FCS, Choirmaster at Grace Died on Tuesday.

I received an email last night saying that Frank Cedric Smith, choirmaster at Grace Church from 1960 to 1992 died on Tuesday at his home in Cape Cod.

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Patrick Allen
    Posted October 15, 10 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Barone, I am so thankful for the gift you have shared with us all through this window into that special time while you with Mr. Smith were custodians of the life and heritage of the choir. We are still here today because of the love, passion and committment that you and your colleagues with Mr. Smith made. I invite you to a Choral Evensong to be sung by the Choir at 4:00 p.m. this Sunday at Grace Church celebrating his life and ministry and featury Rejoice in the Lamb of B. Britten. With all my gratitude, Patrick Allen, Organist and Master of Choristers Grace Church in New York

  2. Esta Joy Kroten
    Posted October 25, 10 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I am so touched by and grateful for your tribute to a man who certainly added a layer of ‘better’ and ‘class’ to my own life. I joined Frank’s choral society at the end of 1974 or early in 1975 (Dilys, Frank and I never seemed able to recall the exact time) and am honored to have served in its ranks ever since. My own memories, of this kind, gentle, erudite man who always seemed to be giggling at the normal ways of life around him, are cherished ones. I am a better person for having been allowed to sing under Frank (later, with Dilys by his side, helping to organize, lead and mold our group) and I cannot express my thanks to you and to all who remember the gift we all had by singing with, for and under him. May Frank Cedric Smith rest well, enjoying eternity’s music notes and marks and a 16-part choir of angels to you, dear leader. Thank you, Doug, for your words and for being part of the lovely musical fabric that Frank wove for so many of us. Sincerely, Esta Joy Kroten

  3. Geoffrey Smith
    Posted November 2, 10 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Doug,

    Thank you for your excellent post about Dad. As I dry my eyes, I must tell you that your excellent, descriptive writing took me back to those days, and I hope, will give those who did not experience the RSCM chorister life at Grace an insight into my father’s love and dedication to the music, craft, and tradition of directing a true choir of boys and men.

    And it was often me who was shoved in the robe locker…

    g :

  4. Posted September 8, 11 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    WOW!! my sister found you on this web site. Let’s see…doing the math…hold on….wait for it…..36 years since we graduated from Grace together and went separate ways. I have always wondered if we would catch up again. Lots of water under the bridge. I hope you get this and maybe we can catch up?

    I can be found on facebook.

    Mr. Smith and the choir experience was such an influence in my life. The experiences we had, from performing Joseph’s Technicolor Dream Coat before anyone knew who Andrew Lloyd Webber was to the basic leadership training that set the stage for my life. I will always cherish those times.

    Mr. Smith was the organist at my wedding in 1986. Although that marriage has dissolved and I am very happily re-married, having him perform at my wedding was very special.

    I do have one regret. My father (rest his soul) used to record some of our special events, such as Xmas eve, on a cassette recorder. For years, I had the tape of my one solo on Xmas eve but, alas, it has been lost.

    Mr. Smith, the choir experience, and the friends I made, will always be a special memory for me.

    John Crellin Pittsburgh, PA

  5. Derek Smith
    Posted February 2, 15 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Doug, for this touching recollection of my Dad. I didn’t know about this site until just now, from my Mom who sent me the link. As a former Optimus (I believe I was just ahead of you,) I know all too well of the experiences you talk about, and of the inimitable professionalism my father exemplified. Here are two of my favorite GCS Choir stories:

    Ralph Vaughn Williams was an English composer with many hymns and anthems to his name. One such anthem, (the title long since forgotten,) was initialed RVW, and to draw attention to my lack of attention during rehearsal, my Dad asked me who it stood for. Ever the whit, I responded ‘Rip Van Winkle, Dad!’, much to his displeasure, as he was always to be called Mr Smith, even by his sons, when in professional mode.

    The second is when Charles Winecoff, a fan of the famous Dracula movies, suggested we sing ‘Bela Lugosi’ instead of ‘Bella Signora’ when doing warmup scales before rehearsal. My Dad loved the change, and I believe he used it with his choristers until her retired. Thanks, Charles!

    Derek Smith, Mt Vernon, NY

  6. L Greer Price
    Posted April 16, 17 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    I sang in the choir at Grace Church in 1960-61 under Frank C Smith. To this day I have the hymnal he inscribed to me. I was so very fond of him. From Grace Church I went on to the choir at St John the Divine, but my fondest memories were if Grace Church choir. I was in 3rd grade at the time. How wonderful that after all these years I still think of him so fondly!

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