Gerre Hancock’s Improvised Fun

By Douglas LeBlanc

As the Rev. Andrew Mead recalls his eight years of working with the late Gerre Hancock, the former organist and master of choristers at St. Thomas’s Church, Fifth Avenue, he often breaks into fond laughter. Hancock, who served at St. Thomas’s from 1971 to 2004, died Jan. 21 at age 77.

“In another life he could have been Victor Borge,” the rector said. Rather than playing comic-relief versions of the classics, however, Hancock focused his humor on doing serious work: reviving the parish’s school for boy choristers, leading the parish’s acclaimed choirs through demanding schedules, and defusing tensions during meetings or rehearsals.

Mead recalled learning a complicated chant once and having trouble with it until Hancock asked a wry question: “Father, whatever is wrong with breathing?”

“I can’t tell you how much of a burden he lifted,” Mead said. “He did it so gently.”

Mead credited his predecessor, the Rev. John Andrew, and Hancock for transforming the parish’s residential choir school for boys, founded in 1916.

“In the 1970s, when a choir school looked like a relic from the Middle Ages, Gerre revived it,” Mead said. “Gerre and John Andrew provided the venue and the need for our choir school. It is not a school with a choir. It is a choir with a school.”

Hancock was a founder and past president of the Association of Anglican Musicians, and Mead recalled hearing Hancock referred to as “the Michael Jordan of the American Guild of Organists.”

Mead praised Hancock’s faith (“He said his prayers and he was a believer”), the hard work he expected of himself and of those around him, and his sympathy for priests. “There was something almost sacerdotal, priestly, about Gerre,” Mead says.

Hancock’s hard work created an ability to improvise. “In one of my first Christmas seasons at Saint Thomas there was a service of lessons and carols in the mid-week. It’s popular and attracts a crowd,” Mead said in a homily at Hancock’s funeral. “Off went the procession from the ambulatory with Gerre at the console playing a magnificent intro to ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’” Once Hancock became aware of the mistake, he “leaned into an improvisation which then led to a medley of various carol tunes and at last we landed at ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ It was like a great trailer truck, a lorry juggernaut, backing into a garage from a New York side street. I am amazed how they do it. Walking up to me after the service, Gerre said with a grin, ‘Father, it’s been a great pleasure working for you.’”

“Improvisation is not at all the realm of the lucky; it can only be accomplished successfully by an ordered and disciplined mind, and by talent that is buttressed by daily practice,” said an article about Hancock that appears on the congregation’s website. “Like the exception that proves the rule, improvisation can only exist in an environment where the fundamentals are already in place, and where one’s direction is not left to chance but to a clear understanding of where one starts out and a good notion of where one would like to go. The fun of the improvisation is directly proportional to the security of the foundation. Take away fidelity to a chosen path, and the improv is an ugly mess.”

Before his tenure at St. Thomas’s, Hancock was organist and choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati and was assistant organist at St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City.

He taught at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, the Juilliard School, the Institute of Sacred Music, Yale University, and the Eastman School of Music.

In 1981 he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music, and in 1995 was appointed a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists.

In 2004 the Archbishop of Canterbury honored Hancock with the Medal of the Cross of St. Augustine for extraordinary service to the Anglican Communion.

A son of Texas, Hancock returned to the state to teach at UT-Austin’s Butler School of Music. He taught alongside Judith Hancock, herself an acclaimed musician and his wife of 50 years. Hancock also is survived by his daughters Deborah Hancock of Brooklyn and Lisa Hancock of New York City, and his brother, the Rev. James Hancock of Savannah, Texas.

“Gerre Hancock was a legend in his own time. We are so fortunate to have had him on the faculty in the Butler School of Music for nearly nine years,” said Glenn Chandler, director of the Butler School of Music, in a news release issued after Hancock’s death. “After a 32-year career at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where he and his wife Judith built what was arguably the finest Anglican church music program in the United States, he came back to his alma mater to pass on to the next generation of organists the knowledge and skills that he had so wonderfully mastered during his lifetime. We will sorely miss him.”

The Texan chose to have his earthly remains returned to his adopted city. “He’s buried under the floor in the chancel,” Mead said. “He asked if he could be buried there, and I said, Certainly.”

Photo courtesy of St. Thomas’s Church, Fifth Avenue.

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