HomeBlogsjduchan's blog“The Old Familiar Choruses”: A Peek Into 19th Century Glee Clubs

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But what about choral singing at colleges? An article by Richard Kegerreis in the journal American Music describes a thriving Handel Society at Dartmouth College in the early 1800s (earlier than the Boston H&H Society). As the Dartmouth Society’s name suggests, the repertory was exclusively European. The Society stuck a “reformist” stance toward the improvement of American music, preferring to import works from the Old World rather than perform homegrown pieces or use Billings’s techniques. The ensemble’s most important performances were associated with college life, like commencement ceremonies and proms. A precursor to the intercollegiate exchanges that would mark collegiate a cappella a century and a half later, its members attended numerous choral conventions and festivals at a time when winter travel around New England was no simple matter. Their final such appearance was in 1859, and their last recorded meeting was held in 1888. By that time, the Dartmouth Glee Club had ascended the campus music scene.

Old World glee clubs from England and Germany served as important models for American glee clubs, like the Mendelssohn Glee Club (New York, 1866) and others. Though some choirs were professional ventures, many were community efforts. And while many were dedicated to large-scale choral works (often with orchestral accompaniment), their European predecessors also performed short secular pieces like glees, catches, cannons, and rounds. Club meetings may have centered on musical matters, but they were also social events at which drink and merriment abounded.

Collegiate glee clubs began to appear in the mid-nineteenth century, with the first at Harvard in 1858, followed by the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club the next year, and others thereafter. These early clubs usually operated without the direct involvement or leadership of university officials. Michigan’s came under faculty leadership only in 1908, Harvard’s in 1912. They offered public performances, often in connection with university events, raised funds for athletic teams, met with alumni, or otherwise promoted the university. Their performances featured both vocal and instrumental music: the Harvard Glee Club shared the stage the Pierian Sodality, an instrumental ensemble. Later, they joined with banjo and mandolin clubs, which were very popular across the country (at Michigan, such combined efforts began in 1890). These combinations suggest a repertory not exclusively based on sacred music, a mainstay of choral literature. Lighter fare, such as folk songs or dances, as well as college and school songs received more attention.

My research in the Harvard Archives suggests that the musical values projected by early glee clubs were Eurocentric, rarefied, and refined. This can be seen not only in the repertory (one 1859 Harvard concert presented pieces by Cherubini, Chwatal, Eisenhofer, Flotow, Härtel, Haydn, Kalliwoda, Kücken, Lorenz, Lumbye, Mendelssohn,Verdi, and Werner, all European art music composers or conductors) but also in the discourse surrounding it. A review of an 1874 concert noted a sort of aesthetic dissonance between the art music that comprised most of the program and the college songs that ended it: “The College songs were not as happily selected as they might have been, were not quite characteristic in fact. The students seemed a little afraid to unbend themselves, and one missed the old familiar choruses.” The ensemble’s approach to singing may have been incongruent with the spirit of the “old familiar choruses,” but that in itself indicates the sort of underlying messages conveyed by its rarefied vocal mannerisms, signs of refinement appropriate to one kind of music (art songs) but not another (college songs). It was in the former, not the latter, that “the voices all showed evidence of careful culture.”

Remember, undergraduate culture was very different in the nineteenth century from the latter twentieth or early twenty-first. As Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz shows in her book, Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present, the athletic teams, the school paper, and the glee club were important competitive arenas for the wealthy “college men.” Their social stature guaranteed them jobs upon graduation regardless of their academic achievement. Instead, it was in these activities that they sharpened their teeth and prepared for leadership in society and business. (The increasing diversity of today’s college campuses and the increased value of scholastic achievement were anathema to most nineteenth-century college men.) In this light, it makes sense for the glee club to be a class-affirming activity and for the repertory to reflect that.

When combined with banjo and mandolin clubs, however, the repertory expanded beyond classical pieces toward the popular. A Harvard Glee Club and Banjo Club concert in 1891 included such pieces as “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” by operettist and Broadway composer Reginald DeKoven, and a double quartet titled simply, “Drinking Song.” In the early twentieth century folk songs were programmed, too. At first this might suggest a shifting of musical values, with greater emphasis placed on lighthearted or comical fare; the musical exoticism of folk melodies (Russian, Scottish, or Irish were particularly popular); or the school loyalty or male camaraderie affirmed by college songs; rather than the Eurocentric, upper-class sensibilities implied by art music. But this period saw increasing interest in folk music on the part of classical composers like Béla Bartók, music that, once transcribed and analyzed, was appropriated into late-Romantic compositional practices and presented in the concert hall.

A recent undergraduate thesis at Bowdoin College (by a 2005 graduate of the Meddiebempsters) suggests the 1950s and ‘60s as the pinnacle of collegiate glee club activity. Decades before this peak, though, glee clubs introduced smaller ensembles drawn from within their ranks as additional acts in their concerts and enabling them meet rising demand for bookings. As early as 1914, The Michigan Men’s Glee Club boasted two such smaller groups, the Varsity Quartette and the Midnight Sons. Collegiate a cappella proper can be said to begin with the Whiffenpoofs. The Whiffs (as they are commonly called) emerged from the Varsity Quartet, an elite subset of Yale’s Glee. They began with regular weekly performances at Mory’s Temple Bar, a popular student pub in New Haven, in January 1909. Many glee clubs still maintain small ensembles today.

This brings our story to collegiate a cappella in the twentieth century, when things really started cooking. It is, of course, only part of the story. Stay tuned: in upcoming articles I’ll look at the influences of barbershop and vernacular close harmony, and twentieth century popular music, on the collegiate a cappella of today that we know and love.

{mosimage}Joshua S. Duchan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan. He is currently writing his dissertation on collegiate a cappella. But hes not just an academic. He also sang with and directed the University of Michigan Amazin Blue and the University of Pennsylvania Counterparts, and his arrangements have been featured on the Best of College A Cappella 2004 and 2005 albums. He can be reached at