Fifth Avenue Famous: The Extraordinary Story of Music at St. Patrick's Cathedral

By Smith, Rollin | The Tracker, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Fifth Avenue Famous: The Extraordinary Story of Music at St. Patrick's Cathedral


Smith, Rollin, The Tracker


BOOKS Fifth Avenue Famous: lht ? Extraordinary Story of Musk at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Salvatore Basile. NeW York: Fordham University Press, 2010. xvi, J 354 pp., ill. ISBN 978-0-8232-2187-4, $29.95.

ARGUABLY THL MOST FAMOUS CHURCH in America, and certainly one of New York City's great tourist attractions, is Saint Patrick's Cathedral at Fifth , Avenue and 50th Street. It has never been known for its music, being overshadowed by the many noteworthy music programs of Protestant churches in Manhattan., FoT most of St. Patrick's history, organ recitals and concerts were forbidden, the prohibition only being overridden on rare occasions, such as organ dedications, held in conjunction with the para-liturgical service of Benediction. Thus, the only time the music program could be assessed by the profession was at the same time everyone else was working in church. This situation, coupled with the unfamiliar, and generally mediocre Latin masses sung for decades by little more than competent singers, makes one wonder about the "Extraordinary Story of Music" title of this book.

The history of St. Patrick's Cathedral is traced in the first 75 or so pages. We travel from the original cathedral on Mulberry Street with its 1868 Erben organ (still extant and awarded the OHS Historical Citation No. 326 in 2004) to the building and dedication of the new cathedral on Fifth Avenue in 1879. Musical performance in Catholic churches of the era was generally operatic in nature. The momentous event that separated Catholic church music from that of Protestant churches was the Moto Proprio, issued by Pope Pius X in November 1903. In it, he made recommendations (read: directions) for the performance of church music, including the preference of Gregorian chant and classic polyphony over all other forms, the approval of the organ as the instrument of choice (pianos and percussion instruments were forbidifden), and, "since singers in church have a real liturgical office," women were banned from singing m choirs. (Archbishop Farley extended the proscription to Jews, infidels, and professed nonbelievers, p. 56.) The directive forbidding women was the most difficult to implement and, though the author writes that "no published account exists of a New York church's dismissing its female singers" (p. 58), the Last Page in the April 2004 issue of The American Organist quoted a 1904 article in the New York Times describing just that effect-at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Unlike in many of the great cathedrals of the world, whose choirs sing in the front near the altar (England, France, Spain, and Italy, in particular), choirs in American Catholic churches traditionally sang in rear galleries. Such a location is usually considered ideal, but in St. Patrick's there was an acoustic phenomenon whereby the sound of the singers was deadened by the lathand-plaster ceiling vaults. Volume was paramount and singers were chosen as much for the strength of the voice as the quality; apparently, the problem was not solved until Pietro Yon formed a Male Soloist Ensemble made up of 22 very loud professional tenors and basses, aged remnants of which will be remembered by visitors to the cathedral in the early 1960s.

One of the great mysteries of the organ world is why the foremost Catholic church in America, not to mention Carnegie Hall, would buy a KiIgen organ, when there were first-tier builders to choose from. Do the cathedral's archives have proposals from other firms? Certainly Kilgen was not "a particular favorite of Pietro Yon" (p. 87); the New York region Kilgen representative, Ludwig Zentmaier, told me that he took Yon out to Brooklyn to hear the new 1925 Kilgen at St. Catharine of Alexandria- the first modern Kilgen in the area- and Yon was so impressed with the 36-rank instrument that he decided on one for both Carnegie Hall and St. …

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