Dr. Muhlenberg’s Boy Choir (1904)

To the Editor of The Living Church:

IN your paper of July 23d, information is asked as to the history of boy choirs in the United States.

I believe that the first boy choir was that of the Holy Communion, New York City, under the charge of the Rev. Wm. A. Muhlenberg, D.D.

In May or June, 1846, the boys, of whom I was one, attending St. Paul’s School (Dr. Muhlenberg’s), College Point, Long Island, attended in a body, the opening service of the completed Church of the Holy Communion, the music being rendered by a choir of boys. Lunch was served for us at the choir house, two dwellings thrown into one, on Twentieth Street, near Seventh Avenue. The church having been built, according to the request in the will of the founder, Mr. Rodgers, in a poor district of the city. Dr. Muhlenberg, in order to be certain of his choir, which must at that time necessarily be drawn from the poor families of the neighborhood, had gathered some twenty or thirty boys in this choir house, where they were, at the expense of the Doctor’s sister, lodged, fed, clothed, and, I think, received a common school education, the Doctor living with them; the Sunday School room and residence in the rear of the church not having been built at that time.

After that time, until I came to the Pacific Coast, in 1860, when in New York, I frequently attended the service at the Holy Communion. The choir was not vested, neither was the service choral. At first the “upper choir” sat in the organ gallery, the “lower choir” in the south transept. Later, when the keyboard of the organ was placed on the main floor, near the pulpit, the “upper choir” sat around it. I never understood the distinction between the “upper” and “lower” choirs excepting that to be in the upper choir was considered a special honor.

Dr. Muhlenberg, in 1847, published the Pointed Psalter, containing the Canticles, Psalter, and other musical portions of the service, properly pointed for chanting, with a large number of Gregorian and other chants. In the preface to this book he wrote a defense of the introduction of a boy choir claiming that the female voice, from its richness, caused the congregation to listen, instead of worshipping, while that of the boys simply led and induced all to join in the service.

Dr. Muhlenberg was, at least in those days, opposed to the singing of the Creed or any portion of the service which partook of the character of prayer, but he always chanted the Psalter at the Evening Prayer; announcing the number of the tune before each psalm.

Yours respectfully,

Wm. A. M. Van Bokkelen.

San Francisco, Calif.

From The Living Church, September 3, 1904, p. 622.

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