Having lived in New York now for 50 years, I suppose it’s OK to go into “memory-lane” mode occasionally and share a few thoughts about New York experiences. And today is a good day for thinking about one particular experience, for Christians throughout much of the world are celebrating Easter, even here in sometimes-non-conformist New York. Many services are taking place throughout the city, and probably like everywhere else, they are well attended. And in this case, the memories came rolling back to me as I was introduced recently to a new friend. I was delighted to learn that both she and her husband sing in the choir at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue, my musical “performing” home for many years.
So if we’re talking about memory lane, this is a good time to pause and remember the heady days when I was singing there. And truly observant readers will recall that I wrote another memory post about singing in St. Bartholomew’s splendid choir back on July 2, 2010 (and, yes, bits of that post are included here). That post was Back in New York — The Verdi Requiem — Many Musical Memories.
While I don’t think of myself as much of a church-goer nowadays, some of the interest is still there. For one thing, I’m not averse to wandering into St. Thomas’s Fifth Avenue every so often for Choral Evensong. I suppose these church/musical visits are a holdover from days in England when I was working in different cathedral cities and could plan my schedule so I could attend Choral Evensong when my workday was over. In any case, as it happens Choral Evensong turns out to provide a very pleasant opportunity for some focused quiet time, and that’s rewarding on many levels, now just as it was back then.
So this is a good day to be thinking about all the music that is on offer in this musical city during such a holy season, and I well remember the pleasure (and musical education) that I had when I was singing at “St. Bart’s” (as the church is known locally). Certainly other venues provide music both for services and in concert during Lent and Easter, and the music is both inspirational and performance-focused (as we might put it). Over the years I’ve been to many special programs during the season, and these lovely experiences all grew out of my introduction to performing at St. Bart’s. When I moved to New York, my choirmaster at St. Stephen’s in Richmond arranged for me to audition for Jack Ossewaarde, then choirmaster and organist at St. Bart’s. In Richmond, the choir at St. Stephen’s was of course made up of volunteers (like many Anglican/ Episcopalian congregations in America) and to ensure that enough singers were available, the volunteer choir was augmented with a paid double quartet. I was lucky to be one of these “professional” singers at St. Stephen’s, so by the time I had the opportunity to come to New York, it was a natural suggestion from my Richmond choirmaster that I audition for one of the most recognized church choirs in the city.
And that sentence might be an understatement. There is excellent music today at St. Bartholomew’s but the program is much different from the church’s earlier years. For one thing, by the time I passed the audition (it wasn’t a spectacular audition but I got through it and my lyric baritone was added to the bass section of the choir), St. Bartholomew’s Church was already a prime force in Anglican/ Episcopalian music in New York City. The tradition started back in 1886, a story well told by Neal Campbell in his study of Harold Friedell, one of the church’s great choirmasters and organists (Harold Friedell: His Life and Music, 1996):
For almost one hundred years, St. Bartholomew’s Church functioned as a latter-day version of the original Roman oratories, where the composition of and regular performance of music in large amounts was an integral enhancement to other devotional aspects of worship. From the appointment of Richard Henry Warren as organist and choirmaster in 1886, until the retirement of Friedell’s successor, Jack Ossewaarde in 1982, at which time the entire focus of St. Bartholomew’s underwent radical alterations, the regular, frequent presentations of significant amounts of great sacred music in the form of oratorios and cantatas within the framework of worship (original emphasis) was given a significant pride of place. It was part of the essence of the congregation which reflected itself in many aspects of parish life. For example, in 1958, the year that Friedell died, the parish spent fully fifteen percent of its considerable operating income on the ministry of music to its parish and the city beyond.
And this was the musical environment into which I was selected to participate ten years later!
It’s a little hard to describe the excitement and the routine of being part of this exceptional organization. For me my tenure as a regular chorister lasted about twelve years, if I’m remembering correctly. For about half the year we rehearsed on Fridays and performed on Sundays for the usual 11am service. During the music season — from the last Sunday in September through Easter Sunday — we rehearsed two nights a week (Tuesday and Friday) and sang for both the 11am Sunday services and again at 4pm for Choral Evensong, with each service having a special context. Eventually my professional duties required me to drop out of the choir, but that didn’t stop me. For another six years or so, I was honored and pleased to be called back when additional singers were required for special occasions, and I never turned down one of Jack’s requests. Needless to say, Mr. Guy began learning his music quickly, for much of what we sang was new to me; truth to tell, although I had learned much music up to this point in my life, probably most of those “oratorios and cantatas” Campbell refers to were new to me.
Of course I don’t remember everything we sang during those 20+ weeks of the St. Bart’s “season.” Certain works from those years in the choir stay with me and I now hear them very differently than I would have if I had not sung them. Among these were Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Bach’s Mass in B minor and his St. Matthew Passion, Vaughn Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem, the Mozart Requiem in D minor, and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. A special pleasure was singing Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, and it was even another educational opportunity. It was at St. Bartholomew’s that I learned that the Verdi Requiem is also known as the Manzoni Requiem. I had long known and loved the piece but for some reason had not had the connection with the Italian poet and novelist whom Verdi admired so much. All of these musical treasures remain high on the list of titles remembered. And much else, too, for we studied, learned, rehearsed, and all this singing became part of that exceptional musical education I was able to get after I moved to New York. And for all of us in the choir, the grand climax came with Easter Sunday, in the great afternoon Choral Evensong at which the anthem selection — almost as theatrical as religious — was Dvořák’s Te Deum. And to commemorate the day, this afternoon I took some time out to listen to this remarkable composition. What a magnificent piece of music it is! And how I loved singing it every Easter Sunday afternoon! After that, how could one not leave the church in a state of high exaltation and excitement?
In addition to the oratorios and cantatas, we also sang much truly extraordinary service music, and although I had previously sung much fine church music, it was at St. Bartholomew’s that I got to know and care so much about the music of such composers as Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, and Herbert Howells. I especially learned to appreciate Howells, and was thrilled when I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and made my way up to the clerestory where the cathedral library is located to visit the large collection of Howells’ music. And, surprisingly, the service music composed by Leopold Stokowski, whose relationship with St. Bartholomew’s was noted in the earlier post mentioned above. We don’t hear much about Stokowski’s service music now, but it is very good, and we enjoyed singing it, especially as it was created by the great man himself for the choir in which we were singing. Stokowski had been brought to St. Bartholomew’s Church in 1905, when the church was in a former location. He was organist and choirmaster for three years, and his tenure, though short, was an interesting one. I don’t think Campbell will object to my quoting him again, since he tells the story so well:
It was the Reverend Leighton Parks who in 1905 brought a young Leopold Stokowski to America to direct the music and play the organ at St. Bartholomew’s. The often-recited story is told of Parks traveling to London and conferring with several of the leading teachers, including Parry and Stanford, asking advice on whom he might select to be his new organist; upon learning that he didn’t want anyone “too British,” everyone said “take Stokowski.” It has never been explained satisfactorily why, if he didn’t want anyone too British, Parks was looking in London. At St. Bartholomew’s, Stokowski continued the traditions of oratorio performances which had begun with Warren. Stokowski’s most significant achievement while at St. Bartholomew’s was the first performance in America of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, initiating the special place the work has held in Lenten life of the church for many years. It did not take Stokowski long to realize that the ignominy of the church organist’s life was not for him, and in 1908 he left New York and St. Bartholomew’s to become the conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra.
Ah, yes. Easter memories and music memories. So many good times to look back on and remember fondly. And, as with any holiday, I suppose, memories do play a big part in our celebrations, don’t they? I have often thought about how fortunate I was to have had the St. Stephen’s choirmaster get in touch with his counterpart at St. Bartholomew’s. What a splendid experience for a musically inclined newcomer to the city!