in the colony.17 The reason cited was the need of a higher salary to support his family, though in the document he states that he would really prefer the simplicity of the Oaxaca Cathedral to the opulence of Mexico City and seemed to have been using this as a ploy for a raise. The Cabildo (governing council of the church) denied him permission to leave, but agreed to raise his salary by 100 pesos, giving him a total of 450 pesos a year, a comfortable salary at the time.18
Organists were expected to make basic repairs to the organs, in the same way that organ builders and technicians (organeros) were expected to know how to play them. It is possible that Juan Martínez helped maintain the organ in the Regina Cœli convent, and in 1787-1788 he participated in a repair project of the large organ in the Oaxaca Cathedral. His surname on the payroll is curiously Buena Vida (“Good Life”), probably originally a nickname that became formalized with variants through the next generations.19 The nickname seems fitting, since he did seem to have a good life: he was an honest, responsible, hard-working citizen and responsible father whose talent was recognized, respected, and decently compensated. Juan Martínez, the tailor´s son, acquired superior musical skills, but no documentation has been found that indicates with whom he studied or where. However, it seems probable that he studied in the Oaxaca Cathedral where musical activity had reached its apogee, perhaps with the maestro de capilla Juan Mathías de los Reyes. He seems to have been one of Oaxaca’s great musicians and it is unfortunate that he was only 42 years old when he died.20

1. Clara’s aunt, one of the twins María Nicolasa or Juana Gertrudis Martínez Vasconcelos or Olivera (1773 – ?).
Born in Tlacolula to a Spanish mother and a castizo father, these sisters were raised outside Oaxaca City until 1786 when their father Juan was awarded the post of first organist in the Cathedral. In the 1792 census cited above, two of his three daughters were still living with their parents, though the mother died later that year. In 1794, Juan petitioned the authorities in the Cathedral for a loan of 200 pesos (nearly half his yearly salary) to offset the cost of the ceremony of profession for his daughter (who is not named specifically).21 In the same document, he also solicited the position of second organist for his son, Joseph Domingo, which we know was granted. This was the year before the widower Juan died, and he seemed to be taking measures to guarantee the security of his children.
We can assume that the daughter whose taking of the veil he needed to finance was one of the twins, María Nicolasa or Juana Gertrudis, 21 years old at the time, rather than the younger daughter, who at age 13 would not have been old enough to enter the convent. Juan´s petition most likely referred to the daughter who was already in the convent as a novice, required for at least a year before she was allowed to profess. By the time Juan died, he had paid off 125 pesos of the 200 peso loan, and a document confirms that the Cabildo of the Cathedral waived the remaining 75 peso debt.22 This suggests that his plan to have his daughter profess was carried out, though we do not know the religious name she assumed.
The taking of vows was equivalent to a marriage, since the novices would become “brides of Christ,” and a dowry of approximately 3000 pesos, a substantial sum in those days, was required in order to enter most convents in Oaxaca. The convent, acting on behalf of the “husband,” would then cover the cost of maintaining the nun for the rest of her life. Fortunately this “entrance fee” was often waived for musicians—organists, singers, bassoonists—or those possessing other talents useful to the convent, such as accounting skills. And in fact this is the only way that Juan’s daughter could have been admitted, since she couldn’t have paid the dowry, and just the cost of the profession ceremony required considerable sacrifice. Since she did not pay the dowry, she had to take the white veil rather than the black, which meant that she would never have the same legal rights in the convent as her black-veiled sisters.23 Juan’s connections in the music world must surely have helped her admission, but the convent also needed organists to support worship and devotion, so it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. We can assume that she would have received superior musical training from her father which allowed her to be accepted for the position.
Though the convent his daughter was to enter is not named, evidence points to the Conceptionist convent of Regina Cœli. The entry register survives for two Oaxacan convents—Santa Catarina de Siena (Dominicans) and La Soledad (Augustinians)—but a name corresponding to a daughter of Juan Martínez does not appear on either list.24 And she was unlikely to have entered the convent of Santa María de los Ángeles, later known as Los Siete Príncipes (Capuchins for the indigenous elite). That would leave two possible convents: Regina Cœli and San José (Spanish Capuchins). Since her niece Clara chose to enter the Regina Cœli convent 41 years later, one can assume that the aunt María Nicolasa or Juana Gertrudis had elected the same one, since relatives tended to cluster in the same convent. In this way, aunts could assume responsibility for their nieces in the convent and enjoy the closest possibility of a mother-daughter relationship.
In the late eighteenth century the Regina Cœli convent was moved from its original location to the imposing former Jesuit establishment of La Compañía de Jesús on the southwest corner of the Oaxaca town square (zócalo) and north of the main market. The convent (formerly monastery) was probably altered and refurbished sometime after the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, creating comfortable private apartments for the well-to-do sisters and their retinue of helpers, as is documented in the similar Dominican convent of Santa Catarina de Siena. Clara and her aunt however, as economic dependents of the convent, had specific duties to perform in return for their admission, and they probably lived in the more modest quarters. By 1830, Clara’s aunt had either died (she would have been 57 years old) or was no longer able to play the organ, since it was then that Clara entered as an organist,25 and it is unlikely that the convent would have assumed the responsibility for two organists. The convent, occupying an entire city block and now known as the “Casa Fuerte,” was severely modified after the Reform Period, and today it is impossible to imagine how the space was utilized by the conceptionists.

2. Clara’s father José Nicolás Martínez Vasconcelos or Olivera (the second surname he used is unconfirmed) (1776 – ca. 1830).
Juan´s older son was born in San Dionisio Ocotepec and seems to have moved to Oaxaca City with his family in 1786. In the 1792 census he is cited as a musician, living with his parents, though at the time of his marriage in 1805 to María Bernarda (or Bárbara) Ramírez (from Oaxaca, of indigenous or mixed blood, described either as yndia or mestiza), he was living in Ocotepec.26 No further documentation of his presence in Oaxaca City after 1792 has been found, even though this is where his relatives lived and where his six children were baptized. José Nicolás seems to have returned to his village of birth, perhaps having inherited his parents’ house and other holdings, and could have been the organist/technician in Ocotepec and other towns in the area just as his father had been.

3. Clara’s uncle José Domingo Martínez Vasconcelos (alias Bonavides) (1778 – 1852).
Born in San Juan Teitipac, he married in 1798 and had 12 children.27 His link to Clara was discovered because of the coincidence of Clara’s surname, Martínez, with that of an organist mentioned in an 1830 reference “José Domingo Martínez (organista)….con ocho hijos: Francisco organista, Juan organero, Mariano organero, José organero...” He was the same person who had formerly been the second organist in the Oaxaca Cathedral.28 His marriage certificate revealed that his parents were the same as Clara’s father’s parents, in other words, José Nicolás and José Domingo were brothers. This discovery was as significant for our research as Clara’s will, since it reinforced the link between Clara and the organists in the Oaxaca Cathedral.
José Domingo was unusually talented as both organist, general musician (he was contracted on occasion to play the viola in Cathedral events),29 and organbuilder. In 1794, he entered the Cathedral at age 16 as second organist, playing the smaller of the two organs and substituting for the first organist. Documents indicate that he occasionally taught in the Colegio de Infantes of the Cathedral after his father died, and alternated with first organist Lucas Morales.30 He left the post of second organist in 1823, after 27 years of service, and seemed to focus during the ensuing years on organ repair and construction, although he also may have been the organist in a different church. In 1826 he repaired the smaller organ in the Cathedral and in 1833 repaired both organs.31 He probably maintained and repaired organs all over Oaxaca City and beyond, perhaps also in the Regina Cœli convent, but documentation exists only for his activities in the Cathedral. In 1840 he built the large organ, the case of which still exists, in Santa María de la Natividad Tamazulapan in the Mixteca Alta area of Oaxaca (the contracts of 1833 and 1840 were witnessed by his sons Francisco and Juan).32 In 1851, the year before he died, he was named first (and only) organist in the Cathedral and also repaired both organs.33
In 1840 an announcement appeared in the newpaper “El Regenerador” which offered an organ for sale in the home of señor Martínez Bonavides, at No. 12 Agente Street located two blocks to the east of his family’s former residence.34 This address is also cited in the 1842 census and is one of the few confirmations of the location of an organbuilding shop in Oaxaca City.35 He transformed the alias Buena Vida of his father to Bonavides, which he used in the last two decades of his life as his second or sometimes only surname. He may have enjoyed an equally “good life” as his father, but he seems not to have had the same moral stature, since he was often reprimanded for tardiness, not showing up for work, or for being inebriated in the Cathedral.36 However, he appears to have helped his niece and nephew Clara and Tomás (and their sisters?) when their parents died and to have trained his own sons in organbuilding and playing. He may have been the composer of two works registered in the Cathedral archive.

1. Clara Luisa Josepha Orocia Martínez Ramírez = Sor María Clara del Santísimo Sacramento (1806 – after 1861).
Born in Oaxaca City of a castizo father and Indian or mestiza mother37 and raised in San Dionisio Ocotepec, Clara must have grown up surrounded by organ talk and music. She would have had access to a keyboard instrument in her home or elsewhere on which she could study and practice, and because of her family connections, she was probably able to play the organs in Ocotepec and other surrounding villages such as Teitipac and perhaps Tlacochahuaya. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that she would have been able to play the Cathedral organ that her grandfather and uncle played.
The post-Independence atmosphere in which Clara grew up would have been more relaxed than her aunt’s; there was in general less formal control from the government, and girl and women musicians would soon be playing in public in Mexico City. Also, by 1822 the law of racial origins and the Inquisition had been abolished, thus eliminating the condition of purity of blood sometimes required in ecclesiastical institutions.
The first reference to Clara in the convent of Regina Cœli is in 1830, where she is cited as the “girl organist” (“niña organista”).38 The term niña did not refer to her age (24 years old), but was rather was a term used to distinguish lay females living in the convent from servants, novices, and nuns. It seems that her parents died around this time, and she had to support herself and five younger siblings. She must have moved to Oaxaca City in order to take on the convent job, probably recommended by her uncle José Domingo, because his sister María Nicolasa or Juana Gertrudis was no longer playing the organ. Clara was accepted into the convent, perhaps living in her aunt’s cell, and was paid six pesos per month to play the organ. This was a respectable amount for a young single woman, but not enough for her to support her siblings.
She apparently sought out other means of support and on at least three occasions received a “gift for orphans” (dotación para huérfanas) of 300 pesos from the charitable foundation established in the seventeenth century by philanthropist Manuel Fernández Fiallo. These gifts were mainly intended to provide girl orphans with marriage dowries, but in Clara’s case she seemed to be saving up for her profession ceremony. She received three payments while in the convent: the first as a niña in 1834 before she took her religious name, a second time after she had taken perpetual vows between 1835-48, and the third time between 1848-53.39 In the preceding generation Juan Martínez had been able to finance this ceremony for his daughter, Clara’s aunt, through a loan from the Cathedral, and a generation later the Fiallo Foundation was able to act as the sponsor for Clara’s.

FIG. 5. Clara's will: "black" (negro) veil is crossed out and "white" (blanco) is substituted

In her will of 1835, Clara is described as a novice, meaning that she had been in the convent for at least a year, but in fact she had been associated with the convent for five years as an organist. When a novice made her will, a notary would come to the convent and the information would be dictated to him (obviously he could not see her face to face) which he would then note on a fairly standardized format. Nearly all who professed paid the dowry and therefore took the black veil. Only a few like Clara took the white, an exception which the scribe seems not to have anticipated and which probably explains the error mentioned previously.
It is not surprising that there is no information about Clara in the convent. She died sometime after 1861, because her name still appears on the nuns’ payroll of Regina Cœli that year.40 The convents in Oaxaca were expropriated in 1863, after which the nuns went to live singly or in groups of two or three in private homes or with relatives, and had to revert to their former secular names. We can assume that Clara passed away in someone’s home, though the date is unknown. Her notebook, along with the rest of the convent archives, was transferred by the government to the Cathedral. This was a stroke of luck, because many convent archives were dispersed, lost, or destroyed during the Reform Period of 1857-1860 and the ensuing civil unrest.

2. Clara’s brother Joseph Tomás Orosio Martínez Bonavides (1811- ?)
Like his sister Clara, he was born in Oaxaca and probably raised in his father’s home town of Ocotepec.41 He may have played the organ there and in the neighboring communities as his grandfather and perhaps his father did. The organ in San Dionisio Ocotepec was repaired by José Tomás Bonavides in 1842,42 yet his name does not appear in that year’s census of Oaxacan residents.
Perhaps when his parents died around 1830, Tomás, then 19 years old, moved to Oaxaca City with Clara. While she lived provisionally in the convent, he may have lived with his uncle José Domingo and worked in his shop. This idea is reinforced by the fact that he changed his surname Martínez to Bonavides to correspond with his uncle’s. He may have eventually returned to Ocotepec, as his father had done, which is why there is no further mention of him in Oaxaca City records.43



FIG. 6. The organ in Ocotepec.  The lower label indicates repair work by Tomas Bonavidis in 1842

3. Clara’s cousins, Francisco, Juan, Mariano, José, Joaquín, and Luciano, children of José Domingo Martínez Vasconcelos.
Six sons followed in their father’s profession as organist, musician, or organbuilder. In 1812 the first four brothers lived with their parents in the same house where Juan Martínez had lived with his family in 1792. In 1830, three sons are listed as organeros, and one (Francisco) as an organist, since by then they ranged in age from 20 to 27 years old and were plying their father’s trade.44 In the 1842 census, Francisco, Mariano, Joaquín and Luciano – these last two are the youngest whose names did not appear previously – are all cited as musicians with the surname Bonavides and lived at their father’s new address, the shop where the young men worked and where the organ was advertised for sale.45
In 1833 and 1840 Francisco and Juan witnessed the contracts of their father for repair work on the large Cathedral organ and the construction of the organ in the Tamazulapan.46 Several of José Domingo’s sons also did repair work on the Cathedral organ (Mariano in 1837 on the large organ and Francisco in 1871 on both organs) and intervened in the organs in San Pedro Yucuxaco (Joaquín, 1840) 47 and San Lorenzo Etla (Mariano, 1861). According to a reference in 1874, Luciano Bonavides was the first piano builder in Oaxaca, beginning in the late 1850s.48

1. Clara’s cousin’s son, Mariano Martínez Bonavides, grandson of José Domingo (?­-1908)
Son of Mariano Martínez Bonavides, he was married in 1860, and had at least five children. They were all born in Oaxaca City except the second who was born in San Andrés Zautla,49 where one of Oaxaca’s most extraordinary polychromed organs still exists. It appears that Mariano was living there for a time while he was working on the organ. In 1869 he became the godfather of Melitón Vicente, the son of organbuilder Pedro Nibra, strengthening the link between two of Oaxaca’s most illustrious organbuilding families.50 In 1892, Mariano applied for his son Enrique’s admission into the School of Arts and Trades in Oaxaca City (Escuela de Artes y Oficios de Oaxaca) but his career choice is unknown.51 In Mariano’s later years, he was a successful businessman and an important political figure in Oaxaca City during the Porfiriato period.52


FIG. 7. The organ in Tamazulapan. Signatures on the contract of José Domingo Martínez and his sons


FIG. 8. Signatures on the contract of José Domingo Martínez and his sons.



It would seem probable that the composer of the core group in the Notebook was one of Clara’s relatives. There surely would have been no need to copy imported music of intermediate level when her family included so many capable musicians, predominately organists, who understood the needs of the Oaxacan liturgy and prevailing taste as well as anyone.53 The most likely candidates would be her grandfather Juan and her uncle José Domingo, who were both organists and teachers in the Oaxaca Cathedral.




FIG. 9. Samples of José Domingo's handwriting: a title of a verset, the words "primer" and "con la" copied from a letter from 1800.

Since the music appears to have been written by the composer himself and not by an unsure student or a professional copyist, we compared Juan’s and José Domingo’s handwriting in letters and documents with the headings and tempo specifications in the core group. Juan’s script was quite different than that of the Notebook, whereas José Domingo’s turned out to be strikingly similar.54 However, a few discrepancies regarding specific letters necessitate further study before any definite conclusion is reached. Even so, we can guardedly propose that José Domingo Martínez Vasconcelos composed most of the music in the notebook, probably during the period 1800-1823 when he was an organist and music teacher in the Cathedral. It is also certain that his compositional style would have been influenced by his illustrious father Juan.

He may have composed the pieces specifically for his sister in the convent, although he may also have played them in the Cathedral where the canonical hours were celebrated. José Domingo’s sister professed in 1794 and probably would not have received the music until some years later, either gradually or all at once (in 1800 she was 27 and José Domingo was 22). Presumably she shared the collection with her niece Clara or bequeathed it to her. It seems probable that the music was already in the convent when Clara arrived in 1830, because it would not have made sense for José Domingo to wait until then to give it to her if it had been composed earlier.

Besides the versets for matins, there are indications that Clara’s relatives may have composed other music. Two compositions in the Cathedral archives, Te Deum Laudamus for choir and orchestra (score incomplete and unfortunately undated), and Misa para niños (catalogued but unfortunately lost), were composed by “Maestro Bonavidis.”55 However, the musical notation of the Te Deum seems to be that of a professional copyist and does not resemble the notation in Clara’s notebook. Her relatives could also have composed music for other churches in and outside Oaxaca City (our research has focused only on the Cathedral archives), but so far no examples have been found. In any case, such music would probably have ended up in private hands or family collections, since it was considered the personal property of the composer rather than of the church. Clara’s notebook is safeguarded in the Cathedral only because it was transferred there from the Regina Cœli convent, from one institution to another. It was not considered her private property and therefore did not revert to one of her relatives after her death. It is also possible that the composers of the settings other than the core group included other Martínez relatives. We look forward to future research that may broaden our understanding of how this dynamic musical family contributed to the cultural life of Oaxaca.

Early in the nineteenth century, the sound of the organ and the voices of the nuns must have drifted beyond the walls of the Regina Cœli convent to the passersby below near the town square and the market. Now nearly two centuries later, this same music is being heard all over the world, celebrating what is so far the earliest organ music documented in Mexico. The Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca regularly incorporates music from Clara’s notebook into its concerts, encourages invited artists to program the pieces in our festival concerts, and has distributed the publication to organists, ecclesiastics, and scholars throughout Mexico and abroad. The archive discoveries described in this article complement the music in the notebook by identifying the members of Clara’s family who created and played the organ pieces and by elucidating their historical context.


1 AHAAO, caja 51-01 XVIII, 50a.65; first listed by researcher Jorge Mejia Torres in 1998 in a register of previously uncatalogued works, “La catedral de Oaxaca: sus músicos y sus composiciones. Un listado de obras en proceso de catalogación.” en De papeles mudos a composiciones sonoras. La música en la Catedral de Oaxaca. Siglos XVII-XX, Cuadernos de Historia Eclesiástica vol. 2, Jesús Lizama y Daniela Traffano (editores), Archivo Histórico de la Arquidiócesis de Oaxaca/Fondo Estatal para la Cultura y las Artes, Oaxaca 1998.
2 Cuaderno de Tonos de Maitines de Sor María del Santísimo Sacramento, Calvert Johnson editor, Wayne Leupold Editions Inc., North Carolina, 2005. More detailed information about the history of music in the convents of New Spain and the technical analysis of the music may be found in the introduction by Aurelio Tello and Calvert Johnson.
3 Archivo Histórico de Notarías del Estado de Oaxaca (AHNEO), escribano Juan Pablo Mariscal, libro 193, inventario 301, f. 40 – 41v.
4 Fourth Newsletter of the Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca, A.C., August 2006, pp. 14-19,
5Órganos, organeros y organistas en la Catedral de Oaxaca, Ryszard Rodys, published on the web page of the Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca A.C.,
Who were the organists of the Oaxaca Cathedral?
6 We appreciate the help of Barbara Owen in distinguishing the different composers/copyists in the manuscript.
7 AHAAO, microfilm, various baptismal (bautizos), marriage (matrimonio), and death (defunciones) records. These records and similar references to follow are from the Sagrario de Oaxaca (Oaxaca Cathedral) unless stated otherwise.
8 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de matrimonios 1739-44, 28 octubre 1739.
9 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de bautizos 1749-53, 27 julio 1749; libro de matrimonios 1763-68, 30 noviembre 1767; Cabildo / Gobierno / Actas, libro 6, f. 346-346v.
10 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de matrimonios 1768-76, 17 enero 1773.
11 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de bautizos de Tlacolula 1733-82, 25 junio 1773; libro de matrimonios 1786-99, 13 diciembre 1798; libro de matrimonios 1799-1813, 5 agosto 1805.
12 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno / Actas, libro 7, f. 288-288v; Cabildo / Gobierno / Correspondencia, caja 1786-99, exp. 1786, letter of Juan Martínez.
13 For more detailed information about the Oaxacan organs, please visit the IOHIO web site
14 Manuel de Sumaya (ca. 1678–1755) was perhaps the most famous Mexican composer of the colonial period in New Spain. 
15 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno / Actas, libro 7, f. 288v.
16 Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City, microfilm, Padrón de familias españolas, castizas y mestizas (census of Spanish, castiza, and mestiza families), Oaxaca, julio 1792.
17 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno / Correspondencia, caja 1786-99, exp. 1789.
18 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno / Actas, libro 7, f. 304.
19 AHHAO, Cabildo / Pecuniaria / Contaduría, libro 1788, hoja suelta, receipt of José Manuel Carmona. The variants on the name Buena Vida later appeared as: Bonavides, Bonabides, Bonavidis, Bonabidis, Bonavidez, Benavides, and Benavidis.
20 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de defunciones No. 19, f. 183, 23 octubre 1795.
21 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno / Actas, libro 8, f. 142v.
22 Ibid. ff. 175-175v.
23 We are grateful to Anne Staples (El Colegio de México) for providing background information about nuns’ convents in Mexico.
24 Biblioteca Francisco de Burgoa, Fondo Luis Castañeda Guzmán, Libro de la Fundación del Convento Sta. Catarina de Sena; AHAAO, Diocesano / Gobierno / Religiosos; Libro de profesiones del convento de las agustinas.
25 Luis Castañeda Guzmán “Templo de los Príncipes y Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles”, Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Culturas, 1993, pp. 72-73, Nota No. 80: Cuenta del Convento de Regina Cœli de 1830.
26 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de matrimonios 1799-1813, 5 agosto 1805.
27 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de matrimonios 1786-99, 13 diciembre 1798. In the existing records, José Domingo used his father’s surnames, either Martínez or Vasconcelos, rather than Martínez Olivera which included his mother’s. This recycling and mixing of surnames is still common in Mexico today, particularly if there is prestige associated with one of the parent’s names.
28 Archivo Histórico Municipal de Oaxaca (AHMO), Tesorería municipal, tomo 1830-34, Padrón general de los habitantes (1830).
29 AHAAO, Parroquial / Disciplinar / Fábrica espiritual, caja 1830-33, “Cuenta general del caudal de fábrica de 1831”, receipt signed by José María Ramos.
30 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno / Correspondencia, caja 1822-29, exp. 1829, letter from fray Ignacio Bohórquez with the opinion of the rector of the Colegio de Infantes about the teachers.
31 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno /Actas, Libro 11, ff. 97v, 99v, 101, ff. 180,
182, 185v; Parroquial / Disciplinar / Fábrica espiritual, caja 1830-33, Cuenta general del caudal de la fábrica 1832, comprobante No 19, Cuenta general del caudal de la fábrica 1833, gastos extraordinarios; AHNEO, escribano Vicente Castillejos, Libro 162, f. 111.
32 AHNEO, escribano Juan Pablo Mariscal, Libro 199, inventario 306, ff. 65-68, 72. José Domingo and Juan José used Bonavides as their second surname, Francisco used Bonavidis.
33 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno /Actas, Libro 12, ff. 39-39v, 40v-41, 42v.
34 Biblioteca Francisco de Burgoa: El Regenerador, No. 47, 26 octubre 1840.
35 Manuel Esparza, Padrón general de la Ciudad de Oaxaca 1842, INAH, Oaxaca 1981. Today this address would be on the east side of Avenida Juárez between Murgía and Abasolo.
36 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno / Correspondencia, caja 1822-29, exp. 1829, letter from de fray Ignacio Bohórquez with the opinion of the rector of the Colegio de Infantes about the teachers; Cabildo / Gobierno / Actas, Libro 9, ff. 52v-53.
37 AHAAO, microfilm, libros de bautizo, 1804-1808, 19 agosto 1806.
38 Luis Castañeda Guzmán “Templo de los Príncipes y Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles”, Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Culturas, 1993, pp. 72-73, Nota No. 80: Cuenta del Convento de Regina Cœli de 1830.
39 AHAAO, Cabildo / Pecuniaria / Contaduría, caja 1831, Cuenta general de la obra pía de dotar huérfanas fundada por el Capitán Don Manuel Fernández Fiallo (Portuguese philanthropist who spent most of his life in Oaxaca and supported numerous projects).
40 AHAAO, Diocesano / Gobierno / Religiosos, caja 1860-69, exp. 1861, Nómina de las religiosas del convento de Regina Cœli.
41 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de bautizos, 1810-14, 6 marzo 1811.
42 Inscription on the inside of the organ in San Dionisio Ocotepec cites the repair work done by José Tomás Bonavidis.
43 If the parochial archive still exists in Ocotepec, more information may turn up about Tomás, his parents, and/or his children, to help us better understand that branch of Clara’s family.
44 AHMO, Tesorería municipal, tomo 1830-34, Padrón general de los habitantes (1830); Fundación Cultural Bustamante Vasconcelos, A.C., Padrón general de la Ciudad de Oaxaca hecho en el año de 1812.
45 Manuel Esparza, Padrón general de la Ciudad de Oaxaca 1842, INAH, Oaxaca 1981;
46 AHNEO, escribano Vicente Castillejos, Libro 162, f. 111; escribano Juan Pablo Mariscal, Libro 199 ff. 65-68, 72.
47 AHAAO, Parroquial / Disciplinar / Fábrica espiritual, caja 1834-36 y 39, Cuenta general del caudal de fábrica 1837, gastos extraordinarios, gastos menores de agosto y recibo No. 26; Diocesano / Gobierno / Parroquias, caja 1861, recibo - hoja suelta; Cabildo / Pecuniaria / Contaduría, Libro de caja (…) que comienza en 1° de Mayo del año de 1856, f. 102; caja 1870-72, recibo -  hoja suelta; inscription inside the organ in San Pedro Yucuxaco.
48 Hispano Americano, Editorial Tiempo, 1974, p. 60.
49 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de matrimonios 1857-62, libro de bautizos de San Andrés Zautla 1859-64, 23 agosto 1863.
50 AHAAO, microfilm, libro de bautizos 1869-71, 5 abril 1869.
51 Archivo General del Poder Ejecutivo del Estado de Oaxaca, Instrucción pública / Escuelas y colegios / Escuela de Artes y Oficios, legajo 7, exp. 6, año 1892.
52 Mark Overmyer-Velásquez “Visions of the Emerald City: modernity, tradition, and the formation of the Porfirian Oaxaca, Mexico”, Duke University Press 2006, p. 21.
53 Musicologist Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini studied the manuscript and concluded that the pieces do not resemble anything he has seen by a European composer.
54 AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno / Correspondencia, caja 1800-06, exp. 1800, letter of José Domingo Vasconcelos; AHAAO, Cabildo / Gobierno / Correspondencia, caja 1786-99, exp. 1789, letter of Juan Martínez.
55 AHAAO, Catálogo de Aurelio Tello: No. 50.5; Inventario de Jorge Mejía: Nos. 187, 27.

*This article was published in “Música de Tecla en los Monasterios Femeninos y Conventos de España, Portugal y las Américas, Keyboard Music in the Female Monasteries and Convents of Spain, Portugal and the Americas,” edited by Luisa Morales, FIMTE Series: Estudios de Música de Tecla Española, Studies in Spanish Keyboard Music, Asociación Cultural LEAL, Spain, 2011.