The Basilica’s organ is one of New York City’s historic gems.
It was constructed by the world-renowned New York City organbuilder Henry Erben (1800–1884). It is the only extant three-manual Erben organ, and is the only large, mid-19th-century pipe organ left in America, intact, in its original acoustic space. The organ has logged more than 150,000 liturgies and thousands of hours of rehearsals and concerts over 145 years.
A masterpiece of musical and visual art, its nearly 2,500 pipes still speak with grandeur and eloquence.Henry Erben’s factory in the 1840s was one of the largest in the city. He shipped instruments to cathedrals and churches in Havana, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, and the new territories of the American West.Erben employed skilled European
and American craftsmen, some of whom signed their names to the pipes they crafted. Henry was also apolitician and impresario: the opening exhibition of his 1846 Trinity Church organ had nearly 17,939 people in attendance.
Installed just after the Civil War, the Basilica’s organ was brought by horse and carriage and was assembled by hand. It is a synopsis of all Erben learned over his six-decade career, and includes elements of the new “orchestral” style then coming into vogue. It is a testament to the skill of the craftsmen, and the foresight of the Cathedral trustees, to spare no expense: in 1868 dollars, the organ cost $15,000. The organ’s high quality is why it has remained in place, functioning, as times and tastes changed. In short: it doesn’t get any better than this.
Organists and Pipe Organs of the Basilica
Though there was music at the opening of the Cathedral in 1815, it is difficult to surmise what it was or who performed it. Only second- or third-person sources exist to cobble together even this very incomplete list. Generally, there was a professional quartet at the Cathedral, augmented by the volunteer St. Patrick’s Choral Union.
1825–1834(?) W. A. Rabbeson
Information on Rabbeson’s activities was found in only one source, from 1899.  The article describes a benefit concert by the first Italian opera company in the United States. The leader of the orchestra at the event was Mr. De Luce, with Messrs. Etienne and Moran, leading a varied program of Haydn, Handel, Cimarosa, Zingarelli, and Dr. Arne (likely Dr. Thomas Arne, 1710–1778).
In this account, Rabbeson is not mentioned in the program. Rabbeson’s name is listed in an early music directory of New York City as a turner as well as a music teacher. His last address seems to have been 30 Prince St. as of 1834. From this list, one may take notice of new musicians coming to these shores after the War of 1812. Denis-Germain Etienne (1781–1859), a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, arrived from France in 1815; Etienne was one of three conductors at the first performance of the New York Philharmonic in 1842. 
1834(?)–1845 William Richard Bristow
An English musician, he was a church organist, conductor, and a clarinetist in the Olympic Theatre orchestra.  He was active in New York and Brooklyn from 1822 until his death in 1867. After St. Patrick’s, he moved to the Market Street Church. On April 17, 1842, he mounted an elaborate concert of sacred music at St. Patrick’s.  He played organ, and his famous son, George Frederick Bristow, led the orchestra.
The program included works by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Paisello, Webbe, and Stevenson.G. F. Bristow (1825–98) joined the Philharmonic as a violinist in 1842 (the year of its inception) at the age of 17, and was an active member of the institution for 40 years. In 1847, the Philharmonic performed his Concert Overture, Op. 3, the first full-fledged symphonic work by an American-born composer performed by any orchestra. 
1846–1864(?) David R. Harrison
Also the Organist of the New York Sacred Music Society,  he took over from Bristow. His name is ubiquitous in concerts with the founder of the Philharmonic, U. C. Hill (1802–1895), and at any new Erben organ exhibition. Harrison is still listed on the program as “Organist of the Cathedral” at the grand exhibition of the new 1852 Erben organ, which was destroyed by the 1866 fire.  In 1861, he is listed as “Organist and Conductor”, with a quartet choir: Mrs. Sweeney, Soprano; Miss E. Pearson, Contralto; Antony Rieff, Tenore; and C. Blochinger, Basso.
1850s Antonio Morra
Perhaps an alumnus of the first Italian opera company at Astor Place in 1847, along with his father, Signor Morra, Antonio served in various capacities as a musician. He later became Organist of St. Stephen’s church in 1861.  Morra was a conductor and a composer. 
1864–at least 1873 Gustavus Schmitz
Before coming to the Cathedral, the organist, conductor, and composer held the bench at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.  He is also listed as a clarinetist of the Philharmonic in 1853, and in many grand performances about the city.  His brother Henry was the hornist of the Philharmonic and a prolific professional musician. Unfortunately, Gustavus’ work as a composer is lost, as is the case with most of the music composed from that period. His music and the circumstances of its performance may be gleaned from accounts such as this.
c. 1875–81(?) John White
John White (1855–1902) was a London-born organist and recitalist. He was the organist, when in 1877, the Cathedral moved to its uptown location. He had a very successful career, later becoming the organist at the Church of the Ascension on 5th Avenue. By 1892, he had an address at the Dakota on Central Park West,  later home to Leonard Bernstein and the Beatles! White was a student of Josef Rheinberger (1839–1901) in Munich, and returned there in 1896.
c. 1887 George O’Gorman (?) 
No remarks as to a choir; no details.
1890–at least 1895 Thomas Gorman 
Miss Nellie Cassin is listed as a director, with Gorman as Director/Organist. There was a boy’s choir from St. Patrick’s School in 1892–3. By 1895, Ms. Cassin’s title was Assistant, and there was a choir consisting of the following: Soprano – Miss Agnes R. Byrne; Alto – Miss Nellie McCarthy, Miss Nettie Sullivan, Mrs. M. R. Higgins; Tenor – Thomas Dowd; Bass – Fred Frank.
1919 Lynwood Farnam (visit)
On Novemer 8, 1919, the famous concert organist Lynwood Farnam visited the instrument and reported its stoplist in his notes. He called it “very interesting. Pleasant, though small, diap. Very liquid pleasing flutes, even Claribel Flute 4′ on Ped.” 
Pipe Organs of the Basilica
- 1815: Organ built by William Redstone (c. 1768–1824). One manual.
- 1820: Thomas Hall (1791–c. 1875) enlarged and altered the organ.
- 1826: Hall & Erben organ installed, three manuals. Erben apprenticed with Thomas Hall, beginning in 1817, when Hall moved to New York. Hall was also married to Henry’s sister, Maria.
- 1852: Henry Erben organ, three manuals, destroyed in 1866 fire.
- 1868–present: Henry Erben organ, three manuals; the organ in current use.