History of Music
Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts... Ephesians 5:19
On Trinity Sunday of 2008, The Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk, Bishop of New York, dedicated Schoenstein organ to the Praise and Glory of God. The occasion marked a new beginning in the musical history of two of New York City’s oldest churches.
In 1793, Christ Church was founded as the first new Episcopal Church in Manhattan during the post-Revolutionary War period, followed in 1805 by Saint Stephen’s, the fifth. At that time the city was centered below 14th Street. A century later, when both congregations had settled on the Upper West Side, the residential center was already passing 72nd Street and by the early 20th century Manhattan was “built-out” to the northern-most reaches of the island.
In 1890, Christ Church was built on its fifth and last location at Broadway and 71st Street. Between 1801 and 1923, parishioners of Christ Church had purchased no less than eight organs from the outstanding firms of the day. The 1923 instrument was no longer in playing condition when the Christ Church building was torn down in the early 1980s after the parish merged with Saint Stephen’s in the mid-1970s.
Saint Stephen’s was much less adventurous and, by the time they bought what had been the Chapel of the Church of the Transfiguration on 69th Street in 1897, they had occupied only two buildings, but had purchased four organs, also from outstanding builders. When the Chapel was built by the Church of the Transfiguration (located on East 29th Street) in 1876, it featured an organ by Hilborne L. Roosevelt. Having gone through several, sometimes dubious, rebuildings, whatever was left of the Roosevelt, along with its additions and changes, was dismantled in December 2007, almost 130 years later!
It is appropriate that an instrument built by one of the most highly regarded builders of the late 1800s has been replaced by an outstanding example of an equally eminent builder of today. By the 1960s Lincoln Center had begun to transform the area into one of the greatest musical centers in the world, but the Roosevelt organ at Saint Stephen’s, suffering from deterioration and questionable rebuilding, hampered the quality of music there.
With the arrival of Robert J. Russell as Director of Music in 1973, the professional men’s choir was reorganized into an outstanding mixed choir and extensive use of our neighborhood’s rich resource of great instrumentalists to enhance the liturgical services began. At one time it included an early music group made up of outstanding instrumentalists, who, along with one of the country’s premier brass ensembles, were in residence at the parish. Original compositions were also encouraged for our use and composers, including Lee Hoiby, Bruce Neswick, Ned Rorem, Paul Turok, and Robert Lehman were given commissions for new works over the years.
In addition to its love of music, Christ & Saint Stephen’s has a long-established commitment to education. These two interests were combined in 1980 with the establishment of the Fellowship in Church Music. Graduate-level students were chosen to join the staff, assisting the Director of Music.
The goal of the Fellows apprentice-type learning of the craft of sacred music was two-fold: to give the student an opportunity to work in a unique liturgical music program with outstanding professional musicians, and to encourage their growth and development by utilizing their particular talents to enrich our music. The program has been an invaluable asset to the parish and brought Christ & Saint Stephen’s nationwide attention through its benefit to churches throughout the country as Fellows moved into the mainstream of sacred music. It would have been impossible to carry out the musical program Christ & Saint Stephen’s enjoyed without the presence, inspiration, talent, and dedication of the Organ Fellows.
Institutions and Fellows involved in the program have been: The Juilliard School (Dr. Marsha Long, Dr. Elizabeth Melcher); The Manhattan School of Music (Dr. Claudia Dumschat, Stuart Greene, Domecq Smith); Westminster Choir College (Paul Fleckenstein, Robert Lehman, the late Robert McDermitt); Yale University (Erik Eickhoff, Bruce Neswick, Nigel Potts, Andrew Scanlon); and the Eastman School of Music (Dr. Kenneth Hamrick).
You may recognize some of the names: Nigel Potts returned to Christ & Saint Stephen’s as Organist & Choirmaster from 2006-2015, and is now Organist & Master of the Music at Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC; Dr. Dumschat is Organist & Choirmaster at The Church of the Transfiguration; Dr. Hamrick is involved in early music as well as contemporary opera and dance in the U.S. and Europe; Dr. Long is a widely-known recitalist and recording artist; the late Robert McDermitt was Assistant Organist at The Church of St. Mary the Virgin; and Bruce Neswick one time former Director of Music at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
In 2003, Robert Russell retired after thirty years as Director of Music and was succeeded by Paul Jacobs, who due to a demanding concert schedule became Artist-in-Residence at Christ & Saint Stephen’s. Following a year when former Organ Fellow Eric Eickhoff served as Interim Director, Nigel Potts was appointed Organist & Choirmaster in 2006, who worked closely with Paul Jacobs and Jack Bethards of Schoenstein & Co in planning the new organ.
On the occasion of the dedication of the new Schoenstein & Co. Organ, the Rector, Wardens, and Vestry, on behalf of the people of Christ & Saint Stephen’s, took great pleasure in naming Robert J. Russell Organist & Choirmaster Emeritus in recognition of his loyal service as Organist & Choirmaster from 1973-2003.
In 2015, former Organist & Choirmaster, Nigel Potts released the first commercial CD of the new Schoenstein & Co. organ, in an all Wagner/Elgar program with Mezzo-Soprano, Sarah Rose Taylor. For more information, please click here
In the fall of 2016, Parker Ramsay (former Organ Scholar of King's College, Cambridge, England) was appointed Organist & Choirmaster.
In the summer of 2022, Eric Birk was appointed Interim Organist & Choirmaster.
In the fall of 2023, Dr. James Johnson was appointed Organist & Choirmaster.