Music has been an indispensable part of this church's spiritual life from thebeginning: when a group of men gathered on October 20, 1850 for the firstUnitarian service in San Francisco, "Joseph Coolidge produced some hymnbooks and led a volunteer choir of four on his violin." At the secondmeeting on October 27, three committees were named: one to find a meetingplace, one to raise money, and one to arrange music and "secure aninstrument."
In spite of the devastating San Francisco fires in the spring of 1851, andthe difficulty in keeping ministers, by 1853 a church had been built, with a"good organ of considerable power." Two services were held regularly onSundays, both with organ music and singing by soloists and a quartet.
1855 found the church laboring under external hard times, internaldisagreements and mounting debt. The cost of operations over budget eachmonth was exactly the cost of the music program. The suggestion to cut themusic was opposed by a member who "knew good music to be a greatattraction." Instead, it was voted to pay off the debt, eliminating theneed to pay the interest.
The first concert at the church mentioned in the Book of Records was in1858, for the benefit of the organ fund. That same year a tax was levied onthose "owning" pews, for a "singing fund."
When Thomas Starr King became our minister in 1860, his charismatic sermons andlectures included a lecture series which paid for a new organ. (The pianohe had chosen was donated to the church after his death.) The dedication ofthe new church (at Stockton and Geary) in 1864 was celebrated with a service including organ music, chant (choir and minister), and four original hymns. Another hymn waswritten for the occasion by John Greenleaf Whittier.
Starr King's daughter, Edith King Davis, was also interested in the churchmusic program. In the 1890 Board of Trustee's minutes, it is noted that shehad "brought the choir up to better form." The "choir" throughout the 19thcentury meant a paid quartet: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Althoughvolunteer choirs were tried, they were not successful until the mid-20thcentury.
Music has been so integral a part of the church that it is often difficultto tease out the strands of its history from the history of the church as awhole. We do know that the first 20th century organist was H. Bretherick,who, after serving 25 years, was fired by the Board in 1921, when herefused to take on additional duties for what he already considered aninadequate salary.
In his place, Uda Waldrop was hired. (His sisters were rumored to be namedAda and Ida.) In addition to his unusual first name, he always referred tohimself as "we." He was well known in San Francisco as a talented organist. He served the church until 1951, when, suffering from cancer, he committedsuicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Various organists filled in until 1954, when John Tegnell became MusicDirector. He was a voice professor at San Francisco State College, animaginative leader, with a beautiful baritone voice. Mark Smith was hiredas organist. A paid quartet continued to sing at services, separately andwith the volunteer choir. Smith was replaced by Alexander Post in 1963.
Post took over as both Music Director and organist in 1970. He taught organat San Francisco State University. He also was well known in San Franciscoas a composer and concert organist (particularly as a Bach specialist). A new organwas designed and installed during his tenure. In 1973, the church made himMinister of Music. Among his new duties was "preaching" one service a year,mostly music with a little talking. Post considered this the properproportion. One small example of his always present wit was his use of theterm "choir Mafia," referring to the many members of the choir who served ascommittee heads or members of the Society’s Board of Trustees.
In 1983 Post brought in a vibrant young successor, Robert Geary, to conductthe choir. Post continued as Music Director and organist. Sue Bohlin soontook over choir rehearsal accompanist duties. "Music Director" duties had,over the years, evolved to include not only playing the organ and conductingthe choir, but also obtaining the other varied musicians required to meet20th and 21st century congregational tastes. When the much beloved Postretired entirely, Geary became Music Director and Paul Jacobson was hired asorganist. Bohlin continued as accompanist.
The paid quartet had been dropped in 1970. Under Tegnell, Post and Geary,the volunteer choir grew in size and ability, to an enrollment of over 70voices at its largest. It performs a wide variety of music from early to contemporary. It has performed major works regularly, such as Brahms' A German Requiem and Vaughn Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem, among many others. It has performed commissions and premieres by contemporary composers such as Roy Harris, Ruth Watson Henderson and Sir John Tavener and continues to finance new commissions through the Alexander Post Fund.
In addition to singing regularly for church services, weddings, memorials,ordinations, etc., the choir has sung separate concerts, such as the entireElijah by Mendelssohn. Segments of the choir also tour internationally most years.
Our current organist, Reiko Lane, formed and leads a hand bell choir which performs at church services from time to time.
The Music Committee, which dates from the founding of the congregation,assists the Music Director in promoting and supervising the music program ofthe church. Our current Music Director, Mark Sumner, organist Lane, andaccompanist Bill Ganz are carrying on the tradition of quality music begunin 1850.