"A boy sings ... a beautiful thing."

Surpliced Choirs in New York [1]

 By H. E. Krehbiel

  Note: Contributed by Douglas Neslund


Has the growth of ritualism in the Protestant Episcopal Church revived a mild form of the conviction preached by St. Bernard, that woman is an instrument of the devil?  Is the ungracious Pauline doctrine, Taceat mulier in eccelesia, recovering its old-time authority?  Or is the movement which seems destined soon to put surpliced choirs into all the Episcopal churches in New York city merely the product of a predilection for a certain style of ecclesiastical service, which has justification and explanation at once in a discoverable tendency in modern music?

The questions are not easy of answer.  It would be against the liberality of the age (setting aside an appeal to its gallantry) to urge either the first or second proposition, while assent to the third is tantamount to saying that we are experiencing a revival of a taste in church music which is two centuries old, and emphatically different from that exhibited in our opera-houses and concert-rooms.  Moreover, it is obvious that such a revival, to be sincere, consistent, and intelligent, would have to go much beyond the simple exclusion of women from the choir; and there are no evidences of a disposition to take the longer step.  We are restoring an old apparatus and employing it in a new fashion - putting new wine into old bottles.  More than one-third of the vestries in New York city have committed the choral service to the care exclusively of boys and men, yet I am unable to name a single church or chapel in which the choral music is confined to compositions written for boys and men.  Selections from the masses and oratorios of classical and modern composers are extensively used; and when choir-masters, following their tastes or paying tribute to tradition, make drafts on the music of the old English cathedral school, they only add to the perplexities of the problem.  Very much of this music, more particularly that composed in the period of the Restoration, compels the employment of the male adult alto, whom I find it impossible to look upon except as a relic of a debased age, and from every point of view a musical monstrosity.  Nor have I exhausted the complications of the case.

Surpliced choirs are obviously the creations of ritualism, and to some extent serve to indicate its progress, yet in some of the establishments which intrench the High-Church party in New York, priests and choir-masters have set up a variant reading of St. Paul’s maxim:  they apply to women an inversion of the bachelor axiom concerning the proper conduct of children in company, and permit women to be heard but not seen, in the chancel.

History has but little explicit information to give as to the genesis of surpliced choirs in New York.  Trinity Church was the cradle of choral culture in New York, not only in its ecclesiastical phase, but also its secular, and the beginnings of the movement are to be sought in its annals, notwithstanding that it had no surpliced choir until the year 1860, and that it was less an artistic and ecclesiastical than a social and political impulse which gave us the institution.  When Trinity made the change, one church at least - the chapel in Madison Street - had already maintained a surpliced choir for some time;  but as all roads lead to Rome, so all inquiries touching the cultivation of choral music in New York eventually discover Trinity Church as its fountain-head.  In the early part of the eighteenth century Trinity Church was the most powerful agency at work in New York for the advancement of music.  Indeed, until it became a factor in the social and intellectual life of the city, church music seemed without hope.  New England Puritanism, though the offspring of a spirit which tried to destroy every organ and choir-book in England, put a slighter barrier in the way of artistic music than the Calvinism brought here by the Dutch and Huguenot colonists.  These people were not artistically minded, and Calvin’s injunction that neither words nor notes of the Genevan Psalter should be altered, retained a restrictive power over their descendants for a long time.  New York had to be anglicized before the love for an artistic church service could show itself.

It has been surmised that the first organ brought to the colonies stood in Trinity Church.  Certain it is that the unbroken record of Trinity’s organists runs back to 1741.  Boys were used in the choir a full century before they were permitted to wear surplices and sit in the chancel, but, so far as I have been able to discover, this was only on special occasions, and the boys were those of the Charity School.  An English school-master and music-teacher, William Tuckey, seems to have been exceedingly energetic in building up the service in the middle of the last century.  Mr. Tuckey, according to his own description of himself, was “Professor of the Theory and Practice of Vocal Music, Vicar chosen of the Cathedral Church of Bristol, and Clerk of the Parish of St. Mary’s Port in said city.”  It was this gentleman who, in January, 1761, composed an anthem “On the Death of his late Sacred Majesty” George II., and sang the solo part at its performance in Trinity Church, while the charity boys provided the chorus.  It is possible that the beginnings of a choral service were due to this same useful man, for in the issues of the New York Gazette of September 16 and 23, 1762, appeared a long advertisement informing the residents of New York that “William Tuckey has obligated himself to teach a sufficient number of persons to perform the ‘Te Deum.’  ... Performers to pay nothing, ... but it is expected that they will ... be kind enough to join the choir on any particular occasion, especially at the opening of the new organ.”  Mr. Tuckey desired “all persons, from lads of ten years old,” etc., “as well as all other persons of good repute that have good voices ... to be speedy in their application.”


Ninety-eight years after Mr. Tuckey undertook to teach all comers to “perform” the “Te Deum,” Trinity was yet without a vested choir.  During the last two decades of this time an English cathedral musician, Dr. Edward Hodges, was organist.  Early in this century it may be assumed that the patriotic feeling left by the war of the Revolution had something to do with creating a prejudice against the adoption of English customs; later, perhaps, the opposition to the Tractarian movement exerted a restrictive influence.  Puseyism in England was a powerful quickener of the artistic elements in the Episcopal form of worship.  Trinity has always been a little back of the skirmish line in the battle between High-Church and Low-Church, but that there was a strong feeling in the church favorable to the introduction of a surpliced choir is proved by the circumstance that the vestments were on hand before the vestry gave its consent to their use, and that the change was made within a short time after a really determined effort to achieve it.  This event took place within two years after the English organist yielded up his position to an American.

Dr. Hodges’s services in behalf of the music of Trinity Church are yet remembered with much gratitude.  After nineteen years of zealous labor, he returned, in 1858, to his native England, to recover from the effects of a second stroke of paralysis.  In his absence Henry Stephen Cutler was invited to come from Boston and act as his substitute.  Mr. Cutler had been in charge of a vested choir in the Church of the Advent in the New England capital, and the ritualistic party in Trinity found in him an enthusiastic and determined leader.  While he was Dr. Hodges’s substitute he could not effect a change, but in 1859, it being found that Dr. Hodges could not resume his duties, Mr. Cutler was appointed to succeed him.  There were boys in the choir at this time, but none capable of singing the solos, and until such were secured Mr. Cutler continued the mixed quartette to whom Dr. Hodges had been wont to intrust his solo work.  Not long afterward, however, he found two lads, one named Robjohn, who had recently come from England, and the other Henry Eyre Browne, and placed them respectively at the head of the Decani and Cantoris sides of the choir, which had thus been divided though it sat in the organ gallery at the east end of the church.  I mention the names of these two lads chiefly because the advantages of a choir boy’s education, which have so often been praised in England, had splendid illustration in both instances.  Robjohn is now known as Caryl Florio, and he and his companion have made their mark as church musicians in the metropolis.  When Mr. Cutler found them he dismissed all his women singers, and the first decisive step toward a surpliced choir was taken.  The next step followed quickly.  With the consent of the vestry, he moved his choir into the seats reserved for the scholars of the Sunday-school, between the congregation and the clergy, and when it was found that here they were much in the way, they were moved into the chancel rather than back to the gallery.  A “pious member of the congregation” presented a set of choir vestments to the vestry, but the opposition to everything which savored of Romanism was still too strong to justify an attempt to put the boys into them, and they were stowed away.

This was the aspect of the case when Mr. Cutler found an unexpected but powerful ally in the heir-apparent to the throne of Great Britain.  In the fall of 1860 New York prepared to receive a visit from the Prince of Wales.  He was to be in the city from the 11th to the 15th of October, and the 14th being Sunday, he accepted an invitation to attend divine service at Trinity Church.  Mr. Cutler’s opportunity had arrived.  Without delay he and his associates in the cause laid before the church authorities a request for permission to use the idle vestments.  Their argument was as simple as it was effective.  They represented that the spectacle of a lot of boys in round-abouts and neck-gear of assorted styles and colors sitting in the chancel would be disturbing to the Prince’s sense of propriety.  Forthwith Mr. Cutler was instructed to put the boys in the new-fangled frocks for the edification of the Prince, and lest the wearers should mar the solemnity of the occasion by awkward movements in them (they were plain white robes reaching to the floor, with black ribbon ties for the neck - “very like a night-gown,” said one of the choir, in relating the story, “and we were afraid we would stumble in them”) they were donned two or three Sundays before the Prince’s visit, for rehearsal.  Concerning this first vested service a few additional facts may not be deemed amiss.  The choir numbered twenty-three voices, distributed as follows:  ten soprani, four alti, three tenori, and six bassi.  The service was chanted, save the “Te Deum” and “Benedictus,” from a service by Mr. Cutler in B-flat, and an anthem by Marcello, in which the solos were sung by Dr. Guilmette, a much-admired bass singer of the period, and Master James Little, soprano.  Concerning the latter, a programme of exercises furnished to the press reporters stated that he had “a voice of extraordinary power and spendor.”  

It had taken a long time to get the choir into vestments, but once in, it was not taken out.  Surpliced choirs had come to stay in Trinity parish.  The fashionable choirs in the other Episcopal churches at this time were mixed quartettes.  These cultivated a sentimental and secular style of music, largely consisting of arrangements for four voices of popular opera airs and ballads.  Religious aspirations took wings with Abt’s migratory swallows, and were lulled to rest with the languishing strains of Flotow’s “Mezza-notte.”  Mr. Cutler’s tastes were different.  We have seen that an anthem by Marcello was chosen to edify the Prince of Wales, and the motets of Palestrina and Bach were not strangers to his programme.  St. John’s Chapel was promptly in the movement, and ever since 1876, when the present organist, Mr. George F. LeJeune, was called to the post, the chapel in Varick Street has contested supremacy with the parent church in the performance of the choral service.  Meanwhile many of the churches that were unwilling to make the change, encouraged by the example of George William Warren in Brooklyn, and it may be also stimulated by the better part-writing to be found in the original and adapted music which Joseph Mosenthal gave out, organized choruses of mixed voices to co-operate with the solo quartettes.  For a quarter of a century Mr. Mosenthal’s popularity was a powerful check on the surplice movement, but it continued to wax steadily, if slowly, and only a few months ago it carried him out of Calvary Church, after twenty-seven years of eminent service, as it had cost him his post at St. John’s twenty-eight years previous.  Grace Church, whose walls echoed to the music of Malibran’s voice Sunday after Sunday, sixty-two years ago, has adhered to its old traditions, and it seems as if the waves of fashion would continue to dash against it in vain.  Mr. Cutler’s pride in his choir, especially after he found a solo soprano in a lad named Richard Coker, who had a voice of phenomenal range, flexibility, and quality, led him to utilize it in secular concerts, which circumstances is said to have caused the severance of his relations with Trinity Church in 1865.  Less than two years later Mr. Arthur H. Messiter was appointed organist, and has occupied the post ever since.


If I were disposed to deny all merit to the boy choirs of New York I could easily win acceptance for my contention among musicians here and abroad, by pointing out the inadequacy of the facilities for securing and training singers in America.  Even in England, where surpliced choirs have been an institution for centuries, their maintenance in a satisfactory state of efficiency is attended with so many difficulties that distinguished church musicians have advocated their abolition.  No choir is so poor as a poor boy choir, and no choir so costly in money and care as a good boy choir.  This is a truism which will receive the assent of every educated choir-master.  If it were possible to introduce a system of selection, care, and training like that which obtains in the Chapel Royal and the chief cathedrals of England, there is no doubt that the choirs in the larger American churches might in time become potent agencies in the development of a national school of music, and justify the declaration of the late Sir George Macfarren, that “a cathedral choir is the best cradle for a musician our country affords.”  The most lustrous names in the history of English music have figured on the rolls of the “Children of the Chapel Royal,” and though that venerable institution plays a less significant part now than it did during the reigns of Elizabeth and the Stuarts, yet Sir Arthur Sullivan is with us to testify to the value of the education which it still affords.  The efficiency of the Chapel Royal and the cathedral choir, however, is purchased at a cost which not even so wealthy a corporation as Trinity is willing to assume.  Now the “Children of the Chapel Royal” live with their “Master of Songe” in a private house in St. George’s Square, Pimlico, but originally they were boarded and lodged at the Royal Palace, and, say the old records, the eight had amongst them daily “two loaves, one messe of greate meate, and ij gallons of ale,” besides fourpence horse hire when on a journey with the King’s Chapel.  They were also allowed a servant to “trusse and beare their harnesse and lyverey in Courte.”  Nor did the royal care cease with their usefulness as singers, for it was provided that, on the breaking of their voices, thenm “yf they will assente, the King assynethe them to a College of Oxford or Cambridge of this foundatione, there to be at fynding and studye both suffytyently tylle the King may othersie advaunce them.”  At present there is comparatively little difference between the treatment which the “Children of the Chapel Royal” and the boys of the cathedral receive.  The former live with their master, and are sent to the Church Middle Class school at Vauxhall for an education, while the boys of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s, for instance, live in the choir-houses, and are educated by resident school-masters.  In each case musical instruction is imparted daily by the organist or his assistant, and the lessons, lasting an hour and a half, embrace the principles of harmony and composition, as well as scale practice, sight reading, exercises in agility, etc.  Westminster Abbey supports twenty boys, twelve of them full choristers and eight probationers.  St. Paul’s choir-house, in Doctors’ Commons, domiciles no less than forty of the tuneful youngsters, all of whom receive education and “keep” in return for their services.  Dr. Bridge, of Westminster Abbey, and Dr. Stainer, of St. Paul’s, are both grown-up choir-boys.

Of the New York churches, none supports choir schools of the English kind.  Trinity comes the nearest to it, but its care over the boys ceases with the musical instruction and the appointment of one of the assistant ministers to look after their religious welfare.  The boys are paid for their services, as they are in all the other churches, and discipline is enforced by means of trifling fines; they are obtained chiefly from the public schools, and the number of them who are sons of communicants of the Episcopal Church is so small as to be scarcely worth mentioning.  This marks another great difference between the boy choirs of the United States and England.  In the latter country most of the boys come from well-to-do and refined families.  Indeed, in some cathedrals and churches gentleness of birth and breeding is considered so essential a qualification for the post that a class line is drawn, and no boys admitted to the choir save the sons of professional men.  To shut out artisans’ or tradesmen’s sons here would make the organization of a choir impossible, and the English choir-masters in New York profess a hearty admiration for the democratic character of the choirs, looking upon the unsubdued energy of the rough-and-ready American public-school boy as a quality of excellent utility worth the extra expenditure of patience and care called for in the choir-room.  Goody-goody boys are not prized as a rule, the prevalent feeling among choir-masters being that a “little devil in the boys is desirable,” as one of them has expressed it.  Choir-room discipline insures decorous behavior in church, and the outward transformation accomplished by a surplice does the rest.  In ancient times it was customary to receive singers into their office with a solemn ceremonial, they standing toward the church in the relation of “clerks in minor orders,” but this has been lost sight of by all except very High-Church people.  In Grace Church, Chicago, which has, I believe, the largest surpliced choir in America, the organist, Mr. Henry B. Roney, makes the boys sign a pledge promising to be punctual and regular in attendance, abstain from the use of tobacco, intoxicating liquors, improper and profane language, to be gentlemanly, and reverence the house of God.

The difficulty in finding boys with really good voices is very great, and choir-masters are kept on a sharp lookout for them.  Mr. J. Remington Fairlamb, of St. Ignatius, is choir-master as well of a church in Orange, New Jersey, where he has a choir of forty voices.  He is an enthusiast on the subject, being willing at any time to run down any boy who exhibits “a good whistle” in the street; a melodious whistle is indicative of musical talents, he thinks.  Mr. Fairlamb is, however, more fortunate than his colleagues in having a complete trio of voices in his own family.  Mr. Frank Treat Southwick is of the opinion that “in no town of less than 50,000 people, with the present condition of culture, can a male choir be rendered anything better than an ordinary makeshift.”  The experience of choir-masters would seem to indicate that, as applied to New York, one choir to 100,000 inhabitants would be a likelier proportion.  It is party due to Trinity’s location, perhaps, that Mr. Messiter is obliged for his choir to depend almost wholly on Jersey City and Brooklyn.  His best boys come from the former city - a fact which the tonic sol-faists may set down to the credit of their system, which is used in the public schools across North River.  German boys are much sought after - a circumstance which is, of course, explained by the significant part which music plays in the family life of the children of the fatherland.  There are few solo boys in New York, or the country for that matter, whose reputation extends beyond the churches in which they are employed.  The foremost boy of the few is Harry Brandon, of the Church of the Holy Spirit.  He was born in England, but reared in this country, and got his musical training from his mother, an accomplished amateur.  Master Brandon comes as near as any boy that I have ever heard to proving Caryl Florio’s assertion that “there is no top to a boy’s voice.”  He can soar into realms where few living prime donne can follow him, and his voice is naturally so flexible that he sings the most florid music without difficulty.  He has passed, by several years, the period at which, as a rule, the change takes place in a boy’s voice.

The regular choir of Trinity Church contains twenty boys, and is recruited from an elementary class which varies in size from six to fifteen.  For training purposes the choir is divided into three classes, namely, senior trebles, junior trebles, and altos.  Each of these classes meets once a week, for separate instruction, at No. 90 Trinity Place.  On the fourth study day the trebles are brought together, and on the fifth day the choir has a full rehearsal with the chancel organ in the church.  The parish schools supported by Trinity Church have been of no service so far as the development of choristers is concerned, but it is hoped, if the cathedral project is carried out, that the old (endowed) Trinity School may be transformed into a choir school of the English type.  To St. John’s Chapel, Mr. LeJeune has directed a great deal of attention, more particularly through the choral festivals which for six years past have taken place monthly from October to June.  At these festivals whole oratorios have been given with organ accompaniment, the vested choir singing all the choruses.

The vast amount of work which Mr. LeJeune has accomplished with two and three rehearsals a week will be made obvious by a glance at the following list of works which have been sung at the festivals:  The Creation, Elijah, St. Paul, The Prodigal Son (Sullivan), The Holy City (Gaul), Lauda Sion, Abraham (Molique), The Last Judgment, Jubilee Cantata (Weber), Gallia (Gounod), Ruth (Gaul), and a number of lesser compositions.  Mr. LeJeune holds his rehearsals in a cramped choir-room scarcely large enough to hold the desks of the singers, placed to the right and left of a grand piano-forte, at which he sits while training the boys.  His method differs from that of the majority of the choir-masters in the city in that he does not permit the use of the chest tones at all by the boys.  This is not because he believes that the chest tones of boys cannot be used effectively, but because he holds that it is impossible to bridge over the break between the registers in the three or four hours’ study a week which the appropriation for choir purposes enables him to have.  Mr. Edwards, of Christ Church, and Mr. Messiter, hold decidedly to the opposite opinion; and on this vexed question there are, of course, about as many diverse views as there are choir-masters.  As a rule, the practice is to train the head voice downward, and to prohibit the use of chest tones above G on the second line of the treble staff, or the semitone below it.  Those who, like Arthur E. Crook, of Calvary, split up the voice into more than two registers, believe also in cultivating the medium tones, on the ground that while sweetness and purity of tone are gained by developing the head tones downward, the singing of the choir trained on this plan will lack brilliancy and vim.

While mezzo-soprano voices are common enough among singing boys, a real alto is extremely scarce, and this fact is urged, in addition to a necessity caused by the character of some of the old English cathedral music, as a reason for the continued employment of the adult male alto, or of a falsetto-singing baryton, into which the adult male alto, once common in England, has degenerated.  Two explanations have been offered for the introduction of the adult alto into the cathedral choirs of England.  The music shows that the voice came in soon after the restoration of Charles II., the bent of whose taste in church music can be read in the fact that he sent the precocious boy Pelham Humphreys to Lully to study the French style of composition, and that the compositions of Humphreys and his contemporaries, in their frequent trios for alto, tenor, bass, employ a voice in the first part which does not exist in a boy’s larynx.  The argument seems obvious that the parts were written to humor a taste of the King’s, cultivated during his exile on the Continent.  The other theory is that the employment of men to sing the alto part was caused by the abandonment of choir-boy training during the Protectorate.  But this does not seem to me to meet the case, inasmuch as the same reason would have called for the use of adult male soprani.  Soprano falsettists were once common enough in France, and especially in Spain, from which country the Papal Chapel used to draw its most admired singers.  I cannot bring myself to believe that the retention of a few old services is worth the pain which the singing of the few adult male alti in New York causes to a sensitive ear.  It is true that alto boys cannot be made effective when choir-masters prohibit the use of the chest register; but the spirit of the movement which brought in vested choirs is quite elastic, and there seems to be no reason why female voices should not be used, in this part at least, or why, in fact, we should not have vested female choirs.  The ritualists in the churches of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Ignatius, as I intimated at the outset, if they say taceat mulier in ecclesia at all, mean it in a Pickwickian sense; and there is much soundness in what Mr. George B. Prentice, organist of St. Mary’s, urges in defence of his practice.  “I find,” he says, “that a few ladies give a certain finish to the tone, especially to the high notes, which cannot be obtained from boys alone.  We have never used boys for soloists, on account of a lack of expression, and a want of comprehension of the meaning of the words of the service.”  In St. Mary’s the mass is sung in Latin.

[1] From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Vol. 77, Issue 457 (June 1888), pp. 65-73.  

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