I’ve been a serious amateur singer since I met a choir director 20 years ago who taught me to read Renaissance polyphony. My ability to sight read the inner alto line with a voice that blends well ushered me into the fringes of the professional world of choral singing.
For the last year I have been singing in the choir of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi under the direction of Dr. Gwendolyn Toth. Gwen is an early music specialist who directs the group Artek. For 18 years she brought professional music to the 11:00 Mass on Sunday on 31st Street, with motets for Offertory and Communion and small orchestras for the great feasts of Christmas and Easter, as well as a free noontime concert series for tourists and midtown employess alike.
Just as I arrived at St. Francis, it seems that Gwen was being subtly and not so subtly pressured out by the pastor who had taken over two or three years ago. He prefers the sing-along hymns of Be Not Afraid to the glories of Byrd and Tallis.
And he has the power.
And so today was Gwen’s last day as director of music, bringing to an end an 18-year ministry. She invited back past singers who had moved on, and other singers she has met along the way. We were 40 strong, and the singing was transcendent.
Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus was a prelude, with its lovely setting of Psalm 42 following the stag in the forest: "As the deer longs for flowing waters, so longs my soul for you, O God." Offertory was Stanford’s Beati quorum via (“blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord”) with its exquisite 6-part dramatic chords that rang and rang in the vaulted space.
At communion was Elliot Z. Levine’s setting of the e.e.cummings poem, “i thank You God for this most amazing”—part swing, part spiritual, a pinch of Broadway.
The emotion that was surging through the singers about the end of this era poured out into the music, and the sound was alive with conviction and certainty. Simple sing-along hymns have a place in liturgy. And there are many Masses where that is the only music. But this one Mass, on Sunday, was special. It offered people an added dimension to grace. Music moves the heart in deeply mysterious ways—the genius of Renaissance polyphony, especially, has so many gifts to offer.
But only if the musicians and music are welcomed into the space.
After the recessional hymn, Gwen played those most spine-tingling chords in music history: the opening phrase to the Hallelujah Chorus.
The choral downbeat made my heart literally skip a beat it was so powerful. It’s a piece that professionals can sometimes mock because of its popularity and over-use. But not today. Today it was an explosion of group exuberance.
Gwen is a first-rate organist, and her playing was full and embellished.
The congregation was riveted in their places for this unexpected postlude, and they clapped and clapped and clapped.
It was a privilege to sing with such a group, and sad to witness its end.