Making musical history at St. Patrick’s

It’s hard to top St. Patrick’s Cathedral, not only as a church, architectural treasure and municipal monument, but also as a venue of drama This applies as well to the Cathedral’s music program, which has had almost as many high and low moments as New York City itself.

I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book by St. Patrick’s Cathedral musical historian and cantor, Salvatore Basile, titled Fifth Avenue Famous (Fordham University Press, 2010). Whether your interest is music, New York history or you simply love an inside story, you will really enjoy this book. And if, like me, you come to the Cathedral regularly, it may explain a few things you have heard and seen.

I have been present for many of those highs and lows as the Cathedral’s music directors, organists, and singers juggled Gregorian chant and polyphonic anthems with the requirements of the post-Vatican II church while, at the same time, responding to the personal preferences of an assortment of archbishops and rectors.

One or two music directors even tried to resist. I recall a Sunday in 1989 or 1990 when longtime conductor John Grady led what had to be the liveliest rendition of the Welsh air, “Cwm Rhondda,” outside of the Welsh Rugby Union.  I am not 100 percent certain which set of lyrics Grady used – it might have been “Guide Me Now, O Great Jehovah” with its reference to the Bread of Heaven because this all took place as the congregation received Communion – but I will never forget the sight of Cardinal John O’Connor listening to it. I think I saw steam coming out of his ears.

Until I read Fifth Avenue Famous, I had no notion that the two men had been on a collision course since the Cardinal’s arrival in 1984. Grady had failed to understand who was in charge and that Cardinal O’Connor wanted the Liturgy to be complemented by the music, not the other way around. Cardinal O’Connor was an enthusiastic proponent of congregational singing, too. Actually, he knew and appreciated fine music a great deal more than Grady and a lot of other people ever realized.

Sal Basile’s book is filled with facts that add to the legend of the Cathedral. Did you know, for example, that the Kilgen organ you hear every day at St. Patrick’s was preceded by a Jardine, which was briefly (and probably erroneously) billed as the largest in the world? The Jardine owed its highly touted sound as much to a small army of treadle-pumping Irishmen as it did to the many great organists who played it.

Did you also know that Italian composer Pietro Yon, who was perhaps the best known of the Cathedral’s conductors, had a sense of humor that was nowhere near as tasteful as his music? And that when Pope Benedict XVI arrived at St. Patrick’s in April of 2008, organist Daniel Brondel had to call his mother in France to give him his music cue because the Secret Service would not tell him when the pope was supposed to enter the church?

From William Pecher, who led the music at the first Mass in our Cathedral on May 25, 1879, to Dr. Jennifer Pascual, the first woman music director, appointed by Cardinal Edward Egan in 2003, 131 years worth of musicians have stamped their personalities and music on the Cathedral. Sal Basile has gathered their stories in a book I enjoyed so much that I read it from cover to cover in one night.

Whether you are a St. Patrick’s regular, a liturgist, a musician or someone who just likes a great story, you are going to love Fifth Avenue Famous, too.

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5 Responses to “Making musical history at St. Patrick’s”

  1. Mary O’Sullivan says:

    Hi Maureen,

    I loved your blog and the review of the book. My mother was married in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral because she attended Cathedral High School (Archbishop Hughes Memorial) I was nice to see you in print – You look great and haven’t changed a bit! Mary O’Sullivan

  2. Janet S. says:

    I read your comment about John Grady vs. Cardinal O’Connor and can only shake my head. I was in the choir at the time that O’Connor was sent to New York and was there watching him dismantle the music department or at least try to turn St. Patrick’s of Fifth Avenue into his version of St. Patrick’s of Verplank [apologies to that parish, but you get the picture]. O’Connor failed to recognize that John Grady knew what he was about and knew music and knew what was necessary to bring in and interest tourists who did not want to sing, but wanted to hear great music sung greatly. For free. O’Connor is quoted as telling Grady that he was not a fan of ——. Well, neither was John, but that comment told him all he needed to know. I realize that it is sacreligious to badmouth O’Connor but the truth is that he was all about being the center of attention, not the Mass, not the music, but him. That’s why the 10:15 Mass was changed to 10:30 — so he could spend time talking to the press. And that’s why the 11:45 never started on time — so he could talk to the press. In fact, I’m sure I remember pews being taken out of the cathedral, so the press would be able to set up their equipment.
    While John Grady was not without guilt, he knew who was in charge and was made to know it every day. O”Connor was lucky to have a musician as talented as Grady as his musical director: The choir was featured all over the city during his tenure and got quite a lot of attention, always valuable to O’Connor.

    It gobsmacks me to think that there are people who think O”Connor should be made a saint. Cooke, Sheen, Mother Teresa, yes indeed. O’Connor? Heck, no.

  3. mmckew says:

    Dear Janet,
    Thank you for your comment. I apologize for the delay in replying; I wanted to confirm my recollections of Cardinal O’Connor with some people who were at the Cathedral during his tenure.
    Cardinal O’Connor never gave interviews to the media before Mass, only after the Liturgy and by the side entrance to his residence. The reason for the creation of the media section was to keep the camera people and reporters from wandering around during Mass with their heavy equipment and distracting people.
    As for the time change for the Pontifical Mass, it is possible that was a measure taken to alleviate crowding as people departed from one mass while others came in for the next one.
    Regarding the relationship between the Cardinal and Mr. Grady, the fact is that the pastor of a church – in this case the Archbishop of New York – has the final call on the music for the liturgy. Sometimes personalities allow this to be worked out easily; other times not.
    My memories of Mr. Grady also include his gifts as an organist. I am told that the Cathedral organ can be a problem sometimes; one never would have guessed that when he played.

  4. E Grady says:

    Thank you for the coments on John Grady. My husband’s grandfather and John Grady’s father were sibling. So it was nice to hear diferent views on John Grady and his tenure at St Patrick’s. I never met the man. I do know that his Grady grandparents were both from Ireland. It was nice to hear that he was a man who stood up for what he thought was right even if it was against the Archbishop of New York City….lol…if you have any other stories about John grady please share and I will get in touch.

  5. IM Bonus says:

    New York is blessed to have a historical as well as monumental structure such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I am glad that Salvatore Basile who is a musical historian and cantor shared his thoughts about this church in his book Fifth Avenue Famous.