SGCS at 200: The National Television Broadcast of Noye’s Fludde

This is the final piece in a series of posts celebrating St. George's Choral Society's history during our bicentennial year.

CBS broadcast of  Noye's Fludde , 1964.

CBS broadcast of Noye's Fludde, 1964.

At Christmas time in 1964, CBS broadcast St. George's production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye's Fludde to a national audience. The performance featured the Choral Society and members of St. George's Church, ages 4 through 90.

The program included an interview with St. George’s Church’s Rev. Dr. Edward O. Miller. He discussed the relevance of the performance and reasons the Church and its music program undertook such an enormous production:

"We decided that the time had come to have a parish church present something which would draw together the entire community. People of all ages. In this performance were people from preschool age through their 80s. Which would bring together people of all religions or of no religion. Which would give them something of high standard, which was first-rate musically. In which they could all throw themselves and join. This is why we chose this particular performance. And we called together 200 people in the cast. As you’ve seen, there were 100 animals and birds. We had a few unexpected difficulties. We had planned to have the animals and birds come in two by two. At the first performance however, we discovered that one of the weasels had come down with the measles.

The birds enter the ark. From CBS broadcast of  Noye's Fludde , 1964.

The birds enter the ark. From CBS broadcast of Noye's Fludde, 1964.

"We had a second reason for doing this, and this was to give people a sense of the roots in the past in a day when many people are frightened that humanity may be blown off the face of the earth. Here is a story, a biblical story, written probably 1,000 years before the time of Christ, but based on legends long before that. The Babylonian myth of the flood, which is preserved for us in certain of the ancient epics. Here is a miracle play, and written by a great contemporary British composer. This is why we chose to perform this particular work, and this is why the people have been so enthusiastic that we are not only going to show it on television at this performance, but we are going to have other performances at St. George’s Church from May 13 to 16, 1965."

 

As our 200th year comes to a close, Rev. Miller’s words about the importance of bringing together a community ring as true now as they did more than 50 years ago. We thank you for being a part of our community today.

Happy New Year!

SGCS at 200: The Revolutionary William S. Rainsford

William S. Rainsford, in  The Story of a Varied Life (1922).

William S. Rainsford, in The Story of a Varied Life (1922).

This is one of a series of posts celebrating St. George's Choral Society's history during our bicentennial year.

In the late 1800s, St. George’s Church became the first Episcopalian parish to allow female choir members and the first white congregation to hire an African-American soloist. Both were thanks to the vision of one man: reform-minded rector William S. Rainsford.

Rainsford arrived at St. George’s Church in 1883 at age 33. One condition of his accepting the position was ending the practice of renting pews, making the church “absolutely free.”¹ Rainsford turned St. George’s into a parish offering not just worship, but also education and social services.²

His first major reform to St. George’s music program came in the 1880s. As Rainsford wrote in his 1922 autobiography, The Story of a Varied Life:

The next change I strove for was in the church music, and here I first encountered opposition. My plans were revolutionary—nothing less than a new organ, new organist, new choir … I wanted congregational singing.

I did dearly want to make the services of the church appeal to all, not part of my people. I wanted a chancel choir, but I wanted it of women as well as of boys and men, and this being my aim, that choir must be a surpliced choir. There lay the difficulty. My vestry was divided. Surpliced choir in old St. George’s! That was too much, even for them.³

Women in religious vestments (surplices) singing in a church choir was revolutionary at the time—it’s not surprising that the decision led several members of the church to leave. Rainsford wrote that St. George’s most famous benefactor and member, J. P. Morgan, “took a good deal of persuading before I got him to my view. But he came to it finally, and then headed the list of subscribers that put up the very considerable amount of money my changes called for.”⁴ 

In 1902, suffragist and social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote about Rainsford’s mixed choir in an article for the Baltimore Sun. She quoted church officials opposed to his efforts, including one who described female choir members singing in surplices “an abomination,” and another who stated that if women must sing in a vested chorus, “they should be as inconspicuous as possible.”⁵ 

Stanton, unsurprisingly, disagreed. She wrote, “All praise to those clergymen and to Dr. Rainsford, who 15 years ago led the way in giving the church a new idea of its duty in regard to the emancipation of women.”⁶ 

Rainsford also faced opposition when he hired African-American baritone Harry T. Burleigh as a church soloist in 1894. He wrote in his autobiography:

I can only recall, in all those years, one serious commotion in my white-robed company. That was on the memorable occasion when, without warning (for this course I thought the wisest), I broke the news to them that I was going to have for soloist a Negro, Harry Burleigh. Then division, consternation, confusion, and protest reigned for a time. I never knew how the troubled waters settled down. Indeed, I carefully avoided knowing who was for and who against my revolutionary arrangement. Nothing like it had ever been known in the church's musical history. The thing was arranged and I gave no opportunity for its discussion. When the question is one of church policy, I held, and hold, that the decision lies with the rector and with none other.⁷

On this occasion once again, J. P. Morgan stood by Rainsford. He approved immediately of Burleigh’s hiring, and even invited Burleigh into his home to sing every Christmas.⁸ 

After more than 20 years as rector, Rainsford resigned from St. George’s Church in 1906. He died in 1933 at age 84.⁹

References

1. William Stephen Rainsford, The Story of a Varied Life: An Autobiography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922), p. 201. [accessed 25 September 2017].

2. ‘Rainsford, William Stephen’, The Episcopal Church. [accessed 25 September 2017].

3. Rainsford, p. 213.

4. Rainsford, p. 214.

5. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, ‘Women in Church Choirs: Their Right to Wear Ecclesiastical Vestments and March in Processionals’, The Sun (1837-1991); Baltimore, Md. (6 July 1902), p. 12.

6. Stanton.

7. Rainsford, p. 217.

8. Snyder, Jean E. Harry T. Burleigh. (University of Illinois Press, 2016), p. 219.

9. “DR. W.S. RAINSFORD DIES IN 84TH YEAR.” The New York Times. (18 December 1933), p. 19.  [accessed 25 September 2017].

A 200th-anniversary Podcast

“There are people that stick with this choir. They keep coming back, it keeps growing, and I think it’s fascinating to be in a group that has been in existence for 200 years.”

So begins our new podcast, produced and narrated by Naomi Lewin, the former host of weekday afternoon music on WQXR, and of the podcast Conducting Business.

Listen to learn about the history of the group, hear from current members, and enjoy music from St. George’s Choral Society performances. 

Antonin Dvorak, Harry T. Burleigh, and St. George’s Choral Society

Antonin Dvorak, Harry T. Burleigh, and St. George’s Choral Society

In 1891, St. George’s Choral Society performed Antonin Dvořak’s Stabat Mater for the first time, just 14 years after its completion. We will perform the piece again on April 30, 2017 to celebrate our 200th anniversary and historic connection to the composer. In February 1892, seven months before Dvořák arrived in America, the Choral Society gave the American premiere of his Requiem mass.

Read More

The clock is ticking…our 200th anniversary is almost here

In 1817, St. George’s Choral Society was founded as the choir of St. George’s Church.

In 1894, the choir made history when Harry T. Burleigh, the great spiritual performer, composer, and arranger, became the first African-American to sing with the choir of a white church.

Burleigh in St. George's Choral Society robes in 1894. In Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance. News item in Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, Louisiana, Thursday, July 12, 1894; pg. 6, issue 28).

Today, St. George’s Choral Society—no longer religiously affiliated—looks to celebrate our history and welcome our future as we move into our 200th year.

Help St. George’s Choral Society strengthen our work enriching lives through the universal and transformative power of music. Make a year-end gift today.

Your gift makes a difference, no matter the size.