|Above: The Church of St. Michael & St. George Choir and Dr. Edward A. Wallace, Choirmaster. Trinity Sunday, 1976, Washington Cathedral, Washington, DC.|
May 24, 2012
with Dr. Edward A. Wallace
In 1966, Dr. Edward A. Wallace accepted the position of Choirmaster and Organist at The Church of St. Michael & St. George. He came from St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City where he served as Associate Organist and Choirmaster and the Assistant Headmaster of the Choir School. His challenge was to rebuild the music program at St. Michael and St. George. He planned to stay for five years. In 2001, 35 years later, he retired from the church, having achieved his goal of establishing a strong and vibrant music program. Recently he shared his experiences and the bonds he developed that kept him in St. Louis.
How it all started . . .
I started at The Church of St. Michael & St. George on January 1, 1966. The Rev. Jack Schweizer was rector. When I arrived here, the music program was disastrous. Some of the members had been in the choir for years and years. It was time for new voices.
When I interviewed for the job, there was a music committee. I can't remember who all was on it, but Bill Sant was chairman of the committee. His father had been rector here. Charlie Allen, Sr. was on the committee; Jane Black was on the committee. I didn't know what they wanted to do with the music program and they didn't seem to know what they wanted either. The organ was in bad condition; there was no choir room really. The choir room then was down where the gymnasium is now. There was no office for the choirmaster. I remember when I got here I asked Jack, "Where is my office?" and he said, "Do you need an office?" and I said, "Do you?"
I thought this situation was just too messy. I went back and wrote them a letter saying thanks, but no thanks. And they called me and asked me if I would reconsider. I didn't see the point in that. They asked me to come back to St. Louis. I thought it was a waste of their money to fly me out again and put me up at the Cheshire Inn. That was a new hotel at that time. They insisted that I come back and talk some more, so I came back.
I remember the thing that kind of sold me on coming here. We were standing in the middle of the center aisle in church and I said, "You know, I never seem to get a direct answer from any of you when I ask what you want to do with your music program." They really didn't know what they wanted to do, they just knew it needed to be improved. Charlie Allen spoke up and said, "What we really want is a new broom. We want somebody from someplace else to come in here and sweep the place out and start a fresh, new program." I said, "Okay, that makes sense, but does this person have your support?" They assured me that I would absolutely have the support of the vestry, the rector, everybody. That was important to me because it wasn't going to be an easy process. Feelings get hurt and you have to be aware of these things.
So I accepted and told them I would stay for five years.
Bumps in the road . . .
Little by little we worked on rebuilding the program. It didn't happen overnight. The first step I took was writing a letter to the choir members asking them to make an appointment with me to talk about what they had been doing, what their expectations were and to audition for the choir. I got many replies of resignation from people who felt they'd been in the choir long enough and were ready to step aside.
There was a soprano who had been here for 17 years and she couldn't read music. I knew she loved the job and she was very popular in St. Louis. She just dearly loved her job, but it was time for her to move on. She agreed to resign gracefully. Those things are hard.
Replacing the organ . . .
I went to Martha Bishop, who was the church secretary for 40-some years. She did everything and knew everyone. She knew every parishioner, what year they were born, knew their children and their grandparents. She knew all the old guard here and they all came to her with every question. This church was her whole life.
So I asked Martha who in this church could afford to give a new organ. She said there were several people and she gave me a couple of names. One of those names was Spencer Olin. I made an appointment with him and went to his offices in the Pierre Laclede building in Clayton. I asked him to donate the organ. I explained to him that I didn't have an exact cost because it would have to be custom built. He thought it sounded like a good idea, but he'd have to check with his wife, Ann. She thought it was a great idea and so they agreed to donate the organ.
One night I was having dinner at the St. Louis Country Club and I saw Spencer and his wife having dinner. I stopped by their table and started to tell Spencer that I had some details about the organ to review with him. Mrs. Olin interrupted me and said that Spencer didn't know anything about it and that I should talk with her from now on. She and I became dear friends. On the night of the opening recital on the organ I had Simon Preston here to play the organ. He was the organist at Westminster Abbey.
Years later Mrs. Olin was diagnosed with cancer and she was in the hospital. I went to visit her on a Sunday afternoon. On Monday she was having surgery for the cancer. She asked me to play Onward Christian Soldiers at her funeral. I told her I would, but we didn't need to discuss that now because she was going to be fine. She told me to play it loudly. She died during surgery the next day. Spencer was devastated. I kept my promise and played Onward Christian Soldiers at her funeral. Her favorite flower was a yellow rose and they only had yellow roses at the funeral. Her casket was draped in yellow roses.
Every year on the anniversary in November they put yellow roses on the altar and we always played Onward Christian Soldiers. Her daughter, Mary Dell Pritzlaff, and her husband gave the endowment for the organ. Whenever she would come to town, we would go to lunch and then church and she would ask me to play Onward Christian Soldiers for her. I still hear from her.
Then when Bishop Ed Salmon did a lot of the renovation around here and built St. George's Chapel, we had to build an organ for that. Michael Quimby, who is in Warrensburg, MO near Kansas City, built the organ. He has done some magnificent work. He did the organ at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York and has built organs all over the country. I told Bishop Salmon how much it was going to cost. He had three people who wanted to give it and so I picked Mary and Oliver Langenberg. They gave the organ in St. George's Chapel.
The music library . . .
The music library was a mess. It was all falling apart, very old. The paper had turned yellow and there was very little of it that I wanted to use. At that time music was very cheap. You could buy a copy of an anthem for 15 cents. So I was going to New York and I told Jack Schweitzer we had to have some new music. He offered me a $1000 so I bought $1000 worth of music for the library. Eventually the budget included new music and we built up a very fine library.
Building the choir and the famous soprano who joined . . .
No organist or pianist is better than the instrument they have to play. Likewise, no choirmaster is better than the singers he has to conduct. I begged young people to sing in the choir. Then we had to have some paid singers. I first started getting paid singers from the Washington University Music School. That was disastrous because they all left me for Spring Break and at Christmas and in the summer. I soon learned I couldn't do that.
I made some connections with Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, which had a wonderful department for choral music and with McKendree College. They produced very good local singers. Glenn Freiner sent me Christine Brewer. (Brewer is a Grammy Award-winning soprano who was named one of the top 20 sopranos of all time by BBC Music.) She was 19 years old and at the time she was at McKendree College in Lebanon studying with Glenn. She came over and sang with me. She was here for quite a while. Little by little she started getting recognized, won the Met auditions and became one of the finest sopranos in the world. She sings in Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, London. She sang for the Queen of England's 80th birthday. She's met all the great conductors. As she was working her way up the ladder, she would come back and sing. I still talk with her all the time and go see her whenever she is in town.
Going to England . . .
After I'd been here 25 years I thought about taking a sabbatical. At the time we had a wonderful precentor named Dr. James Jones. He decided that instead of taking a sabbatical we should celebrate my 25 years at the church by going on a tour. That's how we ended up taking our first tour to England. We raised money for that. We had a benefit concert and Christine Brewer sang.
I went to Molly Sverdrup one afternoon and told her we were going on this tour and I needed to raise money. I asked her to make a contribution. She said she would love to do that and she went over to her desk and wrote a check. She handed it to me and it was a check for $50,000. I told her that was a nice little start. And the next time we went she did the same thing. She, General Sverdrup and their son Johan were always very generous supporters of the music program. The Sverdrup family gave the antiphonal organ in memory of Mrs. Sverdrup's brother.
The first time we went we sang Evensong daily for a week at Westminster Abbey. We sang one day at Ely Cathedral, one day at Canterbury Cathedral and one day at Salisbury Cathedral and two or three days at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. That was really difficult because we stayed in London and had to have a bus to take these day trips. That was hard on all of us. We had an open invitation to Westminster Abbey and to St. Paul's Cathedral. So the next time we went we stayed in London and sang at the Abbey and St. Paul's. Except someone who had been at the Abbey wanted us to come to Windsor and sing at St. George's Chapel. We went down there and sang one day and the dean gave a very nice garden party for the choir.
Christine Brewer joined us on one of those trips and sang at St. Paul's Cathedral. I teased her that we finally found a building big enough for her voice. We had our picture taken on the steps outside the cathedral. It was full of tourists. I told the choir to head out to the front steps. The dean stopped us and had the verger, who was all dressed in the garb with the staff, lead us out. We formed a procession right out to the steps for our photo and then he lead us back in. We had some wonderful experiences.
It cost a lot of money but the choir didn't pay for a thing other than personal expenses. They even had a per diem. But we raised all the money, too. It didn't cost the church a thing. The church didn't spend a penny on that. People gave it.
Living in the church . . .
When I was offered the job at St. Michael and St. George, they offered me the apartment upstairs, which is where the rector's office is now. I lived there the entire time I was here. The apartment was not in use at that time. It had originally been built for a curate. I think Dr. Block lived up there at one point. The last person who lived up there before I came was Martha Bishop, the church secretary.
On staying 35 years . . .
I was very unpopular in St. Louis when I came because the person who was thought of as the head of all music in St. Louis wanted someone in St. Louis to have the job, which was the way it had always been. They didn't want an outsider coming in. But over time that changed. In fact, that very same person in later years turned out to be a very good friend of mine. I succeeded him at Washington University as the organist over there.
I was unhappy at first. The music program was such a mess. I said I would stay for five years, but then I met people. I had a lot of friends and I got involved and I didn't want to leave.