T. Tertius Noble: ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit’

The beautiful “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God” by T. Tertius Noble was sung by the Trinity Choir this past Sunday.  The anthem is a setting of Ephesians 4:30-32 and opens with a lengthy soprano solo that was elegantly sung in this instance by Kristine Chaney.

Listen to T. Tetius Noble’s ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit’ here:

In our preparation of this anthem, the choir spent a little time musing about the lore and legend of T. Tertuis Noble himself, the founder of the noted St. Thomas Choir School in New York City.  First of all, the name:  what sort of a name is ‘Tertius’? And what does the ‘T’ stand for?  It turns out that the T is for Thomas, and that both his father and grandfather were called Thomas as well.  So he was the third Thomas Noble—hence, Tertius.

T. Tertius Noble (1867-1953) at the organ at St. Thomas

When Noble assumed the post at St. Thomas in 1912, he was already at the top of his profession in England.  He was the organist at York Minster and, at that time, the sanity of leaving ‘Old’ York for New York was seriously questioned by many.  When Noble’s successor at York Minster, Edward Bairstow, was asked about it he supposedly quipped that he would ‘rather go to the devil’ than to America.  But times do change: in fact, history repeated itself 92 years later when John Scott left St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to come to St. Thomas in 2004.

Aside from his edition of Handel’s Messiah (the gray Schirmer books), I would say that Noble’s most ubiquitous musical legacy is a volume called Free Organ Accompaniments to One Hundred Well-Known Hymn Tunes.  It’s one of those collections of fancy accompaniments that organists use for the last verse of hymns.  The music is okay, but I think the most interesting thing by far about the book is Noble’s preface.  It gives a glimpse into church music of that era and reveals some really strongly-held biases on the part of the author.  Here are some excerpts:

“THE practice of singing hymns in unison has been a common one for many years, especially in churches where the congregation really knows the spiritual uplift to be gained from such a custom. I recall the thrilling effect produced by some seven hundred undergraduates singing in unison at Trinity College, Cambridge, England during the services held there on Sunday evenings. It was not only the unisonal singing that moved one, but also the masterful, free organ accompaniments improvised by Charles Villiers Stanford. As his assistant, from 1890 to 1892, I came under the inspiring influence of this outstanding church musician; and ever since that time it has been my practice to encourage unison singing in all hymns, at least in one verse, or, if the hymn is long, in two or three verses.

“Since retiring from active church work, I have had the opportunity of writing down some of these organ accompaniments used in actual practice. This book is the outcome of over fifty years’ experience of congregational singing in churches and cathedrals in England, and at St. Thomas’ Church, New York City. I hope that its contents will be useful to organists throughout the country in churches of every denomination; at least they will be found useful in demonstrating what can be done in this fashion. There may be some who will challenge the changes of harmony and the free accompanimental treatment that has been used to embellish the melodies.  But I am sure that a large number of organists will enjoy the varied treatments provided, and I trust they will be considered in good taste.

Now we leave introduction and enter into commentary:

“In the playing of free organ accompaniments care should be taken to avoid thick registration. Do not use “doubles” or sub-couplers on the manuals, and play the pedal part as written, in the right pitch. The constant use of the lower notes on the pedal board becomes tiresome and should be avoided. Filling in with the left hand should be discouraged, especially in the doubling of the major third and the leading note, and, of course, the promiscuous [emphasis added] adding of the seventh in the chord.  A thick, muddy effect only causes confusion and gives no aid to the congregation in singing. Clean phrasing in the pedal part as well as on the manuals is very essential.  The poor habit of “carrying over” at the end of the lines is very tiresome; this should occur only when the sense of the words demands it.

And yet more commentary:

“Some of the hymns in this collection are of a rather sentimental type, not so much from the standpoint of the melody, but because of the poor harmonization. Many of the tunes written between 1830 and 1900 suffered because the composers, although they could write a good melody, were not able to provide interesting harmonic backgrounds, with good part writing for all the voices…such boring part writing would seem tedious even for a small choir in a village church…

“The singing of hymns by the congregation should be encouraged not only by the organist, but also by the rector or minister of the church. Indeed, an occasional word from the pulpit about this important matter will be found to be most helpful. It is hoped that this collection of additional accompaniments may likewise be useful in carrying out the Psalmist’s injunction to “sing merrily unto God our strength; make a cheerful noise unto the God of Jacob.”

T. Tertius Noble, 1946

 

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