St. George’s Choral Society was founded on February 12, 1817 as the “Society of St. George’s Church for the Cultivation of Sacred Music.” While it was never the only choir at St. George's, the Choral Society supported the Church's regular music ministry by performing longer and larger choral compositions that did not fit in with standard Sunday services.
St. George's Church, Stuyvesant Square, made headlines throughout the 1800s for its innovative approach to worship. The Choral Society experienced two historic firsts: it was the first Episcopalian parish to allow female choir members, and the first white congregation to hire a black soloist.
The Choral Society lapsed during the war years of the 1940s and was re-founded in 1950 by Charles Kemmer. For more than 30 years, the choir performed at least four annual concerts of religious music. After membership dropped in the 1980s, the Choral Society was reimagined as a community chorus combining voices of all faiths to sing both sacred and secular music. The Choral Society incorporated as an independent organization in 2009. Today, we hold two concerts and a summer festival every season. Under the guidance of our current artistic director, Dr. Matthew Lewis, we now rehearse at St. George's Church and perform at the Church of the Incarnation, at the corner of Madison Avenue and 35th Street.
Over its 200 years, St. George’s Choral Society has crossed paths with many composers, soloists, and directors of renown:
- Czech composer Antonín Dvořák lived in Stuyvesant Square while teaching at the National Conservatory of Music from 1892 until 1895. In 1891 the St. George’s Choral Society performed Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, conducted by Richard Henry Warren. A year later, they gave the American premiere of his Requiem Mass. The Choral Society has continued to perform Dvořák's works throughout the decades.
- From 1894 to 1946, the African-American baritone soloist Harry Burleigh sang at St. George’s Church. Burleigh famously performed Faure’s “The Palms” every Palm Sunday; St. George’s choirs often joined in for the choruses. Burleigh also brought traditional black spirituals to white audiences. For many years after his death, the Choral Society continued to perform his settings annually.
- In the 1950s, the choir performed with concert organist E. Power Biggs.
- Feminist musicologist Adrienne Fried directed a concert featuring Brahms, Stravinsky, and Poulenc in 1969.
- The choir was directed by famous Episcopalian composer Calvin Hampton until his death from AIDS in 1984.
Concerts of note include:
- 117 years of the annual Candlelight Carol Service at St. George's Church.
- In 1964, CBS aired a national broadcast St. George's production of Benjamin Britten’s Noyes Fludde, featuring the Choral Society and members of St. George's Church, ages 4 through 90.
- Also in 1964, the Choral Society performed the world premiere of Alan Hovhaness's Magnificat at the then-new Philharmonic Hall.
- During the 1970s, the Choral Society performed world premieres of a new translation of Bach’s St. John Passion and "Seek the Lord,” an original composition by the then-assistant director, Bradley Hull.
- 1980 – The first full performance of Les Beatitudes by Cesar Franck.
- 1982 – The world premiere of Calvin Hampton's music drama “It Happened in Jerusalem.”
- In 1992, the centenary of Dvořák's arrival in New York, St. George's Choral Society performed his Mass in D, Biblical Songs, and Te Deum, with support from the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees, the Dvořák American Heritage Association, and the ambassador of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic to the United Nations. This was part of a campaign to move a statue of Dvořák from the roof of Avery Fisher Hall to Stuyvesant Square, where it stands today.
- 2015 – A Lincoln Center debut with Paul Taylor American Modern Dance for the well-received "Beloved Renegade," set to Poulenc's Gloria.
- 2017 – St. George's Choral Society celebrates its 200th anniversary, beginning with a performance of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater with full orchestra.