On the 26th of March, 1809, Jose Juan Santesteban Iraola was born in San Sebastian. The son of a Donostian craftsman and craftswoman who lost everything they owned in the fire and plundering of the city by Wellington’s troops in 1813, the Santesteban family were forced to move to Eskoriatza that same year.
The local parish priest, Juan Jose Zanola, realized Jose Juan’s musical potential and gave him his first singing lessons. In order to further his musical studies he subsequently moved to Onate where he studied with the organist, Manuel Garagarza.
Upon hearing about the progress of the Donostian local, in 1821 Mateo Albeniz, Master of the Chapel of the parish of Santa Maria, managed to persuade Jose Juan Santesteban to return to live in San Sebastian in order to integrate him into the music chapel. It was under his direction during seven years that he wrote his first two works: A Miserere and a Mass which was premiered in Eskoriatza.
On February the 12th, 1834, at 25 years of age, he was chosen as Master of the Chapel of Santa Maria. When he took on the post, the old baroque organ with its two keyboards that had been kept in the church was in a deplorable state. An agreement with the City Council was reached in 1863 and thanks to this effort, the opening concert of the great Cavaille-Coll organ took place at which the organ was inaugurated by his son, Jose Antonio.
In 1844 he moved to Paris from where he started a tour of meeting the most famous groups of musicians and composers in France and Italy. Upon his return, he took over the position of Master of the Chapel of the head church of Santa Maria.
From this point forward, he aquired an exceptionally great musical reputation in San Sebastian. He composed a large number of works amongst which his zortzikos and songs of all kinds, his pasacalles, hymns and dance pieces stand out, almost always commissioned by Donostian groups and associations. Antonio Pena and Goni, a student of Jose Juan Santesteban, said the following about his teacher: “For Santesteban, music was a spiritual nourishment as indispensable as the material well-being that balanced the forces of the human economy.
He arranged the same works for voice or instrument, all the pieces he could get hold of, or which were given to him, be it for a group, or a choir, the same went for a theatrical event or for individual concerts…” Besides this, Santesteban was fundamental in creating the guipuzkoan choral movement. As well as his tasks as Master of the Chapel, in 1865 he founded the first permanent choral group, the Easonense Choral Society.