In this week’s tale from Basques in the United States, adapted from vol. 1, we meet the fascinating Santiago Arrillaga Ansola, a precociously talented young musician who arrived in the US almost by chance, as part of a concert tour, fell in love, and ultimately settled in the San Francisco Bay Area where he earned great renown as a pianist and composer, especially of religious pieces of great beauty, and became a key figure in both the religious and musical life of the area.


Santiago Arrillaga Ansola (1847-1915), a key figure in the musical history of the Bay Area.

Born in Tolosa, Gipuzkoa, in 1847, he was related to the textile industry leader Antonio Elosegui, a well-known producer of the Basque beret, whose company is still prominent today. In his home town, he learned music theory with Antonio Buenechea, director of the local Municipal Band. Then, when the natural disposition of the child for music became obvious, his parents sent him to the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música de Madrid, the principal college of music in Spain, where his teacher of counterpoint was Hilarión Eslava from Navarre, author of the “Solfeo de los Solfeos” method of instruction. In Madrid, he scored the highest marks in harmony, piano, and composition, graduating with honors and being awarded the institution’s gold medal. He then went to the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris to pursue his training with the teachers François Bazin and Antoine François Marmontel (following the tradition of Chopin).

He arrived in the US in 1874, having been chosen to accompany at the piano the opera singer Carlotta Patti during her tour of the country. On this tour, he met and married the Californian Clementina Savin, settling in San Francisco, where they were parents to Vincent (b. 1880), Elena (1881), Frank (1883), Leo (1886), Graciala (1888), and Cecilia (1898).

In San Francisco he served as organist at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as well as at other French and Spanish Catholic churches in the city, for forty years. There, too, he also taught music, founding the famed Arrillaga Musical College, and he even established an orchestra. In 1880, he prepared Hilarion Eslava’s “Mass in E-flat,” regarded as a major event in California at the time. He composed several masses and motets as well as secular and folk music: jotas, habaneras, waltzes, pasodobles, hymns, and a Basque zortziko (1912) entitled “Nere mendi maiteak” with the subtitle “Dear Mountain of My Province.”

Santiago Arrillaga died at home in Oakland, his adopted city, in 1915. He was succeeded in running the Arrillaga Musical College by his eldest son Vincent. Five of his six children were musicians: Vicente; Elena, who married Luis Alegria, son of Fermín, the mayor of Tolosa; Elena, with superior degrees in music, was organist at the Sacred Heart Church in Oakland and ran a Music Academy in this industrial city; Leo Arrillaga, pianist and organist; Graziela Arrillaga, concert pianist; and Cecilia Arrillaga, who also gave piano concerts. Today, María Luisa Alegria Arrillaga offers piano recitals throughout the US and Susan Sarti Arrillaga is a piano teacher and concert artist. Both are Santiago’s granddaughters.

We intend for Basques in the United States to be more than just an encyclopedic reference; we’d like it to be a true forum for sharing stories and anecdotes about the thousands of Basque women and men who forged new lives for themselves in the US.

If you’d like to share your own family stories with us, please click here at our dedicated Basques in the United States Project website.