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Gerre Hancock (1934-2012)

Choral & organ music

The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Fifth Avenue, New York, Jeremy Filsell (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2020
Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue, New York, USA
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: April 2021
Total duration: 81 minutes 3 seconds

Cover artwork: Organ case carving of Gerre Hancock in Saint Thomas Church.
Photo by Ira Lippke

Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York maintains a choir of men and boys unique in the USA; its survival owes much to Gerre Hancock, Director of Music from 1971 to 2004. Hancock's music is approachable and practical—written with a purpose in mind, and always grounded in an understanding of what really worked and what didn’t.

Gerre Hancock was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, for more than 30 years and, during this time, oversaw the rejuvenation of the fortunes of this unique choir with its associated school—the sole remaining example of such an institution within the US. After his distinguished tenure at Saint Thomas, he moved to the University of Texas at Austin where he held a position as professor of organ and sacred music from 2004 until his death. Hancock held degrees from the University of Texas, Austin and the Union Theological Seminary in New York. His teachers and influences included Nadia Boulanger, Jean Langlais and Marie-Claire Alain. Hancock came to Saint Thomas in 1971, having served previously as organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, and assistant organist at St Bartholomew’s, New York. Often sought-after as a teacher, he taught periodically at the Juilliard School, at Yale and at the Eastman School of Music, Rochester.

As an organist, Hancock performed worldwide, and his renowned abilities for improvisation adorned both the liturgy at Saint Thomas and his solo recital programs. This facility was amusingly attested to by Reverend Andrew Mead (Rector 1996-2014) at Hancock’s Requiem Mass in 2012:

In one of my first Christmas seasons at Saint Thomas there was a service of Lessons and Carols in the mid-week—off went the procession from the ambulatory with Gerre at the console playing a magnificent intro to ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. However, the opening hymn was ‘O Come all ye faithful’ … once Hancock became aware of the mistake, he leaned into an improvisation leading to a medley of various carol tunes and at last we landed at ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. It was like a great trailer truck, a lorry juggernaut, backing into a garage from a New York side street. I am amazed how they do it. Walking up to me after the service, Gerre said with a grin, ‘Father, it’s been a great pleasure working for you’.

As an organ composer, Hancock seemed always attuned to the practical, and wrote many voluntary-style pieces in a manner closely reflecting a gallic-inflected improvisatory style and language. His music for choir often reflects this stylistic hue too, detectable in the disparate text settings represented here. However, his writing for choir always seemed grounded in an intensely practical understanding of what really worked and what didn’t.

Much of Gerre Hancock’s choral music was written at the request of friends and colleagues, undoubtedly the result of his innate ability to foster relationships with organist and choirmaster colleagues across the country. Most of the music recorded here was written for such friends, often subsequent to his time at Saint Thomas. Such a chronology perhaps reflects the greater time he enjoyed putting pen to paper, having relinquished the rigours of the daily round at church and choir school. Whilst much of his choral music was not written specifically for Saint Thomas then, Hancock’s sound world seems nonetheless rooted within it—so frequently is it redolent of Gothic arch shapes, a grandiosity of structure, myriad colours of stained-glass light bouncing off stout pillars, and of an acoustic demanding a slow rate of harmonic change. In such sensibilities, Hancock followed in a long line of liturgical composers who wrote for their choirs in their buildings; musicians who, down the ages, have possessed an understanding and experience of local choral peculiarities, and an ear for the architectural and spiritual qualities of the spaces in which they make music.

Gerre Hancock’s presence can still seem pervasive at Saint Thomas—within walls which are soaked in his musical persona and the drama of his hymn improvisations. Such can be felt particularly when his music is sung by this choir in this place. At his final service in charge of the music in June 2004, Hancock offered the address, and ended with poignant words:

I do not believe in goodbyes, a theologically unsound word at best. I rather like the phrase, ‘Go with God’ and I rather like the phrase, ‘Till we meet again’. The Choristers know how easy it is to read Uncle Gerre’s mind, for he is so simple-minded; reading my mind at this very moment, you’ll find these words: May God bless you richly; See you later.

After his death in 2012, many former choristers offered memories of ‘Uncle Gerre’. Julian Onderdonk was a chorister at Saint Thomas’s in the mid-1970s and recalled “the joy we felt when we were selected to go on pizza runs with Mr. Hancock at camp. Or the similar feeling you had when you were asked to take his cup of coffee back to the kitchen for refills during rehearsals. I also remember how we waited with bated breath after each performance during church services to see if we’d get the clasped hands, a mark of approval for our singing, and how wounded we were when we didn’t get it. He did have the knack of making us want to do well by him!”. Dana Marsh, currently Chair of Indiana University’s Early Music Department and Director of the Washington Bach Consort, was also a chorister in the 1970s: “Gerre was a father to many of us. He was the first teacher from whom I learned how to feel confidence as a 10-year-old. 36 years later his support has been unwavering—Gerre was more than a great man who did great things. He was truly a force of nature. It was mostly about how he made people feel. He made total strangers feel loved and lifted up. He could even achieve this through the playing of a hymn! I’m proud to call him my musical father and hero”.

For the present incumbent of the Director of Music post, it is a particular privilege to record this music with this choir; one he has inherited with such a legacy. Standing daily on the stone which marks the interred ashes of Gerre Hancock, it is an honour to follow in both his footsteps and indeed of his illustrious successor John Scott, who died prematurely in post in 2015. May we as a choir and as the broader church community here, honour the memory of Gerre Hancock and all he gave Saint Thomas Church, through this recording of his music.

A song to the Lamb is a setting of ‘praise’ verses from the Book of Revelation, for choir, organ, brass and timpani. It was written in 1973 for Hollis Grant, the long-time director of the St Dunstan’s College of Sacred Music in Providence RI, where Gerre Hancock taught for several summers on conference programs in the early 1970s.

Jubilate Deo, a setting of Psalm 100’s ecstatic text, is bookended by Alleluia refrains, and was commissioned by Keith Toth, the long-time Organist and Director of Music of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York—an esteemed local colleague of Hancock’s. Jubilate Deo received its first performance in November 2005 by the Choir of the Brick Presbyterian Church.

Infant holy, infant lowly is a familiar and charming Polish carol, arranged by Gerre Hancock in 1975, and is dedicated to the boys of Saint Thomas Church.

To serve was commissioned in 2006 by the choir and Friends of Cathedral Music at St Philip’s Cathedral Atlanta, in honour of Bruce Neswick, then the Canon of Music.

The Magnificat & Nunc dimittis canticles (from the Saint Thomas Service) were written in the summer of 1989. A rhythmic feature, common in a number of Hancock’s works is heard here: at the Magnificat’s opening, a triplet of beat 1 followed by duplets on beats 2 and 3 in 3/2 metre forms a pervasive motif, one prominently featured in a number of other pieces (notably Judge eternal). The opening triplet is then ‘sharpened’ to form the persistent ‘scotch-snap’ figure in the Nunc dimittis.

The Air for organ was written in 1960 and dedicated to Judith Eckerman, whom Hancock married the following year. In basic Song Form, an ABA structure, Hancock spins a compelling and graceful melody for a variety of solo colours.

The Missa Resurrectionis is dedicated to the Reverend John Andrew, the 11th Rector of Saint Thomas, who, with Gerre Hancock, created the current profile of Saint Thomas’s music. Indeed, the partnership between Andrew and Hancock revived the fortunes of the choir school, a ministry of the church which looked decidedly fragile in 1971. It was the vision of Gerre Hancock and then the strength of this clergy-musician partnership which ensured the survival and indeed the flourishing of the boys’ choir at Saint Thomas into the late 20th century. Andrew was born 1931 in Scarborough, England, studied theology at Keble College, Oxford, and trained for the priesthood at Cuddesdon, an Anglican theological college in the Catholic tradition. Having been chaplain to Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of York and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury, the vestry of Saint Thomas’ Church called Andrew as their Rector in March 1972. Amongst his first actions was the change of main Sunday service from Morning Prayer to Eucharist, and then to extend daily Mass throughout the year. He introduced incense to services, iconography, the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and, along with his musician, he grew the liturgy into something beautiful, awesome and profound. Before Hancock and Andrew arrived at Saint Thomas, Scott Cantrell noted (TAO April 2012) that “it was a beautiful church [but] with nondescript low-church liturgy and a men-and-boys choir that had seen better days. There was even talk of closing the residential choir school. [However] the parishioners cannot have imagined how the place would be transformed by the partnership of Gerre and, arriving one year later, Fr John Andrew, a British priest with a flair for both liturgy and preaching. Together, they made Saint Thomas a shrine of Anglicanism’s most transcendent worship experiences”. Andrew’s successor, Reverend Andrew Mead, offered “In the 1970s, when a choir school looked like a relic from the Middle Ages, Gerre revived it; Gerre and John Andrew provided the venue and the need for our choir school. It is not a school with a choir. It is a choir with a school”. John Andrew retired in 1996, and died in New York in 2014. He always spoke of clergy and musicians being equal partners in worship, music being the natural handmaid of the liturgy, to the point that Neal Campbell (blog post 3rd February 2012) noted that “we heard him proclaim from the pulpit that … we [organists] needed to get to know our clergy, to socialize with them … he said he [Andrew] drank liberally of Gerre’s vodka, and Gerre drained his bourbon!”. Missa Resurrectionis was written in 1976, and, in honour of its dedicatee, is based on John Andrew’s favourite hymn tune, St Magnus. The scoring is for choir, organ, brass and timpani.

The Lord will surely come is one of Hancock’s pieces to have established a secure place in the American Episcopal canon. It dates from 1990, and was a commission by First Wayne United Church of Fort Wayne, Indiana, in honour of John Loessi (1930-1993), on the 25th anniversary of his association with its music program. Framed by invocations of a penitential ‘Kyrie eleison’, the central text is taken from Philippians, the Benedictus Antiphon for Advent 4, while the familiar plainchant ‘Conditor alme siderum’ melody gives rise to all the melodic material.

You are one in Christ Jesus utilizes a text on Christian Unity taken from 2 Galatians and was a commission by St Mark’s, San Antonio, Texas, to honour and commemorate Edwin Rieke’s 25 years of service as Organist and Director of Music. Its opening cherubic Alleluias are affecting and the concluding recitative-style delivery of the baptismal text is preceded by the undulating eighth-note ‘rocking’ figures (giving a ‘faux’ sense of continuous rhythmic movement), one which appears, leitmotif-like, throughout all Hancock’s improvised and written music.

How dear to me is a setting of familiar text from Psalm 84, and was written for Mary Bittrick and the Church of St John-on-the-Mountain, Barnardsville, New Jersey (Andrew Moore, Organist & Choirmaster), in thanksgiving for the life and work of Gustav Bittrick. The scoring is for choir, organ, brass and timpani and the first performance was given in October 2007.

Come ye lofty, come ye lowly, an arrangement of a traditional French Breton Noël, was commissioned in 1998 in memory of H Robert Taggart by Central Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Iowa.

Kindle the gift of God is a Saint Thomas piece, dedicated to Rev Frederick Morris in 1974, with its text taken from 2 Timothy Chapter 1. Morris was the 10th Rector of Saint Thomas, whose tenure stretched 18 years (until his retirement in 1972). He was widely credited with having brought new life to the parish by attracting young people, strengthening elements of the church community, and initiating restoration of the Skinner organ. Interestingly, his ministry also ended the pew rents which had existed since the parish was founded in 1823.

Judge eternal is perhaps one of Gerre Hancock’s best-known choral offerings, one which has found its way into many choirs’ repertoire in recent years. It dates from 1988 and was commissioned by the Houston Chapter of the AGO, taking as its text, the familiar hymn by Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918).

Psalm 8 is a meditation on the glory and greatness of God, and Hancock’s plainchant setting adopts Psalm Tone 2. The melody is used throughout and set in fauxbourdon every third verse. This was a stalwart of the psalter during his time at Saint Thomas, and has recently been returned to regular use.

The hymn Ora labora was written by Thomas Tertius Noble who, in conjunction with Charles Steele, first established the Saint Thomas Choir School in 1919. Considered by many to be the ‘Dean’ of American Church Music during his tenure, Noble came to New York from (‘old’) York in England in 1913, and remained at Saint Thomas for the next thirty years. With a text by Jane Borthwick, ‘Come, labor on’ became, along with Noble’s stirring tune, the Choir School hymn. Sung by the Gentlemen of the choir here, the harmonization and descant for the final verse ‘belong’ to Gerre Hancock.

The Variations on Ora labora were written in 2001 at the request, and subsequently in memory, of Lewis Brun, a distinguished organist and a graduate of Westminster Choir College, Peabody Conservatory, and the Royal School of Church Music in England. Brun served as organist and choir director at numerous churches on the East Coast, in Newark, New Jersey, Hagerstown, Maryland, and latterly at St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Williamsport, Maryland.

Deep river is a very ‘Anglican’ arrangement of true ‘Americana’, and was written for the choir of Saint Thomas in 1980. On 4 February 2012, at the Solemn Requiem for the repose of Gerre Hancock’s soul, it was sung alongside Durufle’s Requiem. The day prior, Hancock’s ashes had been interred beneath the church’s chancel floor, at the spot where he had conducted his choir for 33 years.

Jeremy Filsell © 2021

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