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Organist and Master of Choristers (1971–2004)
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Today at Saint Thomas hundreds of people walked through our doors for the very first time. It's no accident that Saint Thomas—alive and well after all these years—keeps its doors open every day. Decades upon decades of dedicated servants have struggled and fought and worked and given so that today is just like any other day at Saint Thomas: a day when we worship, love and serve Our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage.
But today, as it turns out, is not like any other day. It is different, even if none of the newcomers in the nave of the church take notice.
Today is the day the final details have been settled for a Solemn Requiem, a requiem for a death in the family. The leaflet was finished in an office completely unseen by the newcomers. The Rector and Rector Emeritus, entirely out of view on the sixth floor, put final touches on a joint sermon to be delivered at the requiem. Cloistered away on the second floor of the Parish House, the Verger and Senior Acolyte met to review a long list of logistics, a sequence of duties to be carried out over the next two days and on the day of the requiem itself—a day when over 100 former choristers will return to pay their respects to their maestro, mentor and friend. Even the organists, practicing the many organ preludes for the requiem, could not be seen (though they gloriously could be heard), situated as they were at the organ console tucked away behind iron gates and carved wood.
So much hidden, unseen, unknown.
The newcomer enters the church, not only unaware that a requiem is to occur in three days, but knowing nothing of the man for whom it is to be sung.
Yet—and this is wonderful—the newcomer has been given a gift, a gift that anticipated her arrival, a gift lovingly built up and cherished by the man she doesn't know, a gift that was fought over and won for her and so many others like her.
The newcomer waits for Choral Evensong to begin, for that exhilarating moment when the Choir of Men and Boys seems to effortlessly appear, as if by magic, robed and ready to sing, as if Choral Evensong itself were a giant music box that she could wind up and then watch play out before her eyes.
How it came to pass that a newcomer could freely attend Choral Evensong on a weekday at Fifth and 53rd, and how it came to pass that Evensong is still sung by choristers who attend and reside at a church-affiliated choir school, is a success story so decisive that the victory outlives the victor; a vision so fulfilled that its light extends to places still unknown to us.
Uncle Gerre is dead. And we commend him to the Lord. And we grieve with his widow and children. And we thank him for his boundless energy, visionary passion, and decades of dedicated service. And we pray he may rise in glory with the Saints in light. But, in the meantime, by his fruits shall he be known. And be known by thousands and thousands.
When the Hancocks arrived in 1971, there were two sung services on Sundays, and a service for trebles only on Tuesdays. Gerre Hancock, combining forces with the man who very soon became his new rector, John Andrew, envisioned doubling the number of weekly choral services (eventually reaching the three weekday Choral Evensongs on our current worship calendar), an ambitious program which would justify the choir school and be worthy of the Anglican tradition they had inherited and vowed to promote.
It is commonly said at Saint Thomas that in the 1970s, John Andrew increasingly built up the liturgy, and as he did, Gerre Hancock set it to music. That they set out to do this at a time when the Episcopal Church was running in the opposite direction—dropping choral programs and scaling back the liturgy—and at a time when the city was falling apart and hemorrhaging residents, was as courageous as it was trad. They were asserting that the centuries-old tradition still had power in its punch, still had relevance for new generations, and they were not scared off by the notion that potential new members were increasingly not raised in the Church. They were asserting that when it is properly understood, and relentlessly carried out, and excellently executed, the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage could not only fill pews, but fill hearts and minds with the glory of God revealed through our Lord Jesus Christ.
If Anglicans don’t show up, they’d simply have to build new Anglicans out of the people who did. That’s precisely what Saint Thomas has been doing ever since. There is a reason the Rector’s Christian Doctrine Class is so needed, and so well-attended.
We'll never know exactly how they succeeded during this pivitol moment in our history, and they certainly had lots of help among Wardens, Vestry, and other laity. Surely our present course cannot be understood outside the navigational turn of the 70s and 80s. So much had to happen, and so much had to not happen, and so much along the way had to be rethought and reworked, forgiven and forsaken. So, perhaps the success of the project might be best understood as inspired improvisation.
Improvisation is not at all the realm of the lucky; it can only be accomplished successfully by an ordered and disciplined mind, and by talent that is buttressed by daily practice. Like the exception that proves the rule, improvisation can only exist in an environment where the fundamentals are already in place, and where one’s direction is not left to chance but to a clear understanding of where one starts out and a good notion of where one would like to go. The fun of the improvisation is directly proportional to the security of the foundation. Take away fidelity to a chosen path, and the improv is an ugly mess.
Gerre Hancock explained this himself in an article by James Sellers that appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Clavier: “In high school I was drafted into the debate club where I learned to organize quickly what I would say on topics I knew little about. It taught me the value of the 3x5 card, outlined with a list of subjects to cover. It was essentially improvisation. Organists need to have that kind of outline in their minds during an improvisation, so they don't get lost.”
Applied to his decades of service at Saint Thomas, the 3x5 card which one could envision him carrying around in his pocket could have included this outline: (1) The authority, beauty and mystery of Holy Scripture, (2) the depth and breadth of the tradition (still unfolding!) grounded in the rubrics of the Prayer Book and played out in word and song, (3) the goal of excellence, nothing should be pursued except to pursue it excellently, to the greater glory of God, that no talent be wasted on anything less, and (4) the notion that nearly everything is teachable, and you should never stop trying to teach it.
To this last point, it should be lost on no one that in addition to his three decades of dedication to the boys of the Choir School, he was on the faculty of the Julliard School of Music and the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. And, of course, after leaving New York, he and Judith moved to Austin where he dedicated the remainder of his life to his students at The University of Texas, where Judith still teaches. Thus, the entirety of Gerre's adulthood was spent building up subsequent generations.
With the core solidly in place, Gerre’s life was one of improvised fun. Choral Worship was paramount, but added onto it were all the extras, within just a few short years after he came to Saint Thomas. There is not a single category on the list of subtopics in this Music Section of the website that wasn’t either instituted by him or hugely impacted by him. The Concert Series, the Organ Recital Series, and (to help pay for them) Friends of Music were all started under his tenure. The trips with the choir abroad, and invitations to distinguished choirs and musicians to sing at Saint Thomas all blossomed on his watch. The annual recordings—originally LPs, then cassettes and then CDs—became desirable as the underlying music program developed. The Choirmasters Conference was instituted by him. And of course, the Taylor & Boody Organ in the rear gallery was a long-time dream of his, and was dedicated and named for him in 1996, in honor of his 25 years of service as Organist and Master of Choristers.
But more than anything, the improvised fun of Gerre's fidelity to the mission had its most enduring impact on Saint Thomas by expanding the breadth and depth of the choral repertoire, vastly increasing what the parish would eventually not only accept, but come to expect.
"I was called in 1971 by the tenth rector, the Reverend Frederick M. Morris, to become [St Thomas’s] twentieth Organist and Choirmaster,” Dr Hancock explained in his Appendix to Canon Wright’s Saint Thomas Parish History (2001). “During my many years at Saint Thomas, my associates and I have made every effort to build the music ministry here upon the great foundations laid by those master musicians from 1870 onward. For example, one of the first tasks at hand was to increase the repertory of music available for the choir to sing, adding works from an even broader and wider and historical and liturgical range of musical expression.
“Immediately in this endeavor, extensive attention was given to developing the chant, both Anglican and Gregorian; this musical form, unique to the Christian Church, is the very bedrock of the Church’s music. From here the quest for an ever-growing repertory naturally looked toward the music of the Renaissance, both continental and British, Roman Catholic and Anglican. During the early days of Dr Noble’s career on Fifth Avenue, for example, he regularly inspected new gifts and acquisitions of old manuscripts to the New York Public Library, just arrived from Europe, transcribing them for performance in Saint Thomas Church long before they were published or even thought suitable for modern congregations. Inspired by his example, every new publication now is greeted with the same enthusiasm and with the ever-present hope that such music, old and new, might enhance the worship of Almighty God, be it Tallis or Tippett, Byrd or Britten, Purcell or Parry, Bach or Brubeck, Brahams or Bernstein, Stanford or Stavinsky. Provided the music suits that one-and-only sound, the unchanged boy soprano’s voice, and that one-and-only moment, the very presence of Our Lord in His Church."
In his closing remarks from the Saint Thomas pulpit on June 13, 2004, Gerre reminded his listeners, and most especially his young choristers, that he and Judith, "do not believe in goodbyes, a theologically unsound word at best. We rather like the phrase, Go with God; and we rather like the phrase, ‘Till we meet again. The Choristers know how easy it is to read Uncle Gerre’s mind, for he is so simple-minded; reading my mind at this very moment, you’ll find these words: May God bless you richly; See you later!"
God has indeed blessed you richly, Maestro. Go with God, Uncle Gerre, and we'll see you later.