The New York Report

The following is a personal, completely subjective, and very un-official description of my trip to New York to attend Gerre Hancock’s Requiem Eucharist at St. Thomas Church.  For those who may have listened to the webcast of the service, it is intended to give a visual impression of what it was like in the room.

The full details of the service (including a PDF of the service leaflet, text of the sermon, and the webcast itself) can be found at the St. Thomas website here.

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Saturday, February 4, 2012 was a mild day by New York standards—clear, bright, windless, crisp, and pleasant.  I awoke early, got a cup of coffee, and took a little walk up Fifth Avenue.  I was going to say goodbye to a great man: today was the Solemn Requiem Eucharist in memory of Gerre Hancock at Saint Thomas Church.

The rules of engagement for obtaining a seat at this service were posted on the Saint Thomas website early on.  A number of pews would be reserved for family, alumni of the choir school, current and former staff and vestry at Saint Thomas, and a few other guests and dignitaries.  Aside from that, it was strictly first-come with the doors opening at 9:00 for the 11:00 service.  The question was, how early one should get there to be assured of getting a seat?  Surely 9:00 would be the absolute latest one could reasonably arrive, and it wouldn’t hurt to be there earlier than that.  One hears stories of Carol services and Midnight Masses at Saint Thomas where tickets have to be issued to church members and barriers need to be erected to marshal the crowds who queue on the sidewalk.

As I was by myself and had traveled to New York for no other purpose that to go to that service, I decided to go early.  When I got to the corner of 5th and 53rd it was about ten minutes to eight o’clock, and I was the third person in line—not surprisingly, we were all organists.  We quickly established that the young man who was there first—he was an organist at an Episcopal Church in one of the boroughs—had arrived at 6:30 that morning.  He was a bit sheepish about having stood there so long when it turned out not to be necessary, but we assured him that it was wonderful, and that he could be proud of having been the first one there.

In the first half-hour that I was there, there was only a small trickle of people joining the line, but around 8:15 the people began come more steadily.  By 9:00 there must have been 300 people waiting to enter the church.  And they were wonderful company.  There was the young man I mentioned, who was commiserating about the strained working dynamic in his current post. There was a man from Cape Cod who had lived in New York most of his life and had been a member at Saint Thomas, occasionally subbing at the organ for Dr. Hancock back in the day.  He was still active in the NYC AGO and, as cabs kept pulling up to the corner, greeted most of the people getting out as old friends.  There was a mother of a choir school alumnus, since grown, who had driven down from Chappaqua with her husband—he was parking the car—because her son had sung under “Uncle Gerre” as a boy.  There was the sense of ease and comfort of being in the company of people who, though strangers, are kindred spirits.  At least a half a dozen times someone was going around the corner to get a cup of coffee and I was asked if I wouldn’t care for some.

At a few minutes after 8:00, the verger had come around the corner to greet the handful of us who were waiting.  She thanked us for coming and assured us that the doors would open promptly at 9:00.  And in fact, when that hour arrived, it was remarkably like the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on the morning of the big day: an expectant crowd waited patiently, and as the tower bell struck nine, there was an audible click from within the church and the great door swung open.

Third in line

I took a seat on the left side aisle of the Nave about a third of the way back, just behind the reserved seating.  I was there in time to see the altar guild preparing the elements and vessels for the Eucharist, and to see one other final act of preparation: the large (life-sized at least) portrait of Dr. Hancock that hangs in the choir school was carried in and set up just below the pulpit, where the genial image in his resplendent doctoral gown smiled benignly at us for the rest of the morning’s proceedings.

It has become standard in many liturgical traditions for funerals to take on the character of an Easter service—white vestments, pronounced if not exaggerated use of flowers, triumphant hymns, and so forth. This is as it should be—meeting the grief of bereavement with the promise of the Resurrection is surely a good thing.  However, this Requiem service for Dr. Hancock did not have an overly-Paschal character.  It was certainly a hope-filled and joyful service—but it was, after all, a Solemn Requiem in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.  The flowers, for instance, were muted—two elegant but restrained arrangements on the altar, all in white, and another similar arrangement at the entrance to the Resurrection Chapel on the North side of the Nave.  Likewise, the color of the day was not the white of All Saints but the black of All Souls.  The effect was on the altar was stunning, hung with black and gold brocade trimmed in scarlet.  The effect of the copes, chasubles, and dalmatics worn by the clergy was (in my opinion) not as stunning.  They were made from fabric of the same pattern, but they looked almost dingy—which is quite a thing to say considering that they probably could not be replaced for my entire annual salary.

The prelude started at exactly 9:45.   By this time the Nave was at least three-quarters full and I suspect the gallery seating was starting to fill as well.  When the music started, the soft chatter of conversation abated and those who were standing sat down.  A few extroverts held forth with whispered exchanges, but after a few minutes these too ceased and a pleasant hush settled over the place.

The prelude consisted of cornerstones of the organ repertoire (Bach, de Gringy, Franck) interspersed with pieces that Dr. Hancock had written over the years, mostly hymn-tune preludes.  Fred Teardo and Kevin Kwan split the playing duties of what amounted to a full hour-and-a-quarter organ recital.  Had it been a stand-alone recital and not “merely” the prelude for a Eucharist, the organ music by itself would have constituted a very fine tribute.  It should also be pointed out that for these two young men, that morning’s work was probably tantamount to playing for a national convention of the AGO with regard to the amount of repertoire and considering who was in the audience.  This is especially true of Fred, who accompanied the choir.  The Durufle Requiem was well chosen as the musical centerpiece for the service in that the Saint Thomas choir just did a recording of it and had it “in practice.”  But a recording and a live performance are two different animals, and the choir in general (and Fred in particular) was absolutely flawless.

As the time of the service drew closer, the reserved seating in the front of the church began to fill up. Father Mead, the Rector, made a brief appearance in the chancel to look through the missal book on the high altar, making sure all its page marker ribbons were in the right places. The Rector emeritus Father John Andrew, in his red-trimmed canon’s cassock, made a quiet trip around the perimeter of the Nave to greet the waiting congregation with a nod of the head and an occasional shake of the hand.

The first real poignant moment of the morning was when the alumni of the choir school processed into the church.  Escorted by the verger, they entered in order of seniority: white-haired men in their seventies followed by younger and younger men, until finally came the most recent graduates wearing the choir school ties and blazers that probably fit them at their graduation.  Chords and melodies fade away at the end of a piece, but here was a living musical heritage that filled nearly half of the right side of the Nave.  Finally came the family, again lead by the verger.  Judith Hancock was impeccably elegant in a black pantsuit; she was closely attended by her daughters, who sat on either side of her in the front pew.

To complete the description of who sat where and what it looked like, I must report that the probationers of the choir school were seated in the choir stalls prior to the beginning of the service.  These are “entry-level” choristers who rehearse with the choir but who do not yet sing with them in services.  They wore their black cassocks and neck ruffs but no white cottas—they’ll get to wear those when they are admitted as choristers.  Also seated in the back stalls of the choir were three or four women of the altar guild with red smocks over their street clothes, where they remained for the duration of the morning should their assistance be required during the liturgy.

At the conclusion of the final prelude (Dr. Hancock’s ‘Air’), we saw at last the glint of the processional cross and the flicker of the torches as the choir emerged from the ambulatory and took their places in the stalls. It was utterly silent in the church.  The tower bell at Saint Thomas rings proudly out over that part of Manhattan, but its sound is actually quite faint from inside the building.  The hour began to strike as the choristers reached their places; at the eleventh muffled chime, John Scott gave the downbeat for the Introit of the Durufle Requiem and the service began.

As the Introit and Kyrie were sung by the choir, the altar party entered the chancel from the side.  The assisting clergy and lay assistants took their places in the choir stalls while the celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon incensed the altar.  That finished, they stood quietly facing altar until the Kyrie was ended; Father Mead chanted the collect and then we sat down for the readings.  The first lesson was read by Dr. Hancock’s daughter Deborah, and the second lesson was read by his brother, The Rev. Jim Hancock.

There are two big organs in Saint Thomas: the enormous Skinner in the chancel and a north German-style Taylor and Boody in the gallery.   During the prelude, both instruments had been used.  Most of the pieces had been played on the big chancel organ, but a few were played on the gallery instrument.  As it came time for us to sing hymns, however, both organs were manned and played in alternation and in combination.  This effect was wonderfully successful.  From where I was sitting, it was actually hard to tell whether the sound was coming from the front, the back, or both; I just had a sense of warmth and absolute fullness of sound.  If you listened to the webcast, you could tell that the hymn singing was robust.  I would go so far as to say that being a part of it in the room was indescribable.  We sang ‘All my hope on God is founded’ (Michael) and ‘Jerusalem the golden’ (Ewing) in this “double organ” fashion.

Of course I was not privy to the process by which the family, clergy, and music staff collaborated to plan the service, but I would venture to guess that there was only one closing hymn that was ever considered.  The singing of “Come, labor on” to conclude the service was as inevitable as it was appropriate.  Its tune, Ora labora, was of course written by T. Tertius Noble, the founder of the Saint Thomas choir school.  Dr. Noble also wrote the soaring descant which, unfortunately, could just barely be heard on the webcast.  More unfortunately, the descant was even less audible in the room.  The reason for this was because of the position of the choir at the end of the service; they processed down the center aisle, turned right, and then came up the side aisle (which is very narrow) and waited there until the conclusion of the hymn before recessing out through a side door.  So at the time of the descant, the trebles were in a very narrow space facing the corner of the Nave surrounded on both sides by taller people absorbing their sound.  Still, that final stanza—golden sunset, lengthening shadows, the mother of all ritards, “Servant, well done”—was the one, true, perfect and sufficient last word for this Requiem.

Another thing that one wouldn’t know by listening to the webcast was that John Scott himself played that last hymn, as well as the postlude that followed it.  In this and every other respect, Dr. Scott did right by his predecessor that day.  The perfection with which the choir sang every phrase would have been commendable enough, but it is really extraordinary when one considers that this service had to be more or less dropped on top of an already full schedule.  Just the amount of music that the Saint Thomas choir sings on a normal Sunday (Eucharist in the morning and Evensong in the afternoon) is pretty staggering.  The day after this Requiem, the Sunday Evensong was accompanied by the early music ensemble Fretwork (when would that rehearsal have taken place?) and the next week the senior boys of the choir were traveling to Europe to sing with the Dresden Staatskapelle. If the choir was tired, they didn’t sound it—they sounded relaxed and secure, and you can credit that to John Scott.

Perhaps the greatest honor that Saint Thomas Church did to its late choirmaster was to bury his ashes in its chancel.  This interment had taken place privately on the day before the service, and the spot was marked by a wreath hung on the front choir stall.  We were able to see the stone, so elegantly carved, as we went up for Communion.  The bottom half of the stone is conspicuously blank; a tacit sign that Judith, his wife of half a century and his full musical partner for all those years at Saint Thomas, will one day join him there.

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant

Gerre Hancock (1934-2012)

In the next days and weeks, the music world will be full of tributes and remembrances of Gerre Hancock, the longest-serving organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City (1971-2004).  During those years Dr. Hancock came to be especially known as a master improviser and teacher of improvisation.  After his retirement from St. Thomas, he and his wife Judith headed the sacred music program at the University of Texas in Austin, where he died in hospital on Saturday surrounded by family.

This picture was taken a conference that I attended last summer, and I am posting it not to flaunt my relationship with him (indeed, I only really met him on this one occasion), but as an illustration of how gracious he was with those who sought to learn from him.  I found him to be incredibly generous with his time, and was wonderfully indulgent of my peppering with questions about “the old days” at St. Thomas.

His ashes will be buried under the chancel of the St. Thomas church where he stood for so many years leading the choir.  Read the Rector of St. Thomas’s announcement of his death here.