It’s given me pause, the email, more so than most of these types of messages. We all stop for a moment at an obituary listing. An obligatory reflection on mortality surfaces, always a bit selfishly because the thought ends up circling back around to our own situation. Then we push those “me” thoughts away, and with forced reflection a memory stirs. We move back in time.
Frank Smith made me Head Chorister at Grace in 1974. (My name is up on the wall in the church memorializing my term as “Optimus”) He put the heavy ribboned medallion from Canterbury’s Royal School of Church Music over my head during an induction ceremony on a spring day. This was as had been done previously a hundred or so times, retiring the head chorister before me, investing me with the duty to uphold the musical ministry of the church and the implicit assumption I’d keep the mob of adolescent tussling boys of the choir in-line long enough for practices and services to actually occur. No one had ever succeed in doing this before. It was curious why he thought I would be any different. Tradition was important to him.
It would be amusing to write about Mr. Smith as a caricature choir master, either effete and reserved, or tyrannical and cane wielding, like something out of Dickens’ London or Irving’s Sleepy Hollow. But Mr. Smith was neither, and even though he lived in Greenwich Village in the 1960’s he seemed timeless, polyphonic, as interwoven with the fabulously contrapuntal music of the baroque as one could be and still keep thirty fidgety boys performing like a fine musical instrument, week after week, month after month, year after year, often, in my time, without the help of an organist, or an assistant choir master.
He took chorister development very seriously, teaching us music theory, history, quizzing us on composers and musical themes, enlisting the men in the choir (moonlighting performers from the Metropolitan Opera mostly, who sang the alto, baritone and bass parts) to tutor us in formal technique. He made sure Minnie, the school cook, had starched and pressed our white cottas for Sunday. He mended and then re-filed the music sheets from our vast library. During high holidays he, like we, kept up a grueling schedule. I recall once doing seven Christmas week services, which meant he did more.
In the choir room, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, midst a sea of poorly behaving sixth, seventh, and eight graders he would simply come to the piano, raise his voice enough to be heard, and ask us to “begin the Benjamin Britten, please, in parts.” Always four part, sometimes eight if he felt we were up to it. He’d have us mark sections, “Paul, you do have your marking pencil in your folder, correct?” have us redo measure after measure if he didn’t like the sound, “Sharp, please, second row, you are sharp again, start over,” become happy with the result, “That was nice, remember it for Sunday,” then have us move on to rehearse his hand orchestrated versions of chants and interludes, splatters of inked notes on slips of mimeograph paper written in his office back in the then partially condemned north wing of the school.
On more days than not, he would have to stop practice because John Crellin, or whoever was being picked on that day, was pounding for release from the inside of a robe locker, where we had shoved him earlier that afternoon. This was a trick we’d learned from Tom Brasuall and David Duchovny the year before (yes, that David Duchovny) who had probably learned it from a descending order of senior choir boys going back to the Middle Ages. After releasing John, and quietly docking our pay twenty-five cents for misbehavior, Mr. Smith would start again, and the amazing music would flow up and out as if meant for God’s ears, which was how he thought of it, and in that moment, past the adolescent fighting, past our trysts with the girls on the back staircase, beyond Earth Day, the riots in the streets, the Weathermen and their bombs, far far away from Vietnam, and Nixon and McGovern, treble harmony would fill whole city blocks from tenth street.
It was that sound I heard again this morning; heard it for the first time in very long time.