Music History

Music at St. John's has a colorful and diverse past, but early records are sketchy. The first mention of an organist in any existing record is in December 1858, when an effort was made to find out how much an organist would cost. A sum of $25 was raised to employ Mrs. F. Norvell for a year beginning on November 15, 1859. The first mention of an organ is in 1866, when a new organ, purchased at Covington, Ky., on Sept. 2 at a cost of $400, was installed on November 7. The old organ, quite possibly the first, had fallen victim to a flood and vandalism when federal troops in the Civil War took over St. John's as quartermaster's headquarters. Records of April 15, 1873, say that a boy was engaged to "blow the organ" for 50 cents per week. During the early 1880s Miss Alice Jeffries was the organist and received $1 per Sunday, while 30 cents was paid to the boy who "blowed the organ."

It was in 1890 that a contract with Henry Pilcher & Sons was made for our present church building's first organ, costing $1,825. Records indicate that it had 18 stops. Photos show that it had an intricately stenciled pipe facade, which faced the nave. Before it was electrified it was pumped by boys of the parish, who entered the chamber through an exterior door on the Quarrier Street side of the church. The door recess can still be seen, though long ago filled with stone.

Mrs. Curtis Dawley served as organist for a while without compensation. Then J. W. Barrington of Meriden, Ct., was engaged as organist and choirmaster beginning March 1, 1891. In November of 1892 Barrington resigned, stating, "...it seems impossible to bring together a choir suitable to sing necessary music." He continued to serve until after Easter 1893.

In the fall of 1895, Frederick George Sallick was contracted to be organist and choirmaster for one year. The contract stipulated that, "he shall take the musical services on all Sundays, major festivals, principal feasts during the year, and funerals; take charge of the Sunday School music and give musical once a week to the missions at St. Luke's and St. Matthew's. The minor festivals and feasts are left to his interest and option-that he shall organize and manage the choir under the direction and superintendence of the rector; that he may have one month's vacation during the year and one organ recital for his own benefit if he desires." Mrs. Joseph Ruffner raised the money personally to pay Sallick.

On Easter Day, April 5, 1896, St. John's had its first vested choir, which was introduced by Sallick at the afternoon service. Parishioner Cornelius Estill, who developed into a gifted musician, was St. John's next organist , though not for long, as he accepted a post in a New York City Episcopal church. Apparently, he returned home to give periodic recitals. It is known that he died young and a plaque in his memory was placed in our organ console recess by his parents and his successor, J. Henry Francis.

In 1899, Percy Harris offered to play the organ for the evening service, free of charge, in consideration of being allowed to conduct the vested choir and to have envelopes distributed in the church for contributions to the church music library from time to time, and to have the privilege of giving a recital of sacred music and to collect at such recitals a voluntary contribution to himself. The proposal was accepted.

In 1902, Dr. J. Henry Francis, a native of England, was brought to St. John's as organist and choirmaster from a post in New England, having been hired by our rector, Dr. Robert Douglas Roller. Dr. Francis started the men and boys choir, and later the junior choir of young girls. In 1927, during Francis's tenure, St. John's acquired its Skinner organ (see accompanying section of this website). Francis was known and respected widely throughout the community. Native Charlestonian James Litton, longtime director of the American Boys Choir and organist at St. Bartholomew's, New York City, was one of his organ students.

On October 11, 1942, the congregation recognized the 40th anniversary of Dr. Francis. It was said, "...If you were to pick the most significant fact out of these 40 years, it would undoubtedly be that 637 boys and men have been in the choir ranks..." Francis retired on September 1, 1945, and was made musical director emeritus, receiving an honorarium and a pension. Dr. Cecil Adams, a prominent dentist in Charleston, as well as an accomplished musician, succeeded Francis as choirmaster, with Elizabeth Reese Johnson appointed organist. Both came to St. John's from First Christian Church as a team. In 1944, the Kanawha chapter of the American Guild of Organists was founded at St. John's, and the organization used St. John's as its headquarters for many years.

The other choirs

In 1940 the leadership of junior choirs of girls was separated from the senior choir of men, boys, and women by vestry action. Eleanor Day became the first director of girls choirs, followed by June Cason and then Mary Jean Eldridge Barnes.

In 1945 the men and boys choir ceased under Cecil Adams, and a professional choir of adults developed. The choral ideal and music literature evolved away from a Victorian/Edwardian Anglican tradition toward classic oratorio literature and less liturgical practice, as was the custom in that era of "formal low church."

Our choir of the 1950s and early '60s, which was made up almost entirely of dramatic full-voiced soloists, became renowned for its equally dramatic oratorio presentations. At the time, major churches in the valley hired paid quartets as section leaders and soloists, while the choir of St. John's was the only paid choir in the city. Adams had two organists during his tenure, Elizabeth Reese Johnson and Lila Belle Brooks.

On July 1, 1954, Geoffrey Hobday, an Englishman and the new conductor of the Charleston Symphony, was given the title of organist and choirmaster but soon directed the choir only. Walter Avis, who had served faithfully as organist for the girls choirs for many years, became principal organist and served until retiring in 1968. Avis was succeeded by Brenda Maurice (Vanderford) as organist, and Hobday was succeeded as choirmaster in 1964 by Dr. Thomas Wickstrom, head of public school music for West Virginia schools. Following Wickstrom, another Charleston Symphony conductor, Charles Schiff, was hired in 1966 as choirmaster. Schiff was succeeded by Guy Owen Baker in 1968, who resigned in 1974. The "symphonic choral" era, which began in the late 1940s in attitude and musical direction--worlds apart from the Anglican choral tradition, yet glorious in its own fashion--came to an end in 1974.

Baker was the only choirmaster to work with the St. Teresa and St. Cecilia choirs since J. Henry Francis. The St. Cecilia Choir of high-school-aged girls sang in the Bethlehem Chapel of Washington National Cathedral in 1970. Baker's work with the girls choirs was short-lived due to other interests, and organist Brenda Maurice (Vanderford), directed the girls until the latter part of the 1970s. Major changes within the parish resulted in many families leaving St. John's, and the girls choirs disbanded. A boys choir, St. David's, was attempted periodically, but it, too, fell victim to changing times.

St. Ambrose Choir's beginning

Payment to choir members at St. John's came to an end in 1968, and we lost many longtime professional singers who refused to sing without pay. For a while under Baker, the choir was supplemented with his voice students, though that stopped when he left. Thus began a new, fresh, growing era for the choir, which styled itself the St. Ambrose Choir. The only long-time choir member to receive a stipend was James G. Wallace, much loved by the choir, who became an invaluable music assistant.

The Saint Ambrose Choir in rehearsal

David Morton, parishioner since 1962, and an experienced choral director, became choirmaster in August, 1974. His expertise in English and American Cathedral music took St. John's into the mainstream of the rich Anglican choral tradition. Lyric straight-tone singing conducive to chant forms and the literature of the Anglican choral ideal was developed. All of this came about during a trying time within The Episcopal Church at large and at St. John's itself, influenced by new trial liturgies and a precarious national trend toward fluctuating musical tastes.

In spite of these changes, the Anglican choral foundation became our fundamental music base. Evensong in the cathedral tradition was initiated during this time, after decades of neglect. Morton's two-year tenure as choirmaster was highlighted with the St. Ambrose Choir singing for the main service in Washington National Cathedral on West Virginia Day, September 6, 1976, his last service as choirmaster. Ours was the first West Virginia church choir to sing during a principal service at the cathedral.

David Johnson, a Charleston choral director, followed David Morton, but left after a brief stint directing our St. Ambrose Choir.

Brenda Vanderford, a native of Richmond, Va. and associate professor of music at West Virginia State College, who came to St. John's as organist in 1968, assumed the combined post of organist and choirmaster in 1977. In November 1977, Vanderford became the first organist holding a post in West Virginia to play a recital on the great organ of Washington National Cathedral.

Vanderford's superb musicianship and credentials-degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Northwestern University, a Fulbright scholarship for European organ study, and membership in the Association of Anglican Musicians-saw St. John's choir and choral services flourish. She built upon the Anglican choral foundation laid by David Morton, and carried forth so successfully that Evensongs at St. John'a became community events, attracting people of all faiths come to appreciate our music.

Upon Vanderford's retirement in 2012, David Morton, who returned to Charleston from the Washington, D.C., area in 1980 and became Vanderford's assistant in 2006, was chosen to be director of music and choirmaster once again. Daniel Faber is now our principal organist.

The large choral library of St. John's, with music dating prior to the turn of the century, is remarkably rich and superb. It joins the Skinner organ in being among the most valuable treasures of this parish church.

Appreciation is extended to Joseph Crosby Jefferds, Jr. for his kind permission to quote directly portions of his book, "The History of St. John's Episcopal Church, Charleston, West Virginia," offering much information regarding the early days of our parish; and to others who provided valuable recollection and observation.