A Musical Genius

He is one of your pretty, little, curious, ingenious men. His head is not bigger than a large apple….I have not met with anything in natural history more amusing and entertaining than his personal appearance; yet he is genteel and well-bred, and is very social.”

-- John Adams

Francis Hopkinson (1737-91) was a true Renaissance man, who studied art and music as well as the law. He wrote essays, poems, and works of literary analysis. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was also a member of the first group of federal judges, appointed by President Washington. Among his musical interests were, singing, composition, and keyboard playing.

At 17, he learned to play the harpsichord. As an amateur musician, he often joined music ensembles and gave concerts. When he was 33, he succeeded his harpsichord teacher as organist of Christ Church.

He composed several songs, psalms and anthems. Among his songs were The Treaty, The New Roof and the popular ballad, The Battle of The Kegs. At the age of 21 Hopkinson wrote My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free, based on Thomas Parnell’s “Love and Innocence.”

Hopkinson is credited with America’s first attempt at “grand opera.” His Temple of Minerva, which he describes as a oratorial entertainment,” was laid out in true operatic style. All of the lines given by the principals--- Minerva, the Genius of France, the Genius of America and the High Priest of Minerva--- were sung, nothing spoken.

Of particular interest to us was his intense interest in church music. In 1763, he published A Collection of Psalm Tunes, with a few Anthems and Hymns (some of them entirely new) for the Use of the United Churches of Christ Church and St Peter’s Church, Philadelphia.  In his foreword, he anticipates the installation of organs at both churches and desires to improve the singing of both congregations. With his music he prefixed “a few rules for singing, in as clear and easy a manner as possible; so that children, with very little attention, may understand them.” It seems that the tradition of music education of children here at St. Peter’s goes back to our earliest days. Hopkinson also wrote a series of guidelines for proper church organ playing.


O Come, Let Us Sing Unto the Lord

St. Peter's choristers at rehearsal in 2011 and in 1948.

From the beginning a choir has been an essential part of the cultural and religious life of St. Peter’s. In the early 19th century, the parish also instituted formal education, and with the creation of St. Peter’s Choir School for Boys in 1903, music and schooling were intricately intertwined for close to six decades—giving the parish a national renown that helped sustain it in some of its toughest years.

Initially, singing in St. Peter’s was led by a clerk (a prestigious position at the time) from the reading desk at the west end of the church. In 1782, however, a committee was created to arrange for someone to instruct 12 persons, men and women, to sing accompanied by the organ. This is the first mention of an ongoing choir at St. Peter’s. By the mid-1800s, the choir consisted of both volunteers and four to six paid professional singers. The fees of the soloists, who were each paid about $100 a year, were always an issue at times of parish financial difficulty, however. Music was essential—but at what cost? The theme would echo through the years.

It was at just such a time in 1866 that the Rev. George Leeds (rector 1860-69) broached the idea of a boy’s choir with a trainer to replace the professional singers—a change that took effect on Dec. 8, 1868. The choir then consisted of 16 boys; eight were paid $2 a month and eight received $1 a month. A leader, called the drillmaster, was also employed. It soon became evident, however, that a choirmaster was needed to teach the boys, and that professional singers were still required to provide core music talent.  By 1900, the choir was costing the parish about $4,000 a year.

On the education front, the parish had also seen growth and change. In 1834, it had created St. Peter’s Day School at 319 Lombard St. to give a much-needed basic education at minimal cost. The school proved a great success at first, but by the turn of the century the public system offered education to all at no cost, and attendance at the parish school had dropped.

In early 1903, Ernest Felix Potter, the church organist, made a proposal: Why not create a boys’ choir school? Choir schools have been part of the Anglican worship tradition for centuries and were usually attached to cathedrals, abbeys or college chapels. In England, the choir schools of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in London and of King’s College, Cambridge, are prominent examples of the tradition. A choir school at St. Peter’s  would offer not only a strong academic education but also intensive musical instruction not available in the public or private school systems, thus providing a continuing supply of musically trained boys for the church’s services. Similar schools had been created in Baltimore and New York. The proposal was approved, and St. Peter’s Choir School for Boys opened on Sept. 15, 1903, merging with the parish school to provide one effective educational institution. Potter became the first headmaster and choirmaster. 

A little over a decade later, Harold Wells Gilbert arrived—and would largely dominate the picture until his retirement amid tumult in 1960.

Gilbert had been born on Nov. 25, 1893, in Lambertville, N.J., the son of an Episcopal priest who died when his son was 10 years old. The family relocated to Philadelphia, and Gilbert became a soprano soloist at the Church of Our Saviour in Jenkintown under the tutelage of Lewis Wadlow. Wadlow became organist at St. Peter’s in 1910, and Gilbert became his assistant here in 1915, age 22. He was appointed choirmaster and organist a year later, when Wadlow left for another position.

The next few years were busy ones for Gilbert. In 1917, he received his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Months later, he married Florence Dietrich at St. Peter’s in January 1918. That same year, he was drafted into the Army and served in France as an infantryman and a bandmaster.  Then, returning home, he was appointed headmaster of St. Peter’s Choir School in 1919 by the rector, the Rev. Dr. Edward M. Jefferys.

Forward      In the beginning

The 18th Century

The 19th Century

The 20th Century

St. Peter's Today

The Churchyard

Church Architecture

Mission and Outreach

Did You Know?

The Next 250

The Hero of Tripoli

The Book