The History of Music at First Church

THE 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 lls First Church today.

Until the mid-18th century, the sole music permitted 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.

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Guilmant Organ School

Organ

In 1887, the Session voted to purchase an instrument from the premier organ builder, Hilborne Roosevelt, at the cost of $12,000. The organ was installed in the rear gallery in 1888, and was considered the nest in the city and received wide attention.

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 in uential family of Lenox Hill, leading elder and largest nancial 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 nally installed.

William C. Carl became the church’s rst 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.

MEET THE ORGANISTS OF FIRST CHURCH

Dr. William C. Carl 1892-1936

Mr. John Huston 1957-1975

Dr. William F. Entriken 1988-present

Mr. Willard Nevins 1936-1957

Dr. Robert S. Baker 1975-1988

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.