History of Music at First Church
In the early years of First Church, music sometimes provided more discord than harmony for the worshipers. It was an inauspicious birth for the exhilarating music that fills First Church today.
Until the mid-18th century, the sole music permitted in the First Presbyterian Church was the singing of psalms a cappella from an “Old Scots” psalm book. In 1748, when the church’s liberal trustees voted to substitute Isaac Watts’s hymnal (including such familiar hymns as “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Joy to the World”), traditionalists in the congregation were outraged. The argument was decided in favor of the Watts version, with a caution against the singing of anthems on The Lord’s Day, which might distract worshipers from “the important things heard in the house of God.”
A group of disappointed traditionalists withdrew and formed their own congregation on Cedar Street which grew into Fifth Avenue Presbyterian. No wonder music remained a mere footnote in the annals of First Presbyterian for nearly a century!
By the time the church moved into its current building in 1846, hymns were somewhat more welcome and music leadership rested with a quartet of singers who relied on a pitch pipe because no musical instruments were permitted in the sanctuary.
In 1855, the liberal movers again began nipping at the heels of the traditionalists. Trustees proposed installing a pipe organ, thinking it might “attract young people and strangers to the services.” But James Lenox, scion of the influential family of Lenox Hill, leading elder and largest financial contributor to the church, had no use for such sinister innovations. So it was not until 1886, six years after Lenox’s death, that an organ was finally installed.
William C. Carl became the church’s first organist in 1892. He quickly instituted a full music program and recruited a choir to back a professional quartet. Carl’s Motet Choir, recitals, and Sunday evening Oratorios drew audiences of more than a thousand.
A succession of distinguished musicians followed William Carl. First was Willard Nevins, a music columnist for the New York World Telegram, who took over after Carl’s death in 1936 and remained until 1957. John Huston, formerly of Holy Trinity in Brooklyn and Temple Emanu-El, was at First Church from 1957 until 1975. He was followed by Robert Baker, former dean of Union Seminary’s School of Sacred Music and Professor of Organ at Yale. On Dr. Baker’s retirement in 1988, a former student of his, Dr. William F. Entriken, left neighboring St. Luke’s to become First Church’s organist and choirmaster.
Music at First Church has moved from cause for discord to source of harmony and strength. Today’s worshipers might argue with the old traditionalists: One of the “important things heard in the house of God” is the sound of music.