Honoring Judith Hancock: 2004 and 2012

In the spring of 2004 two of the happiest events of my professional career occurred within about six weeks of each other–the second a direct result of the first.

To celebrate the completion of a two-year restoration of the fine Aeolian-Skinner organ in St. Stephen’s Church in Richmond, Va., where I served from 1985-2006, we organized a weekend of events featuring Judith and Gerre Hancock, Charles Callahan, and Steve Emery.  On Friday evening Judith was presented in a full length recital  which was co-sponsored by the local chapter of the A.G.O.  Saturday was given over to masterclasses and workshops led by Judith and Gerre on pieces and improvisation topics relevent to the current A.G.O. examinations.  Charlie Callahan  talked about G. Donald Harrison and Aeolian-Skinner, and Steve spoke about the organ’s restoration and took workshop registrants through the organ.

Gerre Hancock, Richard Newman (who played in the masterclass), and Charles Callahan at St. Stephen’s, Richmond, Va., March 2004

On Sunday morning, Gerre directed the choir and played the organ, and Steve led interested parishioners on tours through the organ between services.  In the afternoon, an open rehearsal was followed by a big Evensong, for which Gerre directed and Charlie accompanied, which combined St. Stephen’s Choir, and  the choirs of St. Catherine’s and St. Christopher’s Schools–two diocesan schools whose campuses are adjacent to the church which were led by my colleagues Greg Vick and Nick Stephenson.  The repertoire included Gerre’s Responses, Charlie’s Harvard Service, and concluded with all of the choirs singing Parry’s cantata-length anthem Hear my words, ye people.  Folk in my choir were excited to be singing music by living composers in their presence! The afternoon concluded with one of Gerre’s signature symphony improvisations, the themes for each of the movements drawn from prominent themes  from the service.

A month or so before these events, at Charlie Callahan’s instigation, I had been added to the board of trustees of St. Dunstan’s College of Sacred Music in Providence, Rhode Island.  And so it was that late that Sunday evening after we had all been to dinner, Charlie said to me that he thought it would be fitting if the College awarded an honorary doctorate to Judith.  The Hancocks were soon to be leaving New York where they had served at St. Thomas Church since 1971, and Gerre already had several honorary degrees, and Charlie and I thought this was a fitting climax to our celebratory weekend.  But we kept these thoughts to ourselves for a few days.

Later that following week, I called Gerre and laid our plan out to him and he thought it was “just WON-derful!  Judith will be so pleased.”  I then suggested that I knew the ideal time to do this: the first Sunday in May.   The recital following Evensong that day was to be the Hancocks farewell recital at St. Thomas Church.   It was also the opening event of the church’s annual choirmasters’ conference and was to be followed by a gala reception sponsored by the American Guild of Organists honoring Gerre, and many from the A.G.O. national council and other visitors were to be present.  So it was agreed that at an appropriate interval during the recital I would make the presentation.  But Gerre insisted that it be kept a secret from Judy.  He wanted it to be a surprise for dramatic effect; I had practical reasons in mind!  Since this scheme was cooked up in haste, I couldn’t arrange to be away from Richmond for the Sunday morning service and Charlie was not available to be in New York that afternoon.  In short order Charlie had the diploma made up and I ordered a doctoral hood from Collegiate Cap and Gown.  Not knowing whether or not St. Dunstan’s College had a color scheme for academic regalia, I just ordered the colors of Manhattan School of Music, which they had on file.

Now, in order for me to make it up to New York following my own morning service in time for the Evensong recital-presentation, I had to make some intricate logistical arrangements at each end of the trip, and Gerre and I knew that the success of the endeavor was predicated on each piece of my travel puzzle flowing seamlessly without snags.  So we had the understanding that if I showed up in New York that afternoon, we would proceed with the plan; if not, we would do it another time.

Over the years I have made the trip between Richmond and New York many times, in all modes of transportation, land and air, and the time taken for the journey ranged from a low of a couple of hours to a 24-hour-overnight trek.  I gave this enterprise about a 50-50 chance.  But fate was on my side that day, and I knocked on the door of Gerre’s office after Evensong, collected the academic hood Collegiate Cap and Gown had drop shipped to the church, and took my place in the chancel with my other colleagues on the council.  Someone observed me toting this hood and  I simply said “don’t ask.”

There were other speeches and presentations made at the mid-point interval in the recital, of which mine was last.  As Judy told me the story later, she said she was at the console preparing for the next number and was only slightly aware of these speakers droning on, and she assumed that Gerre was receiving yet another honorary degree, and only when she began to be aware of feminine pronouns in my citation did she catch on to what was happening!  Following is the complete citation:

Photo by Tony Thurman, Development Director of the A.G.O. who organized the gala reception following the recital.

I am here this afternoon in my capacity as a trustee of Saint Dunstan’s College of Sacred Music in Providence, Rhode Island.

The college was founded in 1928 and chartered by the legislature of the State of Rhode Island in 1930 as a degree granting institution for the study of sacred music operating under the “rules of the Episcopal Church” to quote the first catalog.  Among its initial leadership was John Nicholas Brown whose idea it was for the college to function in connection with Brown University in providing courses of study leading to undergraduate and graduate degrees in sacred music studies.  It was housed in property on Benefit Street adjacent to the Cathedral Church of St. John, and its initial faculty and board was made up of leading musicians and clergy, some of whose names are still familiar today: Canon Winfred Douglas, David McK. Williams, Hugh Ross, Wallace Goodrich, Hollis Grant, and E. Power Biggs.

The vicissitudes of the Depression and World War II altered the scope of the college’s fortunes and function over the years and for many years it served as an east coast counterpart to the Evergreen conference in Colorado, with which Canon Douglas was also affiliated, and offered a certificate granting summer course of study in Providence and, later, Newport.  It also continued to publish books and music for the church, and served in an advisory capacity to churches and dioceses throughout the church.

Its activities over the years also included honoring outstanding musicians in the service of the church with the honorary degree, Doctor of Sacred Music.

This afternoon the trustees are proud to recognize a colleague who has served this parish church, the greater church, and the entire sacred music profession through her outstanding achievement as a complete church musician, especially in her role as a master accompanist to the comprehensive choral repertoire offered by the St. Thomas Choir, and through her untiring devotion to and love of the organ repertoire, and especially for her offerings of the great literature for the organ within the liturgies of the church.

Therefore, at the most recent meeting of the trustees of St. Dunstan’s College of Sacred Music, it was resolved to confer the degree Doctor of Sacred Music, honoris causa, to Judith Hancock, and we offer to her this diploma and hood as symbols of that degree, and as tokens of our affection and esteem.


Given the second day of May 2004, being the
Fourth Sunday of Easter, and the eve of
The Feast of Saints Philip and James
in Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York

Dr. Judith Hancock and her husband, Dr. Gerre Hancock, at the reception in Andrew Hall, St. Thomas Church, following their farewell recital, May 2, 2004.

Fast forward to 2012: Gerre Hancock, one of the founders of the Association of Anglican Musicians, died on January 21.  For the AAM annual conference in Philadelphia in June it was decided to honor his memory by including many of his compositions in the conference programs, and by asking Judith to play and to be present for the conference.  I was honored to be invited to introduce her at the opening banquet before she made her own remarks, and this is what I said:

The invitation to say a few words about the Hancocks this evening sent me to my files, where I found the printed order for the first service I attended at St. Thomas Church:

I was in college and it was over Christmas/semester break during the Hancocks’ first season at St. Thomas.  It was a weekday Evensong right after Epiphany, and the anthem was Sowerby’s Now there lightens upon us a holy daybreak.

Remembering from the distance of forty years, two things are still vivid:

1) The choir sounded very good—much the same in style and sound as it always has sounded and still does—obviously inspired by and molded in the English Cathedral tradition.

and . . .

2) . . . the choir was directed by Judith Hancock, the associate organist of St. Thomas Church, and wife of the new organist and master of choristers, Gerre Hancock.

Gerre was off concertizing someplace and Judith was left in command.  So my first fan letter to St. Thomas was to Mrs. Hancock, and I still cherish her written reply, which I also found in my file.

It is this pattern of family collaboration, yet individual artistry and professionalism established at the outset of their careers, that I want to recall and honor tonight.

St. Thomas being the obvious centerpiece of the Hancocks’ careers, it is easy to forget that they had a life before New York—but they did, and it was a good life!

Gerre was in charge of the music at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati—the cathedral church of the Diocese of Southern Ohio—was on the artist faculty of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music—and had already established himself as a successful concert organist, touring under the auspices of the Lilian Murtagh concert management since 1964.

In Cincinnati Judith directed the music and played the organ at her own church and they had two very young children—Deborah and Lisa.  They were not all that eager to move.  And, to be honest, St. Thomas at that time was not the obvious career move one would assume today.

But . . . once in New York it was a partnership of shared work right from the start, as evidenced by the weekday Evensong I attended that first visit.  And . . . while there was no doubt that Gerre was in charge, Judith was apt to often be at the helm in this, their highly visible position at the crossroads of the world, at Fifth Avenue and Fifth-third Street.

And . . . not just at the church.  I had just moved to Philadelphia and was present for Evensong and a concert by the St. Thomas Choir during the Third International Congress of Organists in the summer of 1977, right over at the Church of St. Francis de Sales in West Philadelphia (and at Girard College)—on that occasion Judith lead the choir and Wes McAfee played the organ.  It was immediately after Gerre’s first heart by-pass surgery, and he was in the congregation, but had not fully recovered to be able to conduct.  It was the first time I had ever heard of this medical procedure, and it seemed to me at the time that it was experimental surgery.  And Father John Andrew, in announcing Gerre’s presence, made it sound as if he’d been brought back from the dead, and we all clapped and cheered!  But it was Judith who led the music, as she would after his second similar operation many years later.

Judith’s own concert and teaching career also began to blossom: she also concertized under the banner of Karen McFarlane’s newly minted Murtagh-McFarlane management, and we all became accustomed to seeing both Gerre’s and Judith’s pictures on the back of The Diapason and The American Organist each month.

While she did all this with lots of grace and loving, wifely support, she was not incapable of sustaining her own pride of place while she was at it.  I’m sure I’m not the only one here to have heard her say in his presence:

“but Gerre, I have to practice; I play real music!”

As if to corroborate this, the Rector in his sermon at Gerre’s Requiem even said

you know, although Father Andrew and I certainly remember Judith at the console practicing, we can’t recall [ever] seeing Gerre there for that purpose!   

And I’ll never forget a scene at one of the early Choirmasters’ Conferences—back in the days when Judith was the sole associate organist and did all of the accompanying.

Other than emcee the event and visit with all of us, there really wasn’t a whole lot for Gerre to actually do, and during the rehearsal for some lengthy psalm or anthem, Judith was playing and Gerre was hovering.  The 32’ Bourdon was on and Gerre must have thought it was too much, so he reached over and took it off—while Judith continued to play!  Well—within the time span of a sixteenth rest Judy had that 32 back on, and it stayed on until she took it off!

(And, by the way, how many of us could have withstood the scrutiny of not only our musical programs, but our domestic lives played out to human view displayed the way the Hancocks did at these annual events!)

In 2004 as the Hancocks were leaving New York for the University of Texas, Judith was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Sacred Music, the citation of which reads in part, that she is recognized as

a colleague who has served the entire sacred music profession through her outstanding achievement as a complete church musician:

. . . especially in her role as a master accompanist . . . her untiring devotion to and love of the organ repertoire . . . and . . . for her offerings of the great literature for the organ within the liturgies of the church.

          That’s as true now as then, and to it I can only add that I know there are students at the University of Texas who salute her for her continuing work as an inspiring teacher and mentor.

There is another female organ personality out there who is unofficially styled as “The First Lady of the Organ,” but—Judith, to me you will always be the First Lady of the Organ, and you are the undisputed First Lady of this Association, and it gladdens our hearts to have you here with us as we give thanks .  .  .  for your rich career as artist and teacher,  for your extraordinary role as wife and colleague of our beloved Uncle Gerre,  and especially as a cherished friend to all of us!

Judith Hancock address the AAM conference opening banquet, Philadelphia, June 18, 2012.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Honoring Judith Hancock: 2004 and 2012

  1. Neal, I am speechless that this very long tribute found its way to Facebook on this ordinary day, July 19, 2012. I only wish Gerre were here to share my tears…I am very touched. Dr. Judith Hancock

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