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.