Soli Deo gloria -- The true legacy of a church musician

NEW YORK -- When choirmaster John Scott looked into the future he saw a spectacular addition to St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, a new organ at the heart of worship services, concerts and expanding efforts to train young musicians.

The 100-stop organ would blend past and present, preserving the delicately carved 1913 cabinet and some of it distinctive pipes, but as part of an expanded design that would add both grandeur and gentleness, as well as many new tones.

"We are eager to hear our gallery horizontal trumpet put into first-class condition and just as excited that it will be joined by a new stentorian Tuba Mirabilis of imperial strength. These two stops will allow majestic fanfares to dialogue east and west," said Scott, in an enthusiastic May 31 update about the $11 million project.

"So, to sum up -- 2018 cannot come soon enough."

But Manhattan's famous Anglo-Catholic parish was stunned on August 12 when the 59-year-old Scott died of a heart attack, hours after returning from a European concert tour. Scott and his wife Lily were awaiting the birth of their first child in September.

Church leaders held a requiem Mass -- with no music -- the next day and began planning for a solemn funeral Mass on Sept. 12, allowing more people to travel to New York City for the rites. Many would come to honor an artist hailed by The New York Times and other prestigious publications, a man known for his recordings, compositions and concert-hall performances.

But people in the pews are mourning the loss of a fellow believer whose most cherished duty was to help lead others in worship, while teaching the faith and its musical heritage to their children, said the Rev. Canon Carl Turner.

"Here we are gathered in church," said the parish's rector, preaching the day after Scott's death. "Why have we come? We have come because John, our friend, believed in what we are doing now -- that in the Eucharist, in the Mass, we come close to Jesus, just as when John
performed, directed, composed and cajoled those choristers, it was because he wanted to be close to Jesus."

Scott knew the fame that came to a virtuoso who, as a teen-ager, became the youngest organist to perform in the BBC Proms. He won international competitions and, over 26 years, held a number of posts at St. Paul's Cathedral in London -- rising to organist and director of music. He composed the anthem "Behold, O God Our Defender" for the 2002 rites marking the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

But this was not the work that defined Scott's life, stressed Turner. To his colleagues he was known for his dedication and meticulous ability to grasp the complex liturgical details of worship services, especially during Holy Week.

It was symbolic that Scott wanted workers to, literally, carve one truth into the organ console. Turner recalled that the organist kept stressing, "I want on the new organ Bach's words. I want
to look at it like Bach would look at it -- 'Soli Deo gloria,' glory to God alone. …

"I have met many musicians in my life. Not that many of them that I have met, in church, have first talked about the glory of God and the need to have people discover Jesus in their lives -- but John did and he was remarkable in that."

The classical music world is mourning this loss. Contemporary composer Nico Muhly wrote on Facebook: "I think of his influence as a form of epidemic: a great choirmaster infects everybody
near him with an evangelical love for the music, the tradition, and the rigor required to get it done correctly but in the (liturgical) background: music for use, but music for the only use worth using."

Then again, this note from the father of a chorister captured Scott's Sunday to Sunday life: "Nearly one dozen church services every week, appearances around town, and performing Messiah on a scant two-weeks of practice are subordinate to the depth of the man, and his impact upon our sons, upon our faith, and upon our church," wrote Jon Paris, writing online.

"Our family cries at the loss, and then smiles from our soul at the image of John reflected in our son."