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New York’s Gilded Age of Liturgical Music—and How it Ended

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A New York choir rehearses in the 1870s.A New York choir rehearses in the 1870s.For millennia, worship has been coupled with music. This bond often has been an uneasy one, and nowhere has that uneasiness been so openly displayed as in the churches of New York City. Beginning in the Colonial era, when a handful of musicians stubbornly tried to practice their craft in the face of indifference and puritanical sneers, New York's liturgical music slowly gained in artistry until it reached dizzying heights in the Gilded Age of the 19th century. By that time, many of the city's churches had become famous for services that featured moving and polished choral music. However, the making of that music had metamorphosed into its own strange branch of show business, complete with star names, extravagant salaries, personal innuendo and society connections. And every bit of it was fodder for the press, not only in New York but nationwide.

Crowning it all were “church divas,” the sopranos who seemed at times to run the show. Churches competed to sign them to yearly contracts. Wealthy church benefactors supplemented their pay, trumpeting the inflated amounts in the daily papers. Members of the public followed their careers as if they were opera stars—indeed, many church divas used their fame to jump from the choir loft to the opera house.

An example of Gregorian chant.An example of Gregorian chant.Throughout these years, the city's Catholic churches had been more or less able to hold aloof from this feeding frenzy; their musical requirements tended to preclude diva worship. However, Pope Pius X felt that church music throughout the world had become “theatrical” and “operatic.” In 1903, he issued a document condemning that style of music and ordering a return to Gregorian chant. He also went further, declaring: “Singers in church have a real liturgical office, and women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. These parts must be taken by boys.” That document flashed around the world in 24 hours. When it did, the international press erupted.

The next months saw a media circus as newspapers everywhere weighed in on the Papal order—and much of the attention was aimed at the most famous Catholic church in America, St. Patrick's Cathedral. (It was rumored that the Pope was determined to have his orders strictly carried out at St. Patrick's, to provide an example for other American churches.) By Easter 1904, headlines were announcing, “WOMEN'S LAST EASTER IN CATHOLIC CHOIRS,” ticket scalpers were stationed outside the Cathedral hawking seats to Mass, and reporters were skulking up to the choir loft to see if the female singers were crying.

By that autumn, the women were gone from St. Patrick's, and from every other Catholic choir in the world. (They wouldn't return until 1955.) Strangely, though, Protestant choirs seemed to be affected as well. During the next few years, the whole extravagant New York choir system began to crumble: salaries dropped, the gushing newspaper articles dwindled, and church singers were no longer being called “stars.” Liturgical music would regain its strength within a decade, but its Gilded Age had definitely ended.

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Salvatore Basile is Cathedral Music Historian as well as a soloist and Senior Cantor of the Cathedral Choir at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He discussed his book, Fifth Avenue Famous: The Extraordinary Story of Music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, during a lecture at the Mid-Manhattan Library on Nov. 29.

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