“Please let us have a splendid choir!”

On Wednesday, I posted a collection of quotations from Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine. Among them was this, on the famous translator Isabel Hapgood: “That vixen Miss Hapgood. What a liar — she has damned the Church for years.” Over on our Facebook page, Michael Beck asked the very reasonable question, “What was his deal with Isabel Hapgood? I’ve never heard anyone mention her with anything less than praise.”

Today, Isabel Hapgood is remembered by Orthodox Christians for her groundbreaking translation of the Service Book. But she did more than that — she was a prolific translator and writer, with multiple books and countless articles to her credit. She was trusted by some of the leading Orthodox churchmen of her day — St. Tikhon, Bishop Nicholas Ziorov, Constantine Pobedonostsev (the Ober Procurator of the Russian Holy Synod). And yet, she was loathed by Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, which is especially ironic given that Hapgood and Irvine were the foremost advocates of the use of English in the Orthodox Church.

Or maybe it isn’t so ironic. Very often, the leaders of a given movement will be rivals. In England a generation earlier, the two great leaders of Anglo-Orthodoxy, J.J. Overbeck and Fr. Stephen Hatherly, opposed one another and had very different views about what Western Orthodoxy should look like. It’s likely that the same sort of rivalry existed between Hapgood and Irvine. It probably didn’t help that Hapgood was a well-to-do Episcopalian (exactly the sort of person Irvine tended to clash with), while Irvine had converted to Orthodoxy and was working in the trenches, teaching Sunday School and so forth.

We can get a sense of that rivalry by reading public letters written by Hapgood and Irvine on the subject of the St. Nicholas Cathedral choir. Today, I’ll print Hapgood’s letter, which appeared in the Vestnik (Russian Orthodox American Messenger) on September 2, 1915. Next week, I’ll publish Irvine’s reply.

Your Grace!

I said a little to you yesterday about the Choir and the Concert. I did not say all that was requisite to give you a thorough understanding of the situation.

I am going to be very frank. There is no one else who can tell you about the American public and the conditions connected with Concerts as well as I can.

I paid the $50 you gave me to the Management of Aeolian Hall, to bind the contract for the hall on the evening of Dec. 21 next, for a Concert by the Choir. I have the contract, signed and binding.

The first concert which the Choir gave, Feb. 1, 1912, was successful, although there were only six men. The two concerts of the following season (the pay concerts), November 1912 and March 1913, were greater artistic successes, and finally established the reputation of the choir as the most unique and remarkable organization in America. There were eight men on these last occasions — the precize [sic] number indispensible to counterbalance the twenty-one boys. Twenty-one boys and eight men constitute the very smallest choir which can appear, successfully, before the American public; and they must all be perfect.

A newcomer to America does not realize what a musical centre New York is. The very best musicians in the world come here: the wealthiest, most widely-travelled, most musical, most cultivated people from all over this Continent come here, to attend the Opera and the great Concerts. Our public know what is the very best, and insists on having it. Now that there is little or no occupation for musicians in Europe, our choice here is unlimited.

If an organization, like a Symphony Orchestra or a Choir, can win the approval of the public, it can count upon a full well-paid audience year after year. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, for instance, gives a series of concerts here every winter. The same subscribers buy the same seats every year. No seat can ever be bought by anyone else — unless perhaps, when death, illness or absence throws one or two on the market. In that case, there are a dozen applicants, who are only too happy to pay ten or fifteen times as much for one seat, at a sigle [sic] concert as the subscriber paid for the entire series! Those concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra are considered the greatest events of the musical season in New York.

Of course, the popularity of the Conductor has an immense amount to do with this. The public realized that the perfection of execution and interpretation are due to his brains and training.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has existed for many years. Your Cathedral Choir has existed a very short time. Nevertheless, the Choir has made immense progress along the road to the same sort of fame, popularity and prosperity as the Boston Orchestra enjoys. Last winter it could not give a concert, as you know. If it now gives a concert less good than those of two years ago — its career is ended, so far as the musical critics and the best public are concerned. “That Choir is the most wonderful thing in all wonderful musical New York!” one musician said to me. “And it is all due to that wonderful Leader — it is his wonderful brain,” said another (the Secretary for over thirty years of a famous New York Chorus). As you see, we have the elements of a neat public future — a Choir and a Regent beloved by musicians, critics and public. If we ruin that magnificent foundation, it will take years to re-build it; and it may prove impossible to re-build it at all.

So much for that side of the question.

I now wish to repeat to you, with great emphasis:

The Cathedral Choir, propertly constituted large enough, is immensely more important to your Church and Mission in this country than twenty little new parishes. It is particularly important at the present grave crisis in World affairs. For the first time in history (I think), America is willing to listen to favorable remarks about Russia. Everything which can strengthen that favourable inclination is very precious. There is nothing which can exert so great an influence on the best, most influential part of the public here as can a splendid Cathedral Choir. There is nothing which can win more friends for your Church. The Roman Catholics are very powerful here, and the Orthodox Catholic Church needs every favorable influence it can secure, to combat prejudices in that quarter, and among the so-called “Protestants”. A prejudiced person who hears the Cathedral Choir will (if it is really fine), wish to know about the services of your Church which have inspired such music, such singing, such interpretation of spiritual emotion. They will become helpful friends of Russia and of your Church. Look it what the Choir has done for you already among the Episcopalians!

If we can give only one Concert in a season (and, in view of the fact that the Church songs cannot be diversified with solos by famous foreign singers, by piano concertos, or anything else, one good concert is all we can confidently plan, w[e] ought to be able to ask somewhat higher prices. We have never actually sold all the tickets, so far, it is true. But we have secured some of the wealthiest and most musical people in town for our friends, as well as the musicians and the critics, as I have already said. On that foundation we ought to grow more successful.

Please let us have a splendid choir!

Next week, we’ll print Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine’s reply.

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