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Humble Beginnings:
Making Music in Seattle in 1904

It was the era of the Gibson Girl and the suffragette, of fauvism and Freud. Crowds cheered the operettas of Victor Herbert, and riots broke out at performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s revolutionary string quartets. Henry James and Edith Wharton dissected high society in their elegant fiction, while Upton Sinclair and his fellow muckrakers unflinchingly displayed the sufferings of the lower classes to a horrified public. If it was neither the best of times nor the worst of times, it was surely an epoch of contrasts!

And in this culture of contrasts, Seattle was a city of contrasts. Lumber, shipping, and the Gold Rush had brought incredible riches to the young city, and by 1904 the Seattle skyline was already quite impressive, with its modern buildings and wealthy homes; its schools and churches; its wharves, factories, and smokestacks; not to mention its many “houses of ill fame” (as Bishop O’Dea called them). And yet this modern city was in some ways still a small town, and its newspapers juxtaposed stories of big business with reports on renegade cows and freak vegetables (POTATO LOOKS LIKE HEN SITTING ON EGG, ran one headline in 1906).

Professor Edward P. Ederer, pro-Cathedral organist and choir director.  This portrait hangs in the Seattle office of Ederer Cranes, Incorporated, which began as a rope and twine factory.

But now, at the beginning of a new century, the rough-and-ready people of Seattle began to yearn for the beautiful. In 1903, while Bishop O’Dea was laying his plans for a grand Cathedral on First Hill, the city hired John Olmsted (son of Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park) to design the city’s parks. And in December of that same year, just two months after the great Cathedral Fair (see the November issue!), the Seattle Symphony gave its first performance, to general satisfaction: “the ensemble work is worthy of note, since it had few ragged edges,” reported the P-I. The 1904 Seattle Directory listed more than twenty musical establishments of various kinds, including schools, orchestras, and glee clubs. The arts, it would seem, had finally arrived.

Making music in Seattle was, however, still something of a frontier adventure. Nellie Cornish, who would later found an innovative college of the arts, was in 1904 a struggling piano teacher, and she left a vivid description of a world where the arts were held in high regard, but still took second place to more mundane concerns: “I went all over Seattle, often making my way over dirt piles and potato patches. Manners were wholesome but simple. Often lessons took place after dinner, with ‘Papa’ sitting in the same room in his red woolens and usually in need of a shave, chewing tobacco while reading his evening paper. Children and dogs ran in and out. When the telephone rang, I was expected to halt my lesson and remain silent until the conversation ended.”

All of this can give us some insight into Edward P. Ederer, the first music director of the pro-Cathedral (Our Lady of Good Help), for he was a man who in many ways epitomized the Seattle of his time. A brilliant entrepreneur and engineer, “Professor” Ederer came to Seattle in 1901 and opened a rope-and-twine business on First Avenue. He was also a gifted musician who brought the same determination and intelligence that made him such a successful businessman to the business of making music. Ederer not only conducted the choir and played the organ for church functions; he also performed piano solos at various civic events (Bishop O’Dea’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, for example). And he selected ambitious repertoire for his amateur choir. In addition to Gregorian chant, they sang works by Verdi, Weber, and Gounod, among others, and at major liturgies they were often accompanied by a string quartet or even an orchestra.

If Professor Ederer took music seriously, so did the Church. On November 22, 1903—the feast of St. Cecilia—the newly-elected Pope Pius X had issued a motu proprio on sacred music. It was the first important church teaching on music in decades, and it called for some significant changes. The sacred texts, Pius X decreed, were paramount—musical settings of them used during the liturgy must avoid needless repetition, and must also be comprehensible to the assembly. Gregorian chant was restored to pride of place. Pius X was certainly limiting the repertoire (for much recent church music had broken these rules) but at the same time he was elevating the ministry of the choir from performance to prayer. “Sacred music,” he insisted, “as an integral part of the solemn liturgy, participates in its general purpose, which is the glorification of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.” Music, therefore, is not just added on to the Mass—it is integral to it. Music does not simply adorn the sacred texts, but actually “adds greater efficacy to the text, in order that the faithful may be… better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.”

But there were other challenges inherent in the document as well. The motu proprio re-emphasized that Latin was the language of the Church—the vernacular was not to be permitted in any of the music of the Mass. Still more difficult was the dictum on who could sing: mixed choirs of men’s and women’s voices were once again banished from the liturgy. Though the United States bishops sought and obtained an exemption from this new norm, the appearance of the motu proprio must have given Professor Ederer a fair amount of inspiration and chagrin at the same time.

This 1904 cartoon was jokingly presented to Bishop Edward J. O'Dea as a design for a stained-glass window in the new Cathedral.  It pokes fun at the choir director and organist and provides an amusing glimpse into the early days of the Cathedral Choir.  Courtesy of the Archives of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

A unique 1904 cartoon gives us a window (as it were) on the trials and tribulations of the pro-Cathedral Choir. Called “Wouldn’t You Like to Be the Director?,” the cartoon shows Ederer (with a strong German accent) at the console of the organ of Our Lady of Good Help Church, trying to coax music from a taxing instrument (“Vere is de bumber? I haf no vind!!!”) and from his choir at the same time (“Von, Two, Tree!!! Now Quvietly!! Pianissimo!! Do not Schlurr Sopranos!!! Choost a leedle higher Mees B!!”). In the border of the cartoon are verses written to be sung to the tune of “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment” from The Pirates of Penzance:

When the enterprising Choir gets to singing,
And Sopranos start a quarrel o'er a song,
The Director's head begins to go a-ringing,
For his Life indeed is not a happy one!

When on show occasions everything goes vilely,
And the tenors are the bummest of the bum,
The director shakes his polished bald head wildly
Wishing most devoutly that he'd stayed at home!

The cartoon was sent to Bishop O’Dea in June of 1904 by one of the basses in Ederer’s choir, accompanied by a very tongue-in-cheek cover letter. “Desiring to contribute my little quota to the general efforts which will result in the erection of the projected new Roman Catholic Cathedral,” he wrote, “I have executed the design for a memorial window” which would “properly awe the populace and scare the children into a reasonable state of good behavior”!

Professor Ederer’s career as the first music director of the pro-Cathedral ended, poignantly, just before the dedication of St. James Cathedral in December 1907. He passed the baton to Dr. Franklin Sawyer Palmer (another man of contrasts—a Harvard-trained dermatologist as well as an organist and conductor). Perhaps Ederer no longer had as much time to commit to music—for his business was taking off as he turned from rope and twine to the fabrication of cranes for construction (the company he started on First Avenue still bears his name, and Ederer Incorporated is one of the world’s leaders in the manufacture of cranes). Bishop O’Dea gave him a parting gift of a rather jaunty gold-headed cane, with this inscription:


And so, though Ederer was not in the gallery conducting the choir at the dedication of the new St. James Cathedral in 1907, he was surely in the pews, marveling at the growth of a community which he had helped to build. He had made his mark on Cathedral history and provided music for some milestone events—the founding of the parish on November 13, 1904, and the laying of the cornerstone a year later. As we commemorate these unforgettable moments, we will meet Professor Ederer again!

Special thanks to Neil Skogland and Don Miller of Ederer Incorporated, and to Dave Ederer, great-grandson of E. P. Ederer, for their assistance with the research for this article. Thanks also to Jessica Pitre-Williams of the Archives of the Archdiocese of Seattle for her continued assistance with this project.  For additional reading: Charlie Frye and His Times by Helen Vogt; Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish.

Corinna Laughlin is the Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

A Golden Age:
Cathedral Music under Dr. Palmer

Dr. F. S. Palmer in 1929

In 1906, more than a year before the dedication of St. James Cathedral, Father Daniel Hanly was appointed its first pastor, and began his ministry at St. Edward’s Chapel, the pro-Cathedral. One of his first tasks was the formation of a plainchant choir. Pope Pius X’s motu proprio of November 22, 1903 had restored Gregorian chant to pride of place; it had forbidden ‘secular’ instruments like pianos; and it had come down pretty hard on contemporary music. Now the churches were hastening to respond to this call for a return to our musical roots: chant and organ. Father Hanly (a very competent musician) himself directed the plainchant choir until Dr. Franklin Sawyer Palmer came on the scene. Though he was not (at that time) a Catholic, Dr. Palmer had a great love for the Church’s music. He thoroughly understood the Holy Father’s motu proprio, he came to the Cathedral prepared to implement it, and he proceeded to do so—gloriously.

Franklin Sawyer Palmer: Organist-Physician

The story of Dr. Palmer’s life is the story of his two careers: medicine and music. Born in 1865 in Massachusetts, Palmer was given the best education available. He attended Phillips Andover Academy, which has produced at least two U. S. Presidents and countless other notables (one of his classmates was Harry Stimson, a member of five presidential administrations, and Secretary of War under Roosevelt and Truman). Upon graduation in 1883, Palmer proceeded to Harvard, where he studied medicine. (He also played in the college band, and served as organist of a Cambridge Episcopal church on the side!) Upon completing his studies in 1890, he moved to the Pacific Northwest. From 1893 to 1897 he was health officer and police surgeon in Seattle.

Then, just as the Alaska Gold Rush was beginning to bring an extraordinary new prosperity to this frontier town, Palmer left Seattle to marry Dr. May McKinney in San Francisco. The two of them then sailed to Korea where Palmer served as physician to the Oriental Consolidated Company. Palmer stayed just one year—he missed having access to an organ, and later recalled practicing Bach’s fugues on a pedal piano.

Upon their return from Korea, the Palmers headed to Paris, where F. S. Palmer pursued studies in both medicine and organ—he trained under two of the most prominent organist-composers of the day, Charles-Marie Widor (the legendary organist of St. Sulpice) and Eugène Gigout. Back in the United States, the Palmers took up residence in New York City, where Palmer served as organist at the Fifth Avenue synagogue, and then, successively, as organist and choirmaster at All Saints and St. Francis Xavier (where he was succeeded by the great Pietro Yon). From New York, they moved to San Francisco, where Palmer was briefly the organist at St. Dominic’s. Finally, in 1907, Palmer returned to Seattle with his young family (now augmented by two sons). Palmer was now 37 years old, and he was ready to settle down.

Dr. Palmer and the Cathedral

Bishop O’Dea had hired the best architects around to design his Cathedral; and when J. A. Baillargeon—a local entrepreneur and member of the Cathedral Building Committee—stepped forward with a generous gift for a new organ, O’Dea was determined to have the best organ-builders as well. The Boston firm of Hutchings-Votey was one of the best in the country (the Massachusetts-born Palmer must have known the firm well). And O’Dea recognized that no one in Seattle had Palmer’s credentials as an organist. He hired him at once. Palmer collaborated with George Hutchings on the specifications for Opus 1623, and the result was an instrument ideally suited, according to the performance practice of the time, to the liturgical accompaniment of choral singing (one of the chief requirements of the motu proprio) as well as to the performance of organ masterpieces.

On December 15, 1907, one week before the Cathedral’s dedication, the doors of the new building were thrown open for the first time. The occasion was an organ recital—a chance for the city to experience its new Cathedral and its new Cathedral organist. As the Seattle Times reported (with more enthusiasm than expertise), “Today will be the last time that the great cathedral will be used for any but purposes of worship. Dr. Franklin S. Palmer will manipulate the great organ, which is said to be a marvel. Its mechanical construction is such as to make it possible for the organist, by merely touching an electric button, to get from it the melody of a violin, a cornet or any other stringed or wind instrument. At today’s concert, which takes place at 4 o’clock, every capability of the instrument will be demonstrated. This will never occur again, for it is impossible, according to the laws of the church, to give entertainments in a consecrated building.”

Dr. Palmer's autograph on a piece of music still in use in the music library.

The first piece performed on the new organ was one of Bach’s masterpieces: the Grand Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, which Palmer followed with two pieces by Handel. But he followed these traditional works with newer pieces by some of the greatest living composers for the organ, including Guilmant, Saint-Saëns, and Palmer's own teacher, Widor. Palmer was also wise in inviting a noted contralto, Mme. Mary Louise Clary, to share the program: in this way he could show off the instrument’s suitability for accompaniment.

Palmer’s first recital made it clear that the Cathedral’s music program would draw on the best of both old and new in its repertory. A week later, at the dedication of the Cathedral, Palmer’s musical choices show a similar range and imagination, with works ranging from Gregorian chant to the 16th-century composer Arcadelt to Gounod—to Palmer! (He composed Coelestis Urbs especially for the occasion.)

Growing Recognition

Men of the Cathedral Choir, 1921

For the next 28 years, Palmer would serve as organist and choir director at St. James Cathedral. They would be years of continual growth. The motu proprio of Pius X—in addition to reinvigorating church music in a remarkable way—had forbidden the use of mixed choirs of men and women, on which the pro-Cathedral had depended. For more than 10 years, the music at the Cathedral’s High Masses was supported by men’s voices only. (The restrictions placed on women’s singing in Church did not, we should note, apply to choirs composed exclusively of women or girls, or to congregational singing, which was a regular feature of low Masses and Benediction.)

In 1922, the Justine Ward system of music was introduced at the Cathedral School. This system, especially designed for teaching children the art of singing Gregorian chant, changed Cathedral music dramatically. Both boys’ and girls’ choirs were organized among the school pupils; both sang every Sunday (albeit at different Masses!). Palmer’s choir of men and boys consisted of 75 singers. The Schola Cantorum consisted of sixteen of the best singers of the Cathedral Boys’ Choir—this choir would sing at high Masses three or four times each week, in addition to singing the Compline service every Sunday evening.

Extraordinary musician though he was, Dr. Palmer did not accomplish all this alone. He had a gifted assistant, John McDonald Lyon, who was also organist and choir director at Our Lady of Good Help, just down the hill. And he worked in close collaboration with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, who administered the Cathedral School. The Holy Names Sisters had a superb musical tradition, and music formed an important part of the school curriculum. Their careful training of both the boys’ and the girls’ choirs helped bring renown to the Cathedral’s music program in these early years of its history.

Under the Cathedral’s third pastor, Msgr. James Stafford, the Cathedral’s music program continued to thrive. In 1926, Stafford arranged for the Good Friday and Easter Sunday services to be aired on the radio. The broadcast was so popular that the High Mass was broadcast each Sunday for more than a year, until the expense became prohibitive. The popularity of these programs was a testimony to the beauty of the liturgy and the music at the Cathedral.

The Cathedral Boys' Choir, 1933

The Boys' Choir sings at the Christmas Crib,1933

On February 6, 1927 came an event much closer to Dr. Palmer’s heart: for on that day Bishop O’Dea blessed a new sanctuary organ, built by the renowned Quebec firm of Casavant Frères. The new organ was state-of-the-art: the organist could play both the new and the old organs simultaneously from a single console. The great Pietro Yon of St. Patrick’s in New York City gave the dedicatory recital, and in the course of the evening the Cathedral choirs showed off the breadth of their repertory, singing chant, Palestrina, Vittoria, and Widor’s dramatic Mass for Two Choirs and Two Organs. As the Cathedral’s Silver Jubilee book observed in 1929, “The appreciation which this concert won from the many music lovers who crowded the Cathedral is indicative of the high point to which our parish music has been brought. It is a matter of pride with us that Pietro Yon, who is so familiar with the best Catholic music, should have declared that he had never heard our rendition of the Gregorian chant surpassed in this country.”

On Palm Sunday, 1935, Dr. Palmer suffered a severe stroke. Accounts are various as to where this occurred: legend has it that it happened on the organ bench during the High Mass; but the Progress reported more discreetly that Palmer collapsed “after a rehearsal with his singers.” The national organ journal Diapason reported on Palmer’s illness, recalling his contributions to music in Seattle: “Dr. Palmer has been the source of much inspiration to the younger organists, of whom many now holding church positions have been trained under his guiding hand. His strong influence for the best in music is felt throughout the Pacific Northwest. Ever ready to help a needy organist and ever ready to be at the side of a visiting concert organist, Dr. Palmer may be classed as the patron saint of organists.”

Dr. Palmer lingered for many weeks at Providence Hospital. His sons (Paul had gone on to become a magazine editor in New York, John was American vice-consul in Genoa, Italy) and his wife May were with him, as were the many friends he had made in both his musical and his medical careers. He died June 5, and on June 8 the new Bishop, Gerald Shaughnessy, presided at the funeral Mass. In keeping with Palmer’s request, the music consisted entirely of unaccompanied Gregorian chant. Also at his request, at the conclusion of the Mass, the liturgy was read in English. Though Palmer had converted to Catholicism, his family had not; and he wanted them to experience the beauty of the liturgy and to understand it as well!

The day after Dr. Palmer’s funeral, Father O’Neill was installed as the Cathedral’s fourth pastor. A new bishop, a new pastor, a new music director: it was the end of an era at the Cathedral.

Dr. Palmer at the console of the Hutchings-Votey Organ

A Musical Renaissance

When Father Gallagher hired Dr. James Savage as Director of Music in 1981, the glories of the Cathedral’s music program were largely glories of the past. The magnificent organ was in bad shape; the choir and cantors needed leadership. Within a few years, Savage turned the music program around, establishing the men’s chant choir, the Women of St. James Schola, and, later, the Youth Music Program. In 1986, just five years after he came to St. James, Savage led the Cathedral Choir on a pilgrimage to Rome, where they sang at St. Peter’s Basilica. The great music program begun by Dr. Franklin Sawyer Palmer in 1907 is now as vibrant and alive as ever, with seven choirs for children and adults, a Chamber Orchestra and Brass Ensemble, and (not least) two incredibly talented full-time organists, the highly-respected Cathedral Soloists, and a cadre of some of the best cantors around. No wonder the National Pastoral Musicians—the largest association of Catholic musicians in the United States—named James Savage their “Pastoral Musician of the Year” in 2002! But the “best choir,” Savage says, is the choir that sits in the pews, not the choir stalls. This “choir” is made up of the glorious congregational singers at the Sunday Masses. At the heart of pastoral music, he believes, is participation by the congregation, and the participation at St. James is magnificent.

Great Music for Great Cathedrals

In 1986, the Cathedral’s music program presented the first Great Music for Great Cathedrals program. It was conceived as a way of celebrating—and reclaiming—the role cathedrals have played throughout history in art, culture, and life. Through light, pageantry, and, above all, music, “Great Music” transforms our own St. James Cathedral into San Marco in Venice; Notre Dame in Paris; even St. Peter’s in Rome. We hear music composed for cathedrals across the world and across the centuries; and we recognize our own place in that great procession through time. 


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