A Man of Unclean Lips & Profane Conversation

“Talking of Trinity Church, the old feud between Henry Erben and Edward Hodges has ripened into a row which resulted in Hodges being tossed vi et armis out of the organ loft and left sitting on his hinder end in the lobby calling for the sexton and rector.”
—from the diary of George Templeton Strong, September 28, 1846.

Archives are full of juicy, personal stories—if you have the time to piece the evidence together. Here is the tale of a fascinating feud between Edward Hodges, organ master, and Henry Erben, organ builder, that occurred in the late 1840s.

In 1838, Trinity Church contracted for a new organ and the Vestry appointed a committee to review the state of the music of the Church. The committee resolved to appoint a Chorister to have charge of the vocal music of all the churches and to establish a school for music. Trinity’s elderly organist, Peter Erben (father of Henry Erben), was informed that he and his choir were to be replaced when the new organ was installed. He protested his dismissal, which may have set the stage for the feud.

Henry Erben was employed to construct the new organ and Edward Hodges was appointed organist. Edward Hodges worked with Henry Erben and the architect Richard Upjohn to create a new organ for the new Trinity Church. Erben constructed the organ according to Hodges’ directions but the two could not bear each other, as the following excerpted letters sent to the vestry by the two gentlemen, attest.

From Henry Erbens to the Rector, Wardens, and Vestry
November 9th, 1846
…On the 20th of October last the Comptroller demanded the Keys of Trinity Organ, which I gave him, supposing it was for the purpose of surrendering the Organ to the Church: when I afterwards applied for them for the purpose of tuning the Organ he declined giving them to me: the Consequence is the Organ has not been tuned since... I am most desirous to have it kept in good order & I hope the Vestry will see the propriety of my having the Keys for the purpose as above stated…

Excerpt of the letter from Henry Erben

From Edward Hodges to the Rector, Wardens, and Vestry
December 14th, 1846
Until very recently, I have been engaged for the space of three or four years, about the planning & structure of an appropriate Organ for your already celebrated Church edifice…The might have been, throughout, a pleasing & gratifying employment, but for the uncourteous conduct of the contractor, Mr. Henry Erben... I was so frequently & so necessarily brought into contact with a man so strangely devoid of all urbane qualities.…I have been treated by the organ contractor, not simply without the ordinary courtesies observed between gentlemen, but, in a manner so rude, so ungrateful, so unjust, & altogether so abominable…This being Church work, it would seem to be desirable to avoid entrusting it to a man of unclean lips & profane conversation.
…for if the reputation of any person be involved in the character of the organ, it is surely mine, as the projector and author of all its peculiarities. Had the instrument failed, it is well known that Mr. Erben was prepared to leave all the responsibility upon my shoulders; but it succeeded beyond expectation, & he is now perfectly willing to assume it all himself…
…I surrender my keys to no man, except upon the official business of the Church.

Excerpt of a letter from Edward Hodges.
From Henry Erben to the Rector, Wardens, and Vestry
January 11, 1847
…I again beg leave to call the attention of the Vestry to my application of November last for the Keys of Trinity Organ: since that time I have frequently tuned it at the request of Dr. Hodges. The Organ would have been much better attended to if I had the Keys…The larger the Organ is the more attention it requires. The tuning & regulating they require is a Mechanical operation that the Organists know nothing about…

After receiving these letters, the Vestry issued their response in a Vestry Minute from February 8, 1847:

The Committee on the application of Henry Erben for permission to have the keys of Trinity organ made a Report, and on their recommendation it was Resolved that Mr. Erben be allowed to have in his possession one Set of Keys of the Organ of Trinity Church for the purpose of Keeping the same in tune, but that he shall never exhibit the organ to any Strangers without the consent of the Rector, and that this engagement shall continue until the first of November next, or until the further order of the Vestry: and that copies of this resolution be furnished to Mr Erben and the Organist of Trinity Church.