During the nineteenth century, St. Paul’s choirs were dominated by a professional quartet, with a supporting role played by a chorus. We can trace the names and careers of St. Paul’s quartet for most of the century, but there is much less information available about the chorus.
The first chorus in which we can identify individuals was under George William Warren in the late 1850’s. Warren had operated a singing school, and from those students he selected twelve boys to serve as a chorus. We can name three of these boys; while two of the three were Episcopalians, only one of the two had parents who attended St. Paul’s. This short-lived experiment was the first boy choir in this area, although the Church of the Holy Cross in Troy had had a girls’ choir as early as 1844. St. Paul’s was not to revive the boy choir until 1906.
In the next three decades, we have full choir lists only for the Christmases of 1869 and 1875. The women were quite young: most were single and no older than their mid-twenties. And there were family connections: in each of these years, there was a pair of sisters. The men were slightly older, on average in their early thirties, and more likely to be married. And among both men and women, only a few were members of the congregation.
Among St. Paul’s members in the 1869 choir was a young couple, Carrie Ross Sayles and her husband James Mason Sayles. Carrie, age 29, had been St. Paul’s soprano soloist on and off since 1858. She was an Albany native, and was much in demand as a concert soloist. James, age 32, had been confirmed at St. Paul’s in 1860. The couple had a daughter, also named Carrie, who had been baptized at St. Paul’s in 1867. The young family lived at 309 Hudson Ave.
But James was not just a member of the bass section. When he was not working as a bookkeeper at the National Albany Exchange Bank, he was a busy composer. You probably don’t know most of his popular songs; When the Roses Bloom, The Golden Grain Was Waving and The Trumpet Sounds the Challenge all slipped into obscurity a century ago.
His most famous work, Star of the Evening, was a verse he wrote at age 17 in a young lady’s autograph book, and for which he later wrote a melody. It became an international best-seller, and publication reached fifty editions, including many arrangements. His obituary included this statement:
“This song was sung by all the beaux and belles of 1855 and for years later. All of the music stores in this country and Europe offered it for sale, and William Vincent Wallace wrote variations upon it for the piano. It was sung in countless places of amusement and whistled on the street.”
You might find the chorus of this work familiar, if it were crooned with appropriate Victorian portamento:
Beautiful star, beautiful star
Star of the evening, beautiful, beautiful star
That’s right. James M. Sayles’s “Star of the Evening” is the sentimental song parodied in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when the Mock Turtle sings:
Beau—ootiful soo—oop, Beau—ootiful Soo—oop
Soo—oop of the e— e—evening, Beau—ootiful, Beau—ootiful Soup!
"Alice par John Tenniel 34". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alice_par_John_Tenniel_34.png#/media/File:Alice_par_John_Tenniel_34.png