PROVIDENCE — It was a symphony played for only eight — not counting the small but very important audience tuning in online from the other side of the Atlantic.
Although he has certainly played for larger crowds, Nathan Schneider’s June 25 organ recital was probably the most important of his short but already remarkable career. Because it was his final concert as a student at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, Schneider’s professors were analyzing every minute aspect of his performance in order to issue him a final grade on his technique … all from a little over four thousand miles away.
A mere three months before he could complete his Bachelor’s Degree in Pipe Organ at the Pontifico Instituto in Rome, the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 drove the entire nation of Italy into lockdown and forced Schneider to make an unexpected return to his home in Kingston, Rhode Island. Over the course of the quarantine that followed, the 20-year-old continued his studies remotely, completing his lessons over Skype using the compact Italian organ which his family had purchased for him to use at home.
Although this instrument was sufficient for Schneider to complete his ordinary coursework, his final exam could only be performed on a full-size pipe organ, like the one at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul. It was there that Schneider completed his musical journey at the end of June, with the man who had first inspired that journey standing proudly by his side.
Schneider’s story has an unconventional prélude for a student of sacred music. Nobody in his family is especially musical. Neither, for that matter, are they Catholic. His mother, Kelly, is a Unitarian Universalist, and brought Nathan and his siblings to church with her throughout his childhood. His father is Jewish and has a background in medicine rather than music.
“I’m honestly not musically gifted at all,” said Dr. Steven Schneider. “I’ve been trying to help him practice for the past few months, but I can’t really do much more than flip the pages in his sheet music for him.”
It was only when Nathan enrolled in The Prout School in 2013 that he discovered both the organ and Catholicism. Phillip Faraone, his music and theology teacher at the school, was the one who had introduced Schneider to the instrument and to the faith. Seven years later, it was Faraone standing beside Schneider at the console of the SS. Peter and Paul organ while his former pupil finally earned his degree from the Vatican conservatory.
“I’m so proud. Incredibly proud. Nathan really feels like another son to me,” Faraone said on that glorious day at the cathedral.
In a certain sense, he is: Faraone was not only Schneider’s teacher, but also served as the boy’s godfather when he was received into the Church in 2016. Faraone had instilled in his charge a love of music and a passion for the faith, making it especially appropriate that he was the one who assisted Schneider with his sheet music during his final exam for the Pontifical Institute.
This wasn’t the only way that Faraone was able to help his former student, however. In addition to working at Prout, he is also the organist at the cathedral, making him the perfect person to help Schneider familiarized himself with the intricacies of the venerable instrument.
“I love this organ. I really do. I keep telling everyone that I want to be buried here, right across the aisle from Bishop Hendricken’s tomb,” Faraone said with a laugh.
Although the instrument doesn’t have quite the same history as the organ Schneider usually plays in Rome (which includes among its previous players no less a figure than Mozart), the 1972 Casavant Frères organ in Providence is certainly an impressive set of pipes. According to Msgr. Anthony Mancini, the cathedral’s rector, the organ is the largest of its kind in North America.
“It has 6,235 pipes, along with five divisions and four manuals,” Msgr. Mancini said. “A big, grand French-style organ like this is really what you need to play a piece by Vierne. I just don’t think an Italian organ would have been able to do it justice.”
The piece in question was Louis Vierne’s 1st Symphony, which Schneider and his professor, Father Theodor Flurry, had selected for his final performance.
“It’s such a great piece of music, and I’ve grown so attached to it since the first time I heard it played,” Schneider says.
The six movements of the symphony allowed Schneider to show off the wide diversity of his skills, from the careful sense of control needed to present the elegant harmonies of the fugue to the theatricality and showmanship needed for the symphony’s dramatic finale. For nearly an hour, Schneider’s masterful playing kept his audience at the cathedral captivated – an audience which included Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, whose recommendation had been necessary for Schneider to begin his studies in Rome.
It wasn’t just the American audience that was impressed with Schneider’s performance, however. In a video call with his professors after the recital, the young musician learned that he had been awarded the highest score possible.
“I passed with honors, or ‘Lodi’ in Italian,” he said. “I still have to go back to Rome to complete my composition final, however – and after that I guess I’ll have to start learning German.”
The reason for the sudden Teutonic twist to his studies is that Schneider has been accepted to a graduate program at the University of the Arts in Zurich, where he will continue to study with Father Flury. Assuming that the pandemic has resolved in Switzerland by that point, Schneider will begin working on his advanced degree in September, after which he is expecting to pursue a doctoral degree.
Click to watch a recording of Schneider’s June 25 performance.