Saturday, November 26, 2016

John Ireland Tucker

Born on this day in 1819, the Reverend John Ireland Tucker is no longer well-known. He has no listing at the Cyber Hymnal site and barely a biographical listing at However, in his time, he was one of the most inflential people in the Episcopal Church for his devotion to and encouragement of music in worship.

His maternal grandparents, Joshua and Ann Sands, were among the founders of the first Episcopal congregation in Brooklyn, NY, in 1787, which held its first services in their home. That church would eventually become St. Ann's (named for Mrs. Sands) and lives on today as St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights.

Tucker was born in Brooklyn and named for a former rector of St. Ann's, John Ireland. One relative later claimed that the child could sing before he could talk. He was educated in schools in the New York metropolitan area; one of his teachers was William Muhlenberg at the Flushing Institute on Long Island, who would also have a place in American hymnic history. From a letter sent to young John by his mother we find a reference to chanting at Muhlenberg's school (not a widespread Episcopalian practice at the time), an interest which would reappear in later years. He also learned to play the organ as a student and was offered the opportunity to play a piece or two at services at St. Ann's during his school vacations.

Tucker graduated from Columbia College in 1837 and spent the next two years traveling abroad. Returning to New York, he served as a church organist,  reportedly being admonished at least once for "elaborate and showy" musicianship. He entered General Theological Seminary in 1841, graduated in 1844 and was ordained a deacon shortly after.

At the same time, in upstate Troy, New York, there was a girls' school associated with St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where the children were taught music and sometimes sang at services. The professional quartet choir objected to this and eventually threatened to quit if the girls were allowed to sing with them. The head of the school, Mary Warren (a daughter-in-law of the church's founders) solved the confict by endowing a new mission, the Church of the Holy Cross, where the girls' choir would sing every week. By the end of 1844 the new church had opened across town from St. Paul's, and Dr. Tucker was called as its first rector. The first choral service was held on Christmas Day, though the congregation had to go back to St. Paul's for the Eucharist as Tucker was still only a deacon.

In the choral services, rarely done at the time, many part of the liturgy were sung, including psalms, canticles and prayers. They sang psalms both to Gregorian chant tones and to composed Anglican chants. The choir usually performed one or two anthems, and the congregation joined them for the hymns.  The church was also one of the earliest Episcopal congregations to observe saints' days, and may have been the first to hold services on the Feast of the Ascension.

In 1848 Tucker was ordained to the priesthood, one day after the consecration of the Church of the Holy Cross. Choral services continued to be offered, and before long, Episcopal priests and musicians were traveling to Troy to experience them and to decide whether to start them in their own churches (many did). The Holy Cross choir also sang from time to time at other churches in the area on special occasions. Over the next several years, Tucker declined offers to pastor other congregations (he was even a nominee to become Bishop of Minnesota) and was to remain at Holy Cross until the end of his life.

Congregational singing at Tucker's church was considered equally as important as the choir's contributions. He took great interest in both the texts and tunes that were sung, and compiled his first collection, The Parish Hymnal, in 1870, for use in schools or confirmation classes. The texts in the Parish Hymnal were interlined with the music. Printed music in hymnals and the institution of musical education in public schools, both relatively new innovations at the time, allowed a greater variety of tunes to be used. Tucker chose tunes in several styles from both American and English composers.

At the time, the Episcopal church was still singing from their hymnal of 1826 (212 hymns, 150 psalm paraphrases), which was generally bound into the back of the Book of Common Prayer, and contained no music. When a new hymnal was finally approved in 1871 (only the texts were considered 'official'), the denomination licensed the book out to various musical editors, who chose their own tunes to be matched with the 520 texts contained therein. Tucker's edition, titled The Hymnal with Tunes Old and New, appeared the following year, and was taken up by many churches who thought they might emulate the hymn singing at Holy Cross. This musical edition of the 1871 hymnal is said to be the most popular of the four versions that were published.

Tucker compiled two hymnbooks for Sunday schools: The Children's Hymnal with Tunes (1874) and The New Children's Hymnal (1892). When the Episcopal church approved another new hymnal in 1892, he produced another musical edition (one of six this time) in 1894, The Hymnal Revised and Enlarged.

Across these hymnbooks, Tucker composed and published a handful of his own tunes, but most of them were not taken up by other editors, and none of his tunes are currently available to hear online.

John Ireland Tucker died on August 17, 1895, in the rectory which adjoins the Church of the Holy Cross. In December of the previous year the church and its rector had celebrated their fiftieth anniversaries with a joyful jubilee service. Sadly, the Church of the Holy Cross closed in December of 2009, before I was able to visit. It was purchased by a neighboring university but was not being used for anything the last time I saw it.

Most of the information here comes from a book by Christopher W. Knauff: Doctor Tucker, Priest-Musician (1897). The book is interesting for the wealth of information on his life and the history of his pastorate, his musical and liturgical contributions, and the Church of the Holy Cross itself. Many readers would probably be interested in the correspondence included from prominent hymn tune writers during the time Tucker was compiling his hymnals. 

Tucker's legacy lives on in the musical and liturgical life of the Episcopal church, though few people remember his name.

Seven Years Ago: William Cowper

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