By Nick Rudd, CC ’64
“The Columbia Glee Club will give a concert consisting of warbles, merry college songs, and glees” was written back in 1873 announcing the first concert by a newly formed singing group.
No Internet. No television. No radio. Columbia students sang for their own entertainment in those days. Intramural singing competitions pitted the top “quartette” from each class against each other, and the entire student body was known to sing at select occasions during the academic year. Formed and led by students in its earliest days, the Glee Club began to gain momentum in 1877 under the direction of Dr. S. Austin Pearce, Doc. Mus. Oxon.
The Glee Club raised its own funds by performing on and off campus. Proceeds from special concerts also went to support the Columbia Crew in its races against local opponents and at Henley. Reports in The New York Times of February 1882, for example, show the Glee Club performing at the annual meeting of the Baptist Social Union at Delmonico’s Restaurant and the regimental armory for Company K, Twelfth Regiment of the National Guard.
Concertizing became a major occupation for the Glee Club under the direction of Arthur D. Woodruff, its director for nearly 20 years. Working closely with the club’s student leaders, notably John T. Walker Jr. and Arthur M. Cox, the Glee Club grew in size and the number of engagements, singing in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Westchester, New Jersey and Connecticut. Walker was an early force in the Glee Club, leading it as President from 1883 to 1887, organizing an alumni glee club and then working with Woodruff and Cox to expand that early alumni group into today’s University Glee Club.
As open to their musical environment as are today’s students, Columbia’s men also formed a Banjo Club, followed by an Instrumental Club (piano, violin, guitar and flutes) and a Mandolin Club. By 1891, they were performing as the Columbia College Music Society, comprising the Glee, Banjo and Mandolin Clubs. 15 years later, the Glee and Mandolin Clubs shared a “Musical Clubs” management structure and often performed together.
The Glee Club toured for the first time in 1892, with concerts between Christmas and New Year’s in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, Washington DC and Baltimore, Maryland.
When Columbia moved to Morningside Heights from midtown at the end of the 19th century, its reincarnation as a university with professional schools and different faculties extended to the Glee Club, which became known formally as the Columbia University Glee Club.
With Woodruff’s departure, the Glee Club turned once more to student leaders for music direction, separating that role from its student managers, who focused on booking concerts and publicizing performances for the Glee and Mandolin Clubs.
A Glee Club alumni organization called “The Notes and Keys Society” came into existence in 1908. It lasted at least through the early 1920′s and attracted many former Glee Clubbers to its membership rolls.
In 1920, the Glee Club was put in the capable hands of Walter Henry Hall, one of the outstanding choral conductors in the United States at the time and Professor of Church and Choral Music in Columbia’s Department of Music. Under his direction, the club began building its reputation as one of the outstanding singing groups in the country. Professor Hall is remembered for his “Columbia Alma Mater,” written especially for the Glee Club, which was traditionally sung at the opening of every concert for many years.
On April 8, 1922, The New York Times commented on the Glee Club’s first Spring Concert at Town Hall, sponsored by the Notes and Keys Society: “In a concert at the Town Hall last night, the Columbia Glee Club’s experiment in the field of serious music, a recent departure for college musical clubs, was heard by a large audience. An attempt was made to combine classic airs with the college songs, and a varied program resulted, including Professor Hall’s ‘Alma Mater,’ Gounod’s ‘O Salutaria Hostia,’ Brahms’s ‘Lullaby,’ Davies’s ‘Hymn Before Action,’ and ‘Stars of the Summer Night,’ written by Professor John Erskine.”
The 1920′s helped set the Glee Club’s pattern of purpose and performance for many years. The club represented the University, not only to entertain a general audience but also to reinforce alumni bonds and to appeal to prospective students in high school in a series of local appearances. A typical year’s schedule would also include a Thanksgiving concert at a New York hotel, combined with a dinner-dance, a Winter concert, for many years a joint endeavor with the Barnard Glee Club and Columbia Orchestra in McMillin (now Miller) Theater or the Horace Mann Auditorium, and a wrap-up Spring concert in Town Hall, the season’s musical high point. The club would often tour to several nearby cities, either between semesters or at the spring break, usually singing in venues arranged by local alumni clubs.
After a two-year stint as director, Hall’s assistant William F. McDonald was succeeded by Lowell P. Beveridge, a choral conductor, organist and teacher who was on Columbia’s music faculty for 22 years. From 1930 to 1937, he conducted the Columbia Glee Club and Chapel Choir as well as the Barnard Glee Club, often leading combined performances with the Columbia University Orchestra. While the Glee Club’s touring fell off from its annual travels of the 1920′s, local and suburban concerts and a number of radio and other special appearances took up the slack.
Beveridge’s departure was marked by an administrative change for the Glee Club from the Music Department to the Department of King’s Crown Activities as well as by a shift away from the strictly classical repertory of the past six years to include “such favorites as ‘De Camptown Races,’ ‘Tramp Tramp Tramp’ and ‘Deep River.’”
Momentum carried the club through the early war years, with Winter and Spring concerts, local recitals, radio appearances and such special highlights as a concert version of Prof. Douglas Moore’s opera, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” at Christmas 1941.
But eventually, the war took its sober toll, and extra-curricular activities and alumni programs ceased to exist at Columbia while everyone devoted their energies to the war effort. Significantly, the last wartime concert of the Columbia University Glee Club was its Christmas appearance with the Barnard Glee Club and a special choir of Navy Midshipmen on December 15, 1942. The concert ended with “Silent Night.” The Glee Club did not sing formally again until the Christmas Concert of 1945.
The late forties found the club in a period of rebuilding, made more difficult by the club’s being shuttled back and forth between the Music Department and the Department of King’s Crown Activities. Despite a growth in membership, an increase in concert performances and more social activities, the College student body and campus newspaper criticized the club roundly for lack of spirit. It seemed that all had forgotten what the Columbia Glee Club had once stood for. There were a few conscientious members who recognized the difficulties involved and offered suggestions to the administration for solving the problem, including proper financing and a permanent director.
In April of 1949, a committee of students, faculty and alumni prepared a report recommending a new program of intensive reorganization to begin the following September. The series of traditional and warmly received Homecoming Concerts was initiated, the first one held on October 7, 1949, replacing the Thanksgiving concert and dinner-dance. The Yale Glee Club under Marshall Bartholomew sang the first concert with Columbia. The Glee Club launched the Blue Notes quartet, singing blues and barbershop, and used the Notes & Keys name for its new 12-man group specializing in Renaissance music and English madrigals. The Glee Club tackled television and radio appearances and presented a successful series of concerts, once again including performances for alumni clubs. Touring began again, and by 1950-1951, the club was financially stable for the first time in five years.
An article appeared in the December 12, 1949 Spectator which included the following excerpt:
“Saturday evening in McMillin Theater the Columbia University Glee Club was reaping the rewards of a moment for which it has been toiling since the end of the war: its Christmas concert had just ended as a tremendous and heart-warming success. The audience registered its approbation with sincere and sustained applause.
“Few people in the audience knew of the painful effort which went into making it possible for the 67 Glee Club men to step onto the McMillin stage for the full-dress Christmas Concert. Virtually defunct because of the war, the Glee Club had to start rebuilding from its very foundations. Saturday night’s performance is a testimonial to the success of its efforts.”
The post-war era was a high point in the Glee Club’s history. First, under Carl A. Lambert’s direction from 1949 to 1952, membership flourished. So many applicants auditioned that the first Freshman Glee Club was formed. Performances at area high schools and alumni clubs spread the word about Columbia. At one point, the club performed only one program throughout the concert season to “perfect the group’s delivery and continuity,” especially because the Club “eliminated more serious music (since) material of a lighter vein is generally associated with a college organization.” Under Lambert’s direction, the Glee Club made its first recording, an assortment of Columbia songs and two spirituals.
Then, J. Bailey (“Oats”) Harvey took over, conducting the club until 1968. The uninterrupted 16-year stretch of professional direction sparked a new enthusiasm for singing on campus and sealed the Glee Club’s reputation as one of the finest men’s choral ensembles in the country. Harvey initiated getting a headstart on the year by taking the club to Camp Columbia in upstate New York for 3-4 days of intensive rehearsals before classes began. He also held regular advance planning sessions with his strong student management teams, leading to extensive performance and touring schedules and such occasional highlights as an Easter trip to the White House to entertain former Columbia President Dwight Eisenhower in his new quarters, appearances on television shows headlined by Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and Ernie Kovacs, and the first appearance by a university chorus at Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall at Lincoln Center. The Town Hall Concert was reinstated as the season’s highlight.
Not surprisingly, student managers of the all-male Glee Club scheduled joint concerts with a number of then all-women’s choirs, including those from Vassar, Hunter, Briarcliff, Green Mountain Junior College, Skidmore, Marymount and Bryn Mawr. Homecoming concerts, often performed in home-and-home appearances, took place with glee clubs from Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Lehigh, Rutgers and West Point.
Harvey recruited first Gerald Weale, College 1957 and later Bruce Trinkley, College 1966 as Assistant Directors. Trinkley took over the Glee Club’s direction for a year on Harvey’s retirement, and Bruce McInnes followed him for another year.
Gregg Smith’s time as director of the Glee Club in the early 1970′s was marked by an extensive performance schedule, the Glee Club’s first tours to Europe and to Mexico and a trip to Texas to record one of his compositions, Beware of the Soldier, with the Texas Boys Choir.
Warren H. Brown took over the Glee Club’s music direction in 1976, and his 22-year tenure exceeds that of any of his predecessors. Among the high points of his time was the College’s going co-ed, which significantly changed the composition and repertory of the Glee Club. Fortunately, he had chosen to cast women as tenors in the years before co-education! Brown’s time with the Glee Club included concerts at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center and extensive touring, including a tour to Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1978 as well as trips to Puerto Rico in 1980, 1990 and 1991, Louisiana and California. His leadership also coincided with the University’s restructuring of undergraduate education, effectively encouraging greater cross-membership in activities by students at the College, Engineering/SEAS, General Studies and Barnard. During 1988-1989, the 12-person Notes & Keys group broke away from the Glee Club and began a separate life as its own a cappella organization, joining a number of others on campus. But the Glee Club was resolute in continuing its tradition of singing school songs on the Sundial after returning from away concerts, regardless of the hour, not to speak of regular performances at Homecoming and Columbia College Class Day.
In 1999, Richard Owen became the Glee Club’s conductor. Among other things, he began a tradition of performing the Mozart Requiem in St. Paul’s Chapel annually, a ritual taken up by his wife, Kate Owen, who succeeded Richard as conductor in 2006. A number of these performances were done with the musicians of Camerata New York, which the Owens had founded.
But some of the other traditions and practices of the Glee Clubs of old began to fade away, and the club came under the pressures of today. The Glee Club’s roller-coaster history brought it to a trough, a place where it has been before and from which it has emerged before.
Today’s Columbia University Glee Club looks back on that musical history since 1873 with a combination of amazement, frustration, amusement, and satisfaction, but more importantly looks forward to many more years of singing choral music with the spirit that has consistently charmed audiences and of taking pride in being the musical voice of Columbia.