When Second Presbyterian Church was first organized in 1842, music was provided by various members of the congregation, singing as well as playing instruments. After the church moved into their new building at Washington and Wabash in 1851, there began to be demands from the congregation for “a higher order of church music.” In 1854 a new pipe organ was installed, and soon afterwards in 1856 the Second Presbyterian Church Quartette Choir was established. The quartette choir continued until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which destroyed the church, after which it briefly disbanded. However, the tradition of the quartette choir was firmly established during this time, so when the new church was designed, only a small choir loft space was provided for the organ console and four singers. Likewise, after the sanctuary fire of 1900, the Howard Van Doren Shaw redesign of the sanctuary also provided for just a small choir loft space for the quartette choir.
By around 1895, the popularity of the quartette choir in Protestant churches in the U.S. began to fade. In the early 1900s, quartette choirs began to disappear, or were used to augment volunteer choirs. By the 1920s, most Protestant churches had established “choruses,” made up of volunteers from the church membership.
At Second Presbyterian Church, the Quartette Choir has continued to flourish. One reason for this is that there is no feasible space that would make sense liturgically for the placement of a large choir without major modifications to the sanctuary. So at Second Presbyterian Church, the strong desire to preserve the architectural integrity of the Howard Van Doren Shaw design has also had the effect of preserving another historic musical art form—the quartette choir.
The strong tradition of musical excellence at Second Presbyterian Church is the other reason the Quartette Choir has endured. Each Sunday (except during the summer when they take a vacation), the Quartette Choir provides beautiful and inspirational four-part anthems and service music. The Quartette Choir sings a wide variety of music, from gospel and spirituals to vintage music from our vast choral library dating back to the late 1800s. In addition, each Sunday the soloists from the Quartette Choir take their turn in singing a sacred vocal solo, providing a musical experience rarely heard in most churches today.
This article contains excerpts from the book The Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago. June 1st, 1842, to June 1st, 1892. (Chicago, Knight, Leonard & Co., 1892).