America’s oldest college chorus, the Harvard Glee Club was founded in March 1858 by the president of Harvard’s Pierian Sodality and several of its College friends. Over the rest of the 19th century, HGC numbered about a dozen or two tenor-basses and sang a repertoire ranging from old European and American college and folk songs to contemporary art songs to popular operetta/show tunes, often combining with banjo and mandolin ensembles and local bands. Its performances were not limited to metropolitan Boston but extended throughout the Northeast.
In the early years of the 20th century, many HGC members were also singing in the Harvard University Choir. They appreciated the advantage of the vocal training and of learning sacred music, and they gradually convinced the Club to ask the University Organist and Choirmaster, Dr. Archibald T. Davison, to coach HGC. From 1912, “Doc” Davison expanded the Glee Club’s musical horizons and improved its vocal/choral abilities, as a larger HGC performed solo concerts as far afield as the Midwest. During this period, Doc began combining HGC with the women of the Radcliffe Choral Society for large choral-orchestral works; and in 1917, HGC and RCS began singing these works with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, an association that continued into the middle 1970s.
The tenor-basses of HGC liked these new experiences and in 1919 asked Doc Davison to become HGC’s first conductor. He agreed, with the proviso that the choice of repertoire would be his. By the end of the ‘teens, HGC was singing sacred and secular pieces from the renaissance times till the present, folk songs from around the world, and college songs and had ceased its relationships with the mandolin clubs and popular music.
HGC became one of the first American college choruses to concertize in Europe when it accepted the invitation of the French government for an extensive tour during June and July of 1921, performances at sites including major concert halls in major cities and a World War memorial at Strasbourg Cathedral. Not only was this Tour documented by almost daily reports in the French and American press, but it also inspired the writing of new pieces of men’s choral music specifically for HGC by two young French composers: Poulenc’s Chanson a boire(allegedly based on a Tour reception for HGC) and Milhaud’s Psaume 121.
Thus, by the 1920s, most of the basics of HGC had evolved: several dozen Harvard students, mostly from the College, singing serious choral music under the direction of a strong Conductor, traveling all over the United States and sometimes abroad to entertain and educate, encouraging and evoking the composition of new music, and performing choral-orchestral works with such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, often combining with RCS. The only components of the HGC experience added after the ’20s are recording — up and running since the middle 1930s — and performing for major choral organizations such as the American Choral Directors Association and the Intercollegiate Men’s Choruses.
There have been just five conductors of the Harvard Glee Club: Archibald T. Davison (“Doc”): 1919-1933, G. Wallace Woodworth (“Woody”): 1933-1958, Elliot Forbes (“El”): 1958-1970, F. John Adams (“F. John”): 1970-1978, and Jameson N. Marvin (“Jim”) since 1978. Many of their students and Assistant Conductors have become leaders in American music, including Virgil Thomson, Elliot Carter, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Fine, John Harbison, and Hugh Wolf, the current choral directors at institutions from Cornell University to Occidental College, and numerous managers or orchestras and festivals all over the country.
Concert tours have continued to be an important part of Glee Club life for over 80 years. Spring breaks see HGC annually on the road for ten days of performances all over the United States. Although there was a long break between the first and second HGC Summer Tours (1921 to 1956), they have become more frequent: Europe in 1956, 1973, 1987, 2002; Asia in 1961, 1982, 1993; Australia 1998; USA 1978. There have in addition been summer tours with RCS: cross-country in 1947 and 1954; USA/Canada in 1964; around the world in 1967.
Symphony collaborations over the years have included multiple performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under all of its Conductors since 1917, as well as with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, and the Italian Radio Orchestra. Several BSO highlights: the American premiere of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, later recorded with the BSO under Bernstein; two Berlioz recordings: Romeo et Juliet and la Damnation de Faust, the latter of which won a Grand Prix du Disc; and Mozart’sRequiem, which got a Grammy nomination for this concert performance in memory of JFK.
Finally, since Poulenc and Milhaud wrote their pieces in 1922, several important 20th century composers have created works for HGC. These include Virgil Thomson, Randall Thompson, Gustav Holst, Elliot Carter, Leonard Bernstein. Irving Fine, John Harbison, Toru Takemitsu, even P.D.Q. Bach! And the HGC Foundation is currently commissioning a new batch of pieces from contemporary composers: Charles Fussell, Carol Barnett, Sir John Tavener, Stephen Paulus, Steven Sametz, Frank Ferko, and Morten Lauridsen, so far, leading up to HGC’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 2008.
Today’s Harvard Glee Club consists of about 65 men, mostly undergraduates at Harvard College, plus a few students from Harvard’s graduate schools, from all over the USA and abroad, very few of them majoring in music or destined for a musical career. This HGC continues to flourish, singing good music well, demonstrating the persisting vitality of men’s choral music on campus and all over the world, in concert halls and schools and churches, live and on recordings, for novices and for the knowledgeable choral community. By itself and with the Radcliffe Choral Society and the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, HGC is a first-rate representative of Harvard to itself and to willing ears around the globe.