History of Music at First-Plymouth

First-Plymouth Congregational has been known for its rich musical heritage all the way back to its beginnings.  In 1886, as First Congregational, Lincoln’s first incorporated church, was being dedicated, Carrie Belle Raymond had arrived shortly before from Fargo with her husband to assume the role of organist and choir director.   A.S. Raymond, her brother-in-law had recruited her to come to Lincoln.  Raymond was a prominent banker and church trustee.  He and his wife had been very instrumental in the installation of the new Kimball organ in the sanctuary which was purported to be the largest and finest in Lincoln.  Always referred to as Mrs. P.V.M. Raymond in church programs, Carrie enjoyed a 41-year long tenure with First Church and the subsequently newly-merged First-Plymouth Church.

In 1887 Carrie Belle Raymond formed the Lincoln Oratorio Society, of which the First Congregational Church choir formed the core.  The performances of “The Messiah” each December and the “May Festival” were cultural “events” that became highly regarded across the State of Nebraska.  Originally, Mrs. Raymond invited male guest conductors for these concerts, however, beginning in 1891, she decided to direct them herself.  While Lincolnites and fellow Nebraskans, familiar with her proven talents, embraced her new role, the press throughout the rest of the country took note of her break from convention, some claiming that she was the first woman in the world to conduct a professional orchestra and choir.

In 1894 Carrie Belle Raymond was hired to conduct the University Chorus and serve as University Organist.  She was also a faculty member of the University School of Music, formed by William Kimball (of Kimball Hall).  The conservatory school was affiliated with the University but privately administered.  Until her death in 1927, Mrs. Raymond continued to teach and conduct, defining orchestral and choral music, creating a collaborative spirit and reputation that grew in the community throughout the years.  First-Plymouth Church can look back at Mrs. Raymond’s career and musical ministry as the first in a series of a long and fruitful associations with UNL faculty members that held conductor/organist positions at First-Plymouth, including Wilbur Chenoweth, Arthur Westbrook, and Myron Roberts. 

Wilbur Chenoweth was the Director of Music at First-Plymouth in 1931 as the new First-Plymouth Church building was being dedicated, and thus gave the dedicatory recital on the new Kimball organ.  Chenoweth was born in Tecumseh, NE in 1899 and attended UNL.  A professor of piano, organ and music theory, he taught at UNL from 1925 to 1938, these being approximately the same years he served at First-Plymouth.  Wilbur Chenoweth is the composer of one of the University of Nebraska’s famous fight songs entitled “Hail Varsity”.  He created a considerable corpus of published and unpublished music.  He left Lincoln in 1938 to take a position at Occidental College in Santa Monica, California where he taught until 1945.  He was also the organist and choir director at Neighborhood Church in Pasadena.  In 1990, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln established the Chenoweth Scholarship for studies in music theory and composition.

Distinguished directors at First-Plymouth in the interim years of 1938 – 1940 included H.T. Rangeler and Josephine Waddell.  Beginning in April of 1939, First-Plymouth’s Reverend Dr. Raymond McConnell began a lengthy correspondence with Dr. Arthur Westbrook who was known to be arriving in the fall as the new Director of the School of Fine Arts at the UNL School of Arts and Sciences from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.  In this correspondence, Dr. McConnell was quite dogged in his hopes to have Westbrook accept the position, touting the $50,000, 4-manual Kimball organ as one of the “best in the West”; yet Dr. Westbrook was not easily persuaded.  Westbrook admitted the Methodists in Lincoln had already approached him with a similar offer 3-4 weeks earlier which he had turned down.  He wanted to be firmly established at the University before accepting an outside position.  Rev. McConnell tried to be flexible and allow Dr. Westbrook to start Feb. 1, 1940.  This too, was to no avail until later in May when the February 1 assumption of duties was agreed upon.  Myron Roberts, UNL professor of organ and composer, served as church organist during the Westbrook years.  Dr. Westbrook served for 16 years, unexpectedly handing in a letter of resignation in 1956.  Reeling from shock, at first the church did not want to accept.  Dr. Westbrook and his wife wanted no formal observance of his departure.  A formal letter was drafted expressing the church’s deepest appreciation for his service.  The letter acknowledges that “the blight of depression and drought added to the difficult assignment that was his.  Then came the war years, when military assignments kept choir personnel fluctuating and unstable.  His interest and concern have never lagged.  His quiet humor and dry wit seldom deserted him”.  He was dearly beloved of the countless college and high school students he trained.

After the Westbrook/Roberts years, the Minister of Music became a full-time position.  Paul Reynolds served as organist/choirmaster from 1956 until 1962.  A graduate of Doane College, he was an organ major who came to Lincoln from a position at the Reformed Church in Metuchan, New Jersey where he had served for two years.  While at First-Plymouth, he directed six choirs, started a concert series, and organized two symposia on the church and the arts.      

Ernest Bedell assumed the role of Minister of Music from 1962 – 1966.  So far in this account, an example of the scope of responsibilities of the Minister of Music has not been portrayed.  In Bedell’s 1965 annual report he detailed activities for the Carol Choir (grades 3 -6), the Cantus Choir (also grades 3 – 6), the Chancel Choir (Jr. High), the Cloister Choir (Sr. High), and the Carillon Choir (adults).  Ernest reported at this time it was difficult to maintain a good-sized adult choir.

Richard Morris served from 1966 until 1972.  Dick came to Lincoln from Philadelphia in 1959 to attend UNL, where he received his BME and MM. Trained at St. Peter’s Choir School in Philadelphia, he was well-prepared to nurture an excellent First Plymouth Youth Choir which was highly regarded for their worship music in the early service radio broadcast every Sunday. During these years the Youth Choir toured extensively throughout Nebraska, sharing their talents by adeptly performing the major choral works.

In 1972, Jack Levick arrived at First-Plymouth from a position as music assistant at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City where he was studying at the same time to receive his Masters of Sacred Music (cum laude) from New York’s Union Theological Seminary.  A native of Norfolk, Virginia, he was a music graduate of Old Dominion University before going to New York.  Along with all the organ/choirmaster duties he assumed at First-Plymouth, Jack established and became the artistic director of the beloved Abendmusik Lincoln Concert Series. Under Jack’s leadership, First-Plymouth became the first church in Lincoln to host a professional, resident brass ensemble.  Levick also introduced Lincoln to the Christmas Eve tradition of the English “Lessons and Carols” service.  On Christmas Eve 1980 the First-Plymouth service, accompanied by the Nebraska Chamber Orchestra, was broadcast nationally on CBS.

Down through the years, beside the world-class performers that have graced the sanctuary, Abendmusik Lincoln brought celebrated American composers Aaron Copeland, Daniel Pinkham and Randall Thompson as guests to direct the choir in their own works.  Through Rev. Levick’s acquaintance with guest conductors Sir David Willcocks and John Rutter from England, the choir was able to perform under their direction upon numerous occasions.  This association also led to the Plymouth Choir’s first international trip to perform at the opening performance of the International Church Music Festival held in Coventry Cathedral in 1994. Trips to Italy, Austria, Scandinavia, Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Estonia and Latvia have followed over the years. In 2012, Jack returned to First-Plymouth to co-conduct the 40th anniversary concert of Abendmusik Lincoln.  In the tradition of Carrie Belle Raymond, Mr. Levick tirelessly served the musical worship of the First-Plymouth congregation for 31 years.

When Rev. Levick resigned in 2003, professors Peter Eklund of UNL and Larry Munson of Doane College provided interim leadership until John Cummins became Minister of Music in 2006.  Mr. Cummins had served Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, KY for nine years.  Jeremy Bankson came to us from Trinity English Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, IN to assist Mr. Cummins.  Upon Mr. Cummins resignation Mr. Bankson became interim Minister of Music in 2008 and remains Associate Minister of Music until he leaves us for Dublin, OH this summer.  In 2009, Tom Trenney came to First-Plymouth from First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, MI to become the present Minister of Music. 

The organs that have accompanied the worship at First-Plymouth deserve honorable, although brief mention as well in this overview.  The original Kimball organ, mentioned above, faithfully served from 1931 until the middle 1960’s.  In February of 1965, a contract was signed with Schlicker Organ Company of Buffalo, NY for the purchase of a new organ.  Installation began in April of 1968 and was finished in June. The organ in the nave was dedicated to Thomas C. Woods, that of the chapel being dedicated to Arthur A. Dobson. A major decision of the Capital Improvements program was to place the new organ across the apse so that the sound might speak directly to the nave.  The Lord’s Prayer painted on the back wall disappeared behind the organ pipes, to return as the hanging sculpture we see today.  The ceiling was hardened to provide better acoustics.  The Schlicker organ recessed below the apse floor on an elevator.  The current Lied Chancel Organ was installed by Schoenstein & Co., San Francisco and dedicated in October of 1998.  Built for First-Plymouth Church and all of the people of Lincoln, the organ represented the magnum opus of the Schoenstein & Co.’s 121 years of organ building. The small antiphonal organ in the balcony, also by Schoenstein & Co. was a generous gift from Ruth Amen.

First-Plymouth Congregational is a church that has truly recognized how music can enhance the worship experience and bring us closer to God.  We have indeed been bountifully blessed these past 150 years by exceptionally talented organists and choir directors that helped lead our worship.  As we celebrate this momentous anniversary, remembering all these noted musicians who lead and inspired us, we should also remember the nameless thousands who followed their leadership and with their voices and instruments gave their hearts and countless hours of their time to make a joyful noise unto the Lord on our behalf.