St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in such far-flung places as Paris, Tokyo, and Sydney, but more than anywhere else it has become identified with New York. At least the parade has. That tradition started in colonial days, when a group of homesick Irish soldiers staged an impromptu march through the streets of the city. Other Irish fraternal organizations picked up the idea, each holding its own parade, and by the 1850s their efforts were consolidated into a massive, well-organized celebration. (Well, sort of. For a number of years, the parade tended to step off an hour late or so.)
But the other part of the celebration centers on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. From the moment the Cathedral had been built—the first one, far downtown on Mott Street—its commemoration of its patron saint became linked with all of the other ballyhoo. And when a new St. Patrick’s arose on Fifth Avenue, the parade, and the festivities, followed. Now, the image of the St. Patrick’s Day parade swirling past St. Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the holiday’s most iconic sights.
There has always been a grand celebratory Mass held at the Cathedral early in the morning on St. Patrick’s Day—a pull-out-the-stops affair with full choir, after which everyone ventures out to watch the parade begin. Interestingly, though, just about no one gives much thought to the music: ever since the 19th century, press accounts have run along the vague lines of “the choir sang, accompanied by the swelling tones of the organ.” Once, in the 1970s, a new Mass setting was crafted for the occasion by a noted composer who had converted to Catholicism. The single comment came from a bishop who celebrated the Mass: “I don’t think there’ll be any conversions today. I just hope we don’t lose any.”
So there you have it—after exhaustive research, it turns out that the St. Patrick’s Day Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is less of a high-powered musical event than Christmas or Easter. But if it isn’t flashy, it’s appropriate: suitable to the occasion, a prelude to the spirited party waiting right outside its doors and a part of the larger picture of the Cathedral’s music-making that takes in all the events of the year.
The full story of music at St. Patrick’s and its relationship with the city is told in Fifth Avenue Famous, a chronicle which captures the humor, vibrancy, and occasional heartbreak of people who devote themselves to providing the musical score for some of New York’s most important spiritual moments.
Join Fordham Press for the official launch of Fifth Avenue Famous on Thursday, May 13, 2010 from 6 pm to 8 pm in the Lowenstein Building’s 12th Floor lounge!