School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary

Union Theological Seminary in New York City, like the Yale Divinity School, had a long tradition of offering musical instruction to its students. Three seminal figures, Henry Sloane Coffin, Union president from 1926 to 1945, Clarence Dickinson, who became professor of church music at Union in 1912, and his wife, Helen Snyder Dickinson, established the School of Sacred Music at Union in 1928. The impact that the graduates of the School had upon American musical and religious life during the middle decades of the last century would be difficult to overestimate. Clarence Dickinson taught both organ and composition, and published collections of music and textbooks; Helen Dickinson taught liturgy, and used the slide collections of New York libraries and museums to show her students how liturgy and architecture worked together in the Christian tradition and in other faiths as well.

Graduates of the School of Sacred Music received the finest professional musical training available, with the musical riches of the city at their feet. The Dickinsons insisted that their students know and respect Western European art and music, and also the best of simpler traditions: the hymns, anthems, and monophonic chant repertories. In addition, musicians were taught the foundations of liturgical history and were required to take a small number of courses in the seminary. Seminary students simultaneously encountered music students through social interaction, in their classes and when performing at common worship services. Church musicians and ministers—lifelong career partners—learned at Union how to understand each other better. In 1945 Hugh Porter became director of the School of Sacred Music; he was succeeded in 1960 by the distinguished organist Robert Baker, who also became the school’s first dean in 1962-63.

Their successful experiment in sacred music at Union did not survive the political turmoil of the late 1960s: funding was withdrawn in the early 1970s and the School was closed. Shortly thereafter, in 1973, Professor Baker, together with the music historian Richard French, the seminary chaplain Jeffery Rowthorn, and the administrator Mina Belle Packer, migrated to Yale University to begin a similar venture: the Institute of Sacred Music. The new entity was endowed by Clementine Miller Tangeman, whose husband Robert had been professor of music history at Union before his untimely death in 1964, and by her brother, J. Irwin Miller, a Yale graduate, musician, and patron of the arts. Yale, the leading research university in the Northeast with professional schools of both music and divinity, seemed the ideal place to re-create the concepts and visions of the School of Sacred Music. Yale’s president Kingman Brewster worked with Colin Williams, Dean of the Divinity School, and with the dean of the School of Music, Philip Nelson, to realize that ideal, and in 1974 the Institute’s first students were admitted to Yale.