In 2005, I was engaged as one of several section leaders for the outstanding Chancel Choir of historic South Church in New Britain, Connecticut. This a plum job: the excellent, talented, smart 35-voice auditioned choir has a long and loving history; the minister of music, Rick Coffey, has the remarkable ability to help his singers embrace and achieve his deeply-felt and intuitively correct understanding of all things musical, textual, and spiritual; the associate organist, David Westfall, is without peer in his mastery of the subtleties of interpretation and improvisation; and the congregation enthusiastically embraces and supports the music ministry.
From the time of my first rehearsal with the South Church Chancel Choir, I was curious about the history of this remarkable music program. The opportunity to learn more came to me unexpectedly, and with a depth and breadth that I hardly could have imagined or hoped for. Last November, as the end of his every-seven-years research sabbatical drew near, Rick asked me if I might provide some editorial assistance with the product of his sabbatical, a book-length history of the 200-year-old music ministry at South Church. I said yes. (He was savvy enough to approach me at a party where the wine was flowing and spirits were high!) What began as a discussion of the relative merits of footnotes vs. endnotes (footnotes, please!) developed into a year-long odyssey of exploration, serendipitous discoveries, and new understandings.
With his usual meticulous approach, Rick explored the extensive archives and records at South Church (uncovering many long-lost treasures in the process), interviewed church members and friends, made some field trips, and explored the 140-year old church building from roof to basement. The resulting story, starting with a streamside baptism around 1776 and culminating in a celebration of today’s vibrant and still-growing music ministry, has just been published, under the title A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church. I’ve pasted excerpts from the news release below. Rick's book may be purchased directly from South Church (details below).
South Church Publishes History of Its Remarkable 200-Year-Old Music Ministry.
At This New Britain Church, the “Service of Song” Still Rings Out Loud and Clear
At South Congregational-First Baptist Church in New Britain, Connecticut, music has been central to worship since the church was founded in 1808. South Church, as it is known, holds a special place in the musical history of Greater Hartford, and is recognized as a leader among its peers in elevating and burnishing the role of music in American worship and in the community beyond the church doors.
A newly-published book explores the innovative and lasting legacy of music and musicians at this historic Central Connecticut church. In A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church, Richard M. Coffey, Minister of Music and Organist at South Church since 1972, traces the rich history of the music ministry at South Church from its earliest days to the present time.
Mr. Coffey’s exploration of the church’s celebrated music program and outreach endeavors reveals how, over two centuries, South Church has contributed significantly to the development and sustenance of the musical arts in Connecticut. A Service in Song incorporates stories of prominent composers, performers, ensembles, church leaders, organ builders, and others from across Southern New England and around the world. Memorable anecdotes, a large cast of characters, and an inside view of the music history of Greater Hartford make this book a compelling read for area musicians and music lovers.
“One of the pleasures of researching and writing A Service in Song was the discovery that, since its founding, South Church has played a central role in developing and nurturing Connecticut’s musical legacy,” said Mr. Coffey. “For more than a century, South Church has championed, hosted, funded, encouraged, or shared staff with a number of ensembles that continue as the mainstays of our musical community, including The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, CONCORA, The Hartford Chorale, The New Britain Symphony Orchestra, and others. These ties remain strong and vital.”
Two of Connecticut’s premier vocal ensembles — CONCORA (Connecticut Choral Artists) and The Main Street Singers — were established at South Church as a means of providing singers and listeners with opportunities to enjoy outstanding choral music. The Music Series at South Church, established in 1973, is the region’s principal presenter of outstanding local, national, and international performers, providing annual series of free and low-cost concerts by outstanding international artists.
A Service in Song also tells the stories of the several fine pipe organs that have graced South Church, including the impressive Hutchings Organ, installed in 1896, which at the time of its installation, was the largest organ in Connecticut. More important, the Hutchings Organ was the first pipe organ to incorporate the innovative electric action developed by Ernest M. Skinner, who was then emerging as one of the nation’s great organ builders.
The story of music at South Church, while of course unique in its own right, reflects similar traditions and customs at countless churches across America. With nearly sixty historic photographs of historic church buildings, pipe organs, choirs, and organists, A Service in Song will be of interest to church musicians, local and regional historians, music and public libraries, historical societies, organ historians, and students of ecclesiastical history in the United States.
Orders and InformationTITLE: A Service of Song: The Musical Legacy of South Congregational-First Baptist Church
AUTHOR: Richard M. Coffey
PUBLISHER: South Church, New Britain, Connecticut, September, 2008
PRICE: Price: $19.00 per copy ($15.00 plus $4.00 shipping/handling)
FORMAT: Paperbound, 261 pages, 54 photographs and illustrations, index, 8” x 11” format
TO ORDER: Send a letter of request and a check for $19.00 (made out to “South Church” with “Memorial Fund” in the memo line) to:
Nancy Hemstreet Eaton, Music Ministry Administrator
South Congregational-First Baptist Church
90 Main Street, New Britain, CT 06051
PHONE 860-223-3691, ext. 154