Surpliced Boy Choirs in America

 By S. B. Whitney

Part III

Choristers singing

From Christ’s Church, Philadelphia, we learn that Miss Clifford, in 1816, bequeathed a sum of money to be applied to “teaching six boys, as a choir to sing in Christ Church.”  There is no mention of these choristers being vested.  To the Rev. Dr. Francis L. Hawkes we owe the establishment of the first vested choir in the North.  This was at St. Thomas Hall, Flushing, L.I. [Long Island, New York], in the year 1841; and we are informed that the fact of Dr. Hawkes having established this vested choir defeated his election to the bishopric of Mississippi.  In describing the chapel at Flushing, the Rev. Dr. Mead, who opposed the consecration of Dr. Hawkes, gave the following description of it”  “There was a choir and splendid organ.  The little boys, the choristers, went into a vestry-room, each took down his white surplice from a peg, and ten or fifteen entered the choir and chanted the service of the church.”  This was the only instance of the use of the surplice in this way that he had ever known.  We are told that at this description, “there was considerable of a sensation, and much surprise was evinced.”  In reply, Dr. Hawkes gave his version of the matter, and said, “The new chapel was a small building, fifty by thirty feet, with a chancel capable of accommodating some two hundred people.  Now, with regard to the surpliced choir, music was taught at the hall on account of its moral influence.  I had trained a choir of boys, who often went to New York, where the congregations were much pleased to hear them sing.  It was true that the boys had on their white surplices, after the manner of the singing boys of the Church of England;” and, said Dr. Hawkes, “I take great pride and delight in them.”  This was too much, however, for the conservatism of the time, and Dr. Hawkes lost his election to the See of Mississippi.  A short time after this, the rector of a parish in Ohio, the Rev. Mr. Tate of Columbus, endeavored to establish a vested choir of men and boys, and the result was that he was driven from the diocese and threatened with deposition from the ministry.

Trinity Parish, New York, was organized in 1697.  The employment of boys in this church to lead the singing dates from about 1710.  In 1709, the parish founded the Charity School, the boys of which sang at some of the special services, as has been mentioned.  After the great fire of 1776, which destroyed church and school, the latter was moved up town, and the attendance of the boys doubtless ceased.  The church then built was in its turn taken down, to make way for the present structure, completed and opened in 1846.  A fine organ was built by Henry Erben, and an English organist, Dr. Edward Hodges, appointed.  The choir boys had been trained by Dr. Hodges, and from this time, boys have served continuously in the choir, at first in conjunction with a double quartet and mixed chorus, all in the organ gallery at the west end.  In 1858, Dr. S. H. Cutler succeeded Dr. Hodges, and in the following year the boy choir was placed in the chancel and the feminine element finally dropped.  Choir vestments were not worn until a year later.  In 1866, Dr. A. H. Messiter was appointed organist, and in June of last year, 1891, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his appointment was celebrated by a service, at which Gounod’s Orphčoniste Mass for men’s voices was sung by a hundred and twenty-five past and present members of the choir.  The regular choir numbers thirty-five, eighteen boys and seventeen men, about two-thirds of whom are paid salaries.  The service music used is chiefly English, the anthems from all sources; and at the principal festivals the classical Masses of Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, etc., are sung, the service of Ascension Day being accompanied by a complete orchestra and the choir largely increased.  The church contains two organs, a large one in the west gallery and a smaller one in the chancel; both are used at Sunday services, and are not mechanically connected, the assistant organist, Mr. Victor Baier, usually playing on the large organ, which is used for voluntaries and occasionally in the service.  The choir of Old Trinity is so well known throughout the country, on account of the reputation it has always maintained for its admirable performance of church music, that extended comment here would be superfluous.

Dr. Walter B. Gilbert, Trinity Chapel, New York

The choir of Trinity Chapel, West Twenty-Fifth Street, New York, was ordered to be vested by the Trinity Church corporation, in March, 1866, but it does not appear that the vestments were worn until the first Sunday in May of that year.  This choir is well known as one of the most important of the Trinity Church corporation, and has for the last twenty-two years been under the direction of Dr. Walter B. Gilbert, the well-known organist and composer, whose music is sung in many of our churches.  If he had never written anything else, he would certainly be entitled to the thanks of all good church people for having given us the beautiful music of the hymn, “Pleasant Are Thy Courts Above.”  The choir of Trinity Chapel consists of thirty-two members, twenty boys, and twelve men, and during the entire time of its existence it has performed the music of the daily service throughout the year.

One of the celebrated choirs in New York is that of St. John’s Chapel, Varrick Street.  This is another chapel of the Trinity corporation.  The choir was vested for the first time in September, 1866.  The organist and choir master is Mr. George F. LeJeune [4] .  This was one of the first choirs to give a special monthly musical evening service.  These services became so popular, that is was well-nigh impossible to gain admission to the church without going some time in advance of the hour appointed for the beginning of the service.  The most elaborate selections of music, from the oratorios and other sources, were given with the most perfect finish so far as the execution of the music was concerned; and by Mr. LeJeune’s method of training the voices of his choristers, a peculiar quality of tone resulted, quite different from that produced by any other choirmaster in the city.

The choir of St. Chrysostom’s Chapel in one of which the Trinity corporation may well be proud.  This choir is the one usually chosen to supplement that of Dr. Messiter’s choir on the great festival of Ascension Day.  It is thus to be set down to the credit of old Trinity, that three of the first churches to properly and permanently establish boy choirs belong to that venerable parish.

Master Edward S. Baker, Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York

The choir of the Church of the Heavenly Rest, Fifth Avenue and 45th Street [New York], has been in charge of Mr. Henry Carter for some three or four years.  Mr. Carter has been an organist for forty-five years, having begun at the age of nine as organist to the Rev. Sir John Seymour, father of the present Admiral Seymour.  He was at one time organist of the English cathedral at Quebec.  Later on he had charge of the choir of the Church of the Advent, Boston, and during his administration the choir was very much improved and some fine soloists were brought out, among them being Masters Willie Breare, John Laster, Arthur Buttrick, and Fred Sayer, who were soloists of the first order.  A most interesting musical performance was at this time given by the choir in Music Hall, Boston; Dr. Cutler, who was then at Trinity, New York, coming on, and bringing with him his solo boys, Richard Coker, Theodore Toedt, Ehrlich, and Granden; with the accompaniment of the then newly imported great organ, the effect was grand.  After being for a short time at St. Stephen’s, Providence [Rhode Island], Mr. Carter, in 1873, joined the musical staff at Trinity Church, New York, playing the great organ in the gallery, where he remained seven years.  At the Church of the Heavenly Rest he found a choir without soloists, and in fact without one satisfactory voice; but with good results he has brought forward Masters Edward Baker, Frank Osborne, Harry Gibbs, and Winfred Young, who have made their mark as soloists.

The Cathedral choir at Garden City, L.I. [Long Island, New York], has made quite a reputation for itself under the able direction of Dr. W. H. Woodcock, who has had great success in producing a beautiful pure tone from his choristers, and a certain finish in the execution of church music that has attracted many people to Garden City.  One of the finest solo boys who have been heard in or about New York in late years was the soloist of this choir, Master Fred Forbush, who not only had a most beautiful voice, but was so thoroughly musical in his nature that he sang like a young artist.  There seem to have been a succession of fine solo boys at this cathedral; one of them, after leaving the choir, sang in a church in New York at a salary of nine hundred dollars, probably the largest salary ever paid to a boy soloist, certainly in this country.

St. James Church, New York

Three Brother Choristers, St. James Church, New York

The present choir of St. James’s Church, New York, was organized May 1st, 1886; before that date the music was rendered by a quartet of men and women, reinforced by a small chorus of boys.  The boy singers, however, in the days of the old quartet, did not take much interest in their work, and left most of the singing to be done by the men and women.  Since May, 1886, only boy sopranos have been used.  The choir has become famous, chiefly through the purity of tone developed in all the boys’ voices.  In November, 1886, the choir commenced giving recitals of standard oratorios and cantatas.  The performance of these works elicited the strongest commendations from the musical public at large; not only were people of the Episcopal Church attracted to the services, but many came to hear the choir from other denominations.  Among the works sung have been Haydn’s “Creation,” Gaul’s “Holy City,” Sullivan’s “Prodigal Son,” Barnby’s “Rebekah,” Spohr’s “Last Judgment,” Stainer’s “Daughter of Jairus,” Weber’s “Jubilee Cantata,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Mendelssohn’s “Lauda Sion,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” Gounod’s “Gallia,” Gaul’s “Ten Virgins,” Garrett’s “Shunamite,” Stainer’s “Crucifixion,” Arnold’s “Song of the Redeemed,” Garrett’s “Harvest Cantata,” and the “Two Advents.”  All of these works have been sung complete, with the exception of the larger oratorios.  The choir enjoys the distinction of being the only choir in this country, which has ever had special cantatas composed expressly for it.  Dr. Arnold, of Winchester Cathedral, England, composed the “Song of the Redeemed”; and Dr. Garrett, of the University of Cambridge, wrote the “Two Advents” for St. James’s choir.  Other works from foreign authors will probably follow in due time.  The fact that the choir has rendered works of such importance, in a manner acknowledged by all to be equal to the singing of choral societies generally, has done much in New York City to vindicate the ability of boys to sing difficult music as well as women.

The choir of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Madison Avenue, has been very much improved since it has come under the direction of Mr. H. W. Parker, the well-known organist and composer.  This choir often unites with the Garden City choir in special festival services held alternately at Garden City and in the Church of the Holy Trinity; and Mr. Parker’s choir has supplemented the mixed chorus of the Church Choral Society, in some notable performances which have been given, with orchestral accompaniment, under the direction of Mr. Richard Henry Warren, Mr. Parker presiding at the organ.

There are many fine choirs in Brooklyn, and on the occasion of the Brooklyn Choir Festival, which occurs annually, a wonderful chorus of over six hundred voices is to be heard; the singers filling up the entire body of the church where the festival is held.  Here is something to see as well as hear, - a congregation robed in white, and congregational singing of elaborate anthems and services and hymns, the performance of which is impressive in the highest degree.

Hartwell Staples, Church of the Advent, Boston

The Church of the Advent, in Boston, was the first church in that city to employ boy choristers in the choir, and the first church in New England in which a vested choir appeared.  This church, beginning in an “upper room” on Causeway Street, subsequently removed to a church building on Green Street, thence to Bowdoin Street, afterwards to the beautiful church on the corner of Mount Vernon and Brimmer Streets.  In the early days of the parish the music was under the management of several gentlemen, constituting a music committee, who filled the position of organist from among their own number.  In 1852 a choir of boys was introduced by the Rev. Dr. Croswell, but they were not vested until some years later under the Rev. Dr. James A. Bolles.  The first professional organist was Dr. Steven Henry Cutler, a thoroughly competent and well educated church musician, whom we have already mentioned in connection with the establishment of the boy choir at old Trinity, New York.  Mr. Edward Mattson succeeded Dr. Cutler, after a short interval, during which a parishioner presided at the organ.  During Mr. Mattson’s administration the choir attained notable excellence as regards the individual voices of its members.  On the departure of Mr. Mattson his place was filled by Mr. Henry Carter, an English organist of rare ability, of whose work in training the choir and developing rare solo talent I have already spoken.  On his leaving Boston to become the organist at St. Stephen’s, Providence, [Rhode Island], many of his choristers followed him, which left the choir in a sad condition for his successor,  Mr. Hermann Daum, who found it uphill work, through ably assisted in the training of the boys by Mr. William H. Daniell, who was the first to fill the independent position of choir master.  Mr. Daum was succeeded by Mr. William J. Coles, a young man of remarkable talent and promise, but on account of failing health he was soon obliged to give up the position.  The Rev. Joseph W. Hill was now appointed choir master, and the writer took the position of organist.  Marked changes were made in the character of the services.  Some of the greater masses of Gounod, Schubert, and Mozart were sung for the first time; given first with piano accompaniment and afterward with a small orchestra to supplement the organ.  In 1882, Mr. Hill went to old Trinity, New York, and the writer took full charge of the music as organist and choir master.  The last Sunday in November, 1891 (the first Sunday in Advent), being the twentieth anniversary of his incumbency as organist of the church, was celebrated by a special service, in which many past as well as present members of the choir took part, making a notable chorus; the music sung being the Mass for male voices (Orphčoniste Mass) by Gounod, the same music that was sung at the twenty-fifth anniversary of Dr. Messiter in New York.  Among the notable soprano soloists brought out in the choir in the past few years have been Fred Bond, who had a phenomenal voice, Fred Rimbach, Edwin Warring, Hartwell Staples, Peter Delehanty, and Eugene Storer.  The acoustical properties of the new Church of the Advent are exceptional, and the organ is one of the finest instruments in the country.  As before stated, on the greater festivals, a large and effective orchestra is always employed, - the players being taken largely from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, - through the liberality of Mr. J. Montgomery Sears, a gentleman who has always taken the greatest interest in the boy choir movement, and who at his own expense established some years since, and still maintains, a fine choir at Trinity Church, Marlborough, Massachusetts.  The influence which has always been exerted by the Church of the Advent, as a pioneer church in matters of church music, especially during the administrations of Dr. Cutler, Mr. Carter, and Rev. J. W. Hill, has been widely felt and acknowledged.  

[4] The author consistently misspelled this person’s name as “LeJeurne”. Correction was made to enable correct cross-referencing.

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