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Compline at St. Marks: The torch is passed

On the air for almost 50 years, KING-FM's live broadcast of the Sunday religious service remains both a beautiful program and a throwback to a classic era of radio.
The Compline Choir chants and sings on Sunday nights at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle

The Compline Choir chants and sings on Sunday nights at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle ComplineChoir.org

Seattle’s classical music station KING-FM has stumbled of late with “modern” broadcasting problems — shrinking revenues and layoffs of popular on-air staff. Meanwhile, one iconic program is defying the odds by remaining most decidedly un-modern, even as its longtime director is succeeded by a protege.

From the 1920s until the 1940s, a staple of local and national radio programming was the “pick-up” or live remote broadcast, sought after by radio stations and networks for easy availability and low cost.

Evening hours around the glowing dial were once crowded with long-since demolished hotels hosting now-forgotten orchestras, beaming live dance music around the region or around the country. On Sunday mornings, the syncopation of that era’s typical ballroom music gave way to more spiritual (though still inexpensive and readily available) pick-up fare — scriptures, hymns, and sermons that just as effectively filled the ever-hungry radio content maw.

That this spiritual material also happened to restrain social critics (and the FCC) from bemoaning the media’s disrespect for the Sabbath was not an insignificant factor. After all, later in the day it was another (more secular) story: Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy, and other old-time radio stalwarts were Sunday night fixtures for decades, and the “War of the Worlds” and other less-famous episodes of Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theater on the Air” were also broadcast on Sunday nights.

So it’s remarkable in many respects that KING-FM’s 9:30 Sunday night broadcast of the Compline Choir service survives some 60 years after the rest of the radio industry moved on from the pick-up. The 30-minute program of meditational hymns, chanting, and spoken word based on end-of-day monastery prayers originates from St. Mark’s Cathedral on Seattle’s Capitol Hill as it has for nearly half a century. A choir comprised of about 15 men chant the “Office of Compline,” as the service is officially called, while an assembly (not an audience, the Compline folks say) of a few hundred gathers for the free service and thousands tune in from home. The name Compline comes from the Latin word for “complete” (or, in this case, the prayers said at the end of the day).

Compline at St. Mark’s was founded by composer, musician, and scholar Peter R. Hallock in the mid-1950s (the exact date is unclear, and Hallock’s service may have been preceded by a similar service at St. James Cathedral). Hallock, who will turn 85 in November, lives in Fall City and is known throughout the world for his contributions to the sacred music community. Though still in good health, he was injured in a serious auto accident in June, and in July he stepped down as director of the popular service after more than 50 years.

Fortunately, Hallock asked a protégé named Jason Anderson to take over, and Anderson agreed. By all accounts, Anderson (whose 2007 University of Washington doctoral dissertation is reassuringly called “The Life and Works of Peter R. Hallock”) hasn’t missed a beat, so to speak. He’s been a member of the choir since 2004, and has filled in as choir director for Hallock on several occasions. If recent broadcasts are any indication, Compline has passed into capable hands.

As to how the Compline broadcast came to be a weekly fixture, Hallock says the credit goes to Jim Welte, an employee at KING-FM in the 1950s. Welte had begun a radio program highlighting goings-on in local arts, and had featured the Compline Choir. “Exactly how or why the service was broadcast on a weekly basis I don’t recall,” Hallock says. “However, it’s important to keep in mind that Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, founder and owner of KING, was a member of St. Mark’s Cathedral and a close friend of the Right Rev. John C. Leffler,” who led the congregation.

KING-FM, the classical music station founded by Bullitt, has been carrying the live broadcast continuously since around 1960 (again, the exact date is unclear) easily placing Compline among the longest-running programs in local and even national radio history. Seattle’s “Scandinavian Hour” began years earlier but had gaps in the 1960s. Only CBS’ “World News Round Up,” which began in 1938; “Music and The Spoken Word” from the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, which came on the air in 1929; the Grand Ole Opry, first broadcast in 1925 — and perhaps a few other regional programs elsewhere — seem to have Compline beat.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Oct 22, 12:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks, Feliks, for your coverage of the Compline service. For more than 30 years, this has been my half-hour of meditation at the end of the week to prepare me for the next one. When I lived in Seattle, I often attended. It is a wonderful Seattle, indeed Northwest tradition, and I'm pleased to read of KING-FM's commitment to carry on.

Posted Sat, Oct 24, 6:15 p.m. Inappropriate

One of my very favorite memories of my years in Seattle was occasionally going to the service and more often listening on the radio. I really love listening to The Organ Loft which immediately follows the Compline Service.

tonyg

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