THE CHOIRMASTER

ARTHUR H. BRAYTON 

          Eleven men have been in charge of Grace Church Vested Choir over the forth year period which is now being celebrated.  During this time of nearly half a century, however, Arthur L. Holmes has been by far the one most actively and consistently associated with the choir.  Mr. Holes was choirmaster for more than twenty years, and when Grace Church Choir is spoken of, it is Mr. Holmes and Miss Rand whose names immediately come to mind.

          The historical data regarding the choirmasters is comparatively brief, and should be set down at once, so that the formal listings and records may be correct.

          W. L. MacArthur was choirmaster from January 7, 1889 to July 8, 1889, Palin Saxby was choirmaster from July, 1889 to November of that year.  Rev. H. L. Gamble, Rector, had charge of the choir from November, 1889, until he resigned as rector in September, 1890.  Arthur Holmes was assistant choirmaster during this period.  During the vacancy the choir was in charge of Miss Rand and Mrs. Holmes.

          Rev. G. T. Griffith, Rector, assumed the duties of choirmaster February 1, 1891, and acted as head of the choir for one year, when he resigned.  Mr. Holmes was again assistant during this time as well.  Miss Rand and Mr. Holmes again assumed the responsibility of the choir during the vacancy that followed.

          In September, 1892, the Rev. C. H. Weaver took charge of the choir, and continued as choirmaster until Easter Day, 1894.  Mr. Holmes served as assistant choirmaster under Rev. Dr. Weaver.

          Rev. C. W. Tyler appointed Mr. Holmes choirmaster in April, 1894.  He held the position continuously for twenty-one years, or until Easter Day, 1915, when he resigned.  Mr. Holmes served with The Reverend Messrs, Tyler, Jones, Leete and Stockley.

          On Mr. Holme’s resignation, Rev. W. E. Stockley took charge of the choir and later appointed Prof. H. W. Hartman as choirmaster.  Professor Hartman served for two years, from 1915 to 1917, when Mr. Stockley again took charge, until his resignation in 1925.

          The Rev. F. G. Williams had charge of the choir from the time he came to Grace Church until December, 1927, when he appointed Mr. Samuel B. Green choirmaster, Mr. Green served until March, 1928, when he moved to Oklahoma and Mr. Williams appointed Elvin L. Horst choirmaster.  It is especially interesting to note that Mr. Horst is a one-time choir boy himself and also the son of a former choir boy.

          Harry F. Sievers, Charles J. Reusche and Carl L Johnstone all served as assistant choirmasters with Mr. Holmes.  So much for the historical facts.

          But the choir is now, and to a large extent, always will be, inevitable associated with the names of Miss Rand and Mr. Holmes.

          The remarkable thing about Grace Church Vested Choir and the choirmaster is the sustained interest which Mr. Holmes constantly maintained.  His unflagging energy and initiative, and his constant plans for the choir have made it a real institution in the religious, social, and civic life of the community.

          When Grace Church Vested Choir sang for the first time, it numbered twenty-one, and it is particularly noteworthy to remember that during Mr. Holmes’ term as choirmaster, the number seldom, if ever, fell below that.  During the majority of the two decades that Miss Rand and Mr. Holmes were giving so faithfully and whole heartedly of their time and interests to the choir, there was an average of twenty-five or thirty men and boys who belonged.

          Any choir boy will tell you that Mr. Holmes would look over the group as we lined up every Sunday in the vestry room, and decide whether there were to be six or seven “in the front seat.”  If it was seven, then we had about twenty-five or thirty singing that Sunday.  Seven in each front seat, five or six in each second seat, and four to five in the third row.  On special Sundays, Easter and Christmas days. Visitations of the Bishop and other festivals, we often had well over thirty in the choir.

          What do you suppose it was that brought an average of twenty to twenty-five boys and young men to Grace Church twice each week for rehearsals, and twice each Sunday for services?  Certainly not the pay that the choir received.  “We pay the boys,” as early rector is said to have stated. “for the express purpose of taking it away again in fines.”  Be that as it may, no choir boy ever thought much about his pay, save on the quarterly pay days, each year, when the envelopes were handed out with neatly typed statements from the choirmaster.

          The choir started, kept on going, and is still extant, mainly because of the real inspiration, true devotion and ever-present interest maintained by Mr. Holmes and Miss Rand, during those twenty or more years.

          What did the choirmaster do?  He established rules for the choir; he kept the books and the records; he set an example in attendance and regularity, as well as in right and clean living.  But these things, intrinsically, are perhaps more or less incidental.  The choirmaster and organist made the choir a living, breathing institution in Lyons, and their efforts have lasted for many years, and cannot but continue indefinitely.

          Some analysis of the individual accomplishments of the choirmaster, who is always thought of in connection with the choir, is desirable.

          Choir rules have been mentioned.  These rules were always posted on the bulletin board in the vestry room.  I do not recall them in detail, but I will never forget some of them.  If parents fifteen years ago, or today, could say that their sons lived anywhere nearly up to such rules at home, as choir boys obeyed for the most part, while they were members of Grace Church Vested Choir, the, “Flaming Youth” would never hae been heard of.

          Every choir boy was in honor bound to go directly home after choir practice or church services.  Every boy as forbidden to smoke, and few did smoke while in the choir.  Grace Church choir boys were asked, “not to look down in the congregation during services, and not to whisper."” This writer has attended, during recent years, church services in many sections of the country, where boy choirs are singing, and I never heard a boy choir, or looked at them, without thinking of this rule.  Few choirs that I have seen pay much attention to these things.  This, in itself, is a detail, but when put into practice by thirty boys and young men, it creates an impression of good behavior and fine appearance that can never be forgotten.

          A visitor in Grace Church once remarked that he preferred a mixed choir rather than one composed exclusively of men and boys, but he added, “I must say that I have never seen a group of boys as well behaved as this choir, and it make me like their singing that much better, too.”

          No teacher ever took more pains with the conduct of his class than did Arthur Holmes.  Fines were levied, of course, for infractions of rules.  A “dollar fine,” was the maximum I believe, but most of them, and they were always listed in detail on the pay slips, were for amounts under fifty cents.  Mr. Holmes took care, too remark as this fine had been given for disobedience of “rule seven.” Or whatever the number was.  This always sent the choir boys scurrying to the rules, so that it was not long before a boy knew the rules pretty well by heart, certainly an excellent idea.

          Some boys would ruefully regard their pay envelopes and discover that they were “overdrawn,” because their pay had been entirely used up in fines.  These occurrences were the exception, however.

          But the choirmaster did far more than train a body of boys and men to sin on Sundays and go through the service of the church.  He and Miss Rand instilled into these boys a love of the truth and at the same time a liking for the better things of life.

          Never do I recall a choir boy being referred to as a “sissy,” and boys are stern judges.  Boys who were “working for medals” were respected and helped by the other boys, who may have started out immediately after Easter each year on the straight and narrow path, and then unconsciously or inadvertently distressed.  Mr. Holmes and Miss Rand awarded the medals each Easter.  There were four in number if my memory serves correctly, for General Excellence, Reverence, Attendance, and Singing.  I am the proud possessor of a medal, and can truthfully say that receiving it was one of the great moments of my life, that Easter Day in 1907.

          The choirmaster inculcated in his boys the feeling that it was indeed a privilege to belong to the choir.  Rehearsals were twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday evenings, and those night were standard among many families in Lyons as choir nights.  The boys were always on hand, and generally most of the older members of the choir attended as well.

          Planning the music, selecting the hymns and anthems, arranging the order of special services and programs on the occasion of the visitations of the Bishop, Lenten services, all these things were done by Miss Rand and the choirmaster.

          A vast amount of influence on the lives of individual boys, as well as on the choir collectively was exercised by the choirmaster.  There was hardly a boy in Lyons who at some time was not a member of the choir.  Religious lines were never drawn; boys whose families were of other denominations were choir boys and many were confirmed.

          It was before, during and after rehearsals that the choirmaster did the most.  Think what every Tuesday and Friday night and each Sunday morning and evening meant for twenty-one years!  Often he was there Sunday afternoons too.

          I can see Arthur Holmes at rehearsals now, telling us a new hymn, or the “third tune” to an old one.  Miss Rand, with her really remarkable musical ability, was of course able to play any music on the pipe organ, and Mr. Holmes could always interpret that music.

          It was the choirmaster’s custom to stand either at the east or west end of the chancel and beat time with his stick or pointer on one end of the choir stall.  It is a part of the choir history that the wood was actually worn down where that stick pounded.  Then a new one would be forthcoming, a present, as I recall, several time, from “Herb” Neesley, who would bring in a well turned and neatly varnished stick, lathed to a delicate tip.

          Many soloists were developed among the more than 300 men and boys who have made up the choir during these forty years.  The anthems rehearsed and sung will, I know, never be forgotten.  The “16-page Te Deum” bu F. R. Webb remains in my mind clearly.  I remember the solo parts, taken, during my time, by Sam Cook, Gurnee Coe Jorgensen and the Sievers boys.

          I can hear Harry Sievers sing, “Oh Jesus, Thou Art Standing,” now, and still thrill to the memory.  Earl Jorgensen, with a splendid alto voice, also sang a favorite of all, “I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger.”  His voice was particularly suited to the solo.  Other alto soloists of outstanding ability were Winfield Welch, Donald Reynolds, and Harry Sievers.  The Sievers brothers, Harry and Alfred, were exceptional in their singing.  They rendered many duets while in the choir, and it was always a pleasure to see and hear them sing.  Harry as an alto and Alfred singing soprano made an ideal combination.

          Few churches in towns the size of Lyons sang the entire Communion Service as did Grace Choir, even to the Nicene Creed.  The beautiful Gounod Communion Service, including the never-to-be-forgotten Counod’s “Sanctus,” the Passover Anthem, sung on Easter Day instead of the “Venite,” the chants for the morning and evening services, and other favorite hymns and anthems, were all made possible only because Arthur Holmes and May Rand rehearsed and perfected them with us.  Mr. Holmes himself was a soloist of ability.

          The choirmaster started the choir library of music.  He and Miss Rand took keen delight in selecting and trying out new music.  I recall that a Miss Martha Wilson, of Lynchburg, Virginia, who used to visit the T. W. Jones family, once told the choir of an anthem, “Seek ye the Lord,” which became one of our favorites.  Many others were selected by Miss Rand and Mrs. Holmes. 

          After rehearsals it was a common thing for Mr. Holmes to stay and try out  new music, or even more important, to talk to the boys, often individually.  Those “confabs” were great events.  Arthur Holmes could tell a boy not do a thing as diplomatically as any Europeans chancellor, and I speak from well-remembered personal experience.

          There were other members of the choir beside the actual choristers.  There was, in the early days, the boy who pumped the organ, and yeoman service it was.  Lester Davey is the best “pumper” of my recollection.  There was the librarian who attended all rehearsals, and made out the “slips” which told the choir of the Mymns, anthems and psalms selected for the following Sunday.  These slips were copied each week from the master slip which the choirmaster made out himself with Miss Rand'’ cooperation.  Then there were the acolytes and the crucifer, boys who had formerly sung and whose voices were changing.  All were under the choirmaster,

          The “Auxiliary choir” must not be overlooked.  This group, who made up a patient row in the front pews at every rehearsal, wanted desperately to “make” the choir.  They worked manfully and persistently.  I know, for I was there twice, once as a neophyte and then relegated there again when it was discovered that I was “flatting.”

          It was the choirmaster who devoted many long Sunday afternoons to helping these boys achieve what was then their one ambition, Both Mr. Holmes and Miss Rand would come to the church and sing and play with the Auxiliary members, training them, suggesting, keeping them encouraged.  Hymn 196 was the favorite for the auxiliary test.

          The choir was never “in rut.”  The choirmaster was always looking ahead and keeping up the progress.  Through his efforts, a Chicago choir came to Grace Church one summer and sang; we criticized them freely, said, "“hey looked down in the congregation, and whispered,” but we admitted that they could sing.

          Often the combined choirs of Grace Church, Lyons, and St. John’s, Clinton, would sing together.  There were trips to Clinton for rehearsals, all arranged by the choirmaster and organist.  No matter how stormy it was in winter or how hot in summer, Mr. Holmes and Miss Rand were there.

          The choirmaster taught a class of choir boys in Sunday School.  I recall we had one lesson devoted to seeing how much we knew about the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer, and that one lesson has never been forgotten.

          There were other sides to the choir, too.  There were picnics, camping trips in the summer, launch rides on the river, even a choir trip of marvelous memory to the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, made possible through the generosity of the late Silas W. Gardiner, but presided over by the choirmaster.  He was the guiding spirit, always.

          There were theater parties for the choir.  The choirmother, herself an important factor, for she saw that cassocks and cottas were clean and mended, took us all down to a play once in a “special” car, which was indeed a red letter occasion.

          In two instances I remember the choir participated in professional plays, through the good offices of the choirmaster.  One was “York State Folks,” where we sang, “Rest, Rest, for the Weary, Peace, Peace to the Soul.”  The other was in a play called, “The Fatal Wedding,” the choir furnishing music for the ceremony itself.  These “treats” necessitated extra rehearsals beforehand, and Miss Rand and Mr. Holmes gave generously of their time what we might enjoy the experience.

          Candidly, I can say that I never really saw the choirmaster angry, although there were occasions when typical boyish pranks tried his patience sorely, of course,  But he always set an excellent example by keeping his temper.

          The choir pictures were other memorable events.  Again it was the choirmaster who arranged for everyone to meet, generally at the Fields studio, who saw that the vestments were there, that the group was posed, and finally, that the picture was properly hung in the vestry.        

          The choirmaster, too, knew the value of delegating responsibility.  I know boys in the choir who swelled with pride at being asked to do something for Mr. Holmes, and they did his bidding well and gladly, because they liked him, and knew what he was doing for them.  He would sit in one corner of the old pews in the vestry room before rehearsals, greet every boy pleasantly as he came in, and discuss everything from base ball to his experiences at Kemper military academy, until time for rehearsal to begin.  When he tapped the bell, the boys knew he meant business.

          There are many other things that might be related of the choirmaster’s work with the boys.  There are hundreds of instances where he helped boys individually in his own quiet way; scores of cases where boys went to him after they had left the choir, told him of their problems and received advice that was good and helpful.

          For years Arthur Holmes corresponded with many former choir boys, kept track of them and their work in the world, acted as Father Confessor in later years as well as during the time these boys were in the choir.  He is probably doing it today, for no matter how long it has been since he had charge of the choir, there are many who will always think of him as “The Choirmaster.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Clinton County History Books

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