It’s probably the best music in New York. OK, I’m not in New York, I’m in Tennessee. And, even if I were in New York, I wouldn’t be able to hear all the music in the city to say which was the best¯but I bet I’m right anyway. And I’m not talking about the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic or the revival of A Chorus Line . I’m talking about the music at services at Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. And unlike those other venues, it’s free, and you can hear it now .
Two blocks up Fifth from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and next door to the Museum of Modern Art, Saint Thomas is one of America’s architectural gems. Designed by Bertram Goodhue (who also gave us the Nebraska State Capitol and the complex that is now the Museum of Man in San Diego’s Balboa Park) and Ralph Adams Cram (who was responsible for the nave of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and Princeton’s University Chapel ), Saint Thomas may be the only American gothic building that actually rivals its medieval models. The reredos (the carved screen behind the altar), with its multitude of ivory-colored limestone saints and amethyst stained glass is the most beautiful in Christendom . (No, I haven’t seen all the churches in Christendom either, but I bet I’m right about this too.)
But it’s the music for which Saint Thomas is famous. In the tradition of the British cathedral choir school, Saint Thomas operates a boarding school for boys between the third and eighth grades. Music for the services is provided by these boys, augmented by men singing the tenor and bass. Although the school was founded in 1919, the high reputation of the parish’s music was largely stamped by the extraordinary musical couple Gerre and Judith Hancock, who worked at Saint Thomas for more than thirty years, beginning in the early 1970s. Upon the Hancocks’ retirement in 2004, the position passed to John Scott. Scott came to New York from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he had been appointed organist and director of music when he was just thirty-four. But the appointment of an Englishman to this important American position was controversial (and made more so by the appointment of a British musician to lead the music at the National Cathedral the previous year), and American musicians resented the apparent return of a kind of colonial obeisance to cultural imports from Europe.
Import or native trained, Scott’s musicianship is formidable. Taking a cue from the BBC’s long-standing broadcast of Choral Evensong from British cathedrals and college chapels, this fall Saint Thomas began making Scott’s work with the church’s singers available over the Web. The parish is conservative High Anglican (the present rector is a trustee of the Anglo-Catholic seminary Nashotah House ), and between September and May the men and boys sing for the Sunday eleven o’clock Eucharist, and Evensong on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. And did I mention that the services are beautiful ?
Recent podcasts featured the best performances I’ve ever heard of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia and the fourth movement of Brahms’ German Requiem . (And these are live performances, no mixing-room funny business here.) The service music is chosen with unusual intelligence; for All Saints, the Mass settings were the ones that T.L. Victoria had based on his motet "O Quam Gloriosum Est," with the original motet sung at Communion. And the hymns are unsurpassed. From the website, it isn’t clear if Scott or an assistant is accompanying the congregation from one of the church’s two organs, but the pacing, registration changes, and modest reharmonizations are all done to emphasize the changing texts of each verse. Its glorious hymnody simply doesn’t get any better than this.
Of course, the High Church Anglicanism at Saint Thomas¯with a good dose of nostalgia for King and Country¯isn’t without its own foibles. The chamber ensemble that occasionally accompanies the choir is called the Concert Royal (funny how some upper-crust New Yorkers resist the notion that Cornwallis actually surrendered), and the various intoned texts, with their exquisitely precise elocution, deserve every sarcastic dart Monty Python threw at them. The psalms and canticles are sung to Anglican chant . Unlike the much older Gregorian version where, after a possibly involved monophonic introduction, the psalm text (frequently reduced to a single verse) is sung to fairly simple psalms tones, in Anglican chant the entire psalm is sung to a complex set of harmonized phrases. It’s all very tricky to sing and well beyond the capabilities of congregations and parish choirs who can’t practice it daily. And although I still prefer simpler settings that allow the full congregation to sing the psalms, under Scott’s direction the chant is strikingly beautiful and respectful of the texts and makes as good a case as can be made for tradition.
Christians are told that we should train our appetites for heaven. It’s hard, especially when it’s a place that is both so distant and silent . But there are times when we do get glimpses of that realm with the "many mansions." For me, watching the people run down the aisles to accept Jesus as their savior in Billy Graham’s 1982 Moscow crusade, the revival that spread across college campuses in the spring of 1995 , my wife and I holding our newly born daughters¯these were moments when my imagination felt that heaven might be real, and memories of those moments continue to nudge my appetite to desire it more. Anglican worship, celebrated with true piety, can be that kind of a glimpse too. And as Pope Benedict seeks to restore the dignity of the Mass and Willow Creek Community Church begins to reexamine its philosophy of ministry , Saint Thomas might be a place to look for a service that models heaven. The music is really good too.
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.