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Yale 62

Singing at Yale
Singing at Yale

By John Stewart

Yale has a singing tradition in length and variety unsurpassed anywhere as far as I know. The center of this tradition is of course the Yale Glee Club, founded in1863 and still going strong.

In our senior year the YGC was accompanied by two freshman groups and an intermediary glee club, the Apollo, which I had the honor of directing. In our sophomore year director Fenno Heath was called away for a family emergency in the fall and I was invited to conduct a concert. By then the music had been learned and memorized, a friend loaned me a pair of more formal shoes replacing my Wenjuns deemed not fitting to be worn with our tails, and I really without much trepidation stood in front of the group and did the concert. Although from that day on I was anointed the assistant director I never again got to conduct them but had a smaller group within the glee club. But the Apollo group was really fun, and I learned a lot. Actually, it was far less stressful than pitching the Spizzwinks? (Herding cats) I recruited by announcing that the concert season would include several joint appearances with women’s choruses. The Yale Russian Chorus had been founded first as an adjunct to Russian studies in ca. 1953. Denis Mickiewicz was and is an incredibly charismatic and excellent musician with a profound knowledge of Slavic sacred and secular material, much of which remains in their repertoire 70 years later. When I listen to for example the Yale Glee Club’s 100th anniversary concert in 1960 the sound is rich and massive with great dynamic contrasts. The Yale Russian Chorus at the same time had a rich and massive sound with great dynamic contrasts. The difference was structural: the Glee Club would march on to the stage, stand uniformly while the YRC wondered on, stood more or less in part sections, and presented with much more visual passion. I sang in both, having joined the YRC in the spring of ’63 for a European tour. Amazingly enough both groups were in Paris at the same time, and I met up with Dixie Carroll and other classmates who’d been invited to go along. The YRC has a very powerful alumni presence, mirroring the YGC’s, but is invited to join the current group whenever they are available.

John Stewart

John Stewart

Although co-education and the late 60s unrest was only a short time away, I feel that in terms of musical taste we could still be characterized as the remnants of the Silent Generation. The glee club rep always included one 16th century piece, something by Fenno, spirituals and folk songs. We did do a major choral work each spring. The a capella groups did Broadway songs in jazzy arrangements, folk songs, and barbershop songs as well as material from the still wonderful Yale songbook, a compendium of all the above plus spirituals. Another remarkable aspect of the Yale tradition are its contents going way beyond terrific fight songs into lovely sentimental as well as very witty, now dated and would make you wince songs. Perhaps you knew that the tune of our Alma Mater is known as “Die Wacht am Rhein”, a 19th century patriotic German song much loved during the Great War.

The oldest a capella group, the Whiffenpoofs, were formed in 1909, followed by the Spizzwinks? who only lasted one year before re-forming in the late ’30s. Most of the other groups active in our time who also formed in the late ’30s or early ’40s are still active except for the Bachelors and the Augmented Seven, known for their to us adventurous and suspicions guitar accompanied Calypso rep. As mentioned above the song selection was remarkably consistent among the groups. Note: no rock. Surviving groups are Baker’s Dozen, The Society of Orpheus and Bacchus (affectionately and universally known as the SOBs), the Yale Alley Cats, the former Duke’s Men, now co-ed and known as The Doox, and a month ago the Spizzwinks? admitted their first women. There was a quartet during our time that modeled itself on the Four Freshmen, one of whose members, Pete Wells, became a Whiff in 1960 and was a wonderful soloist with a jazzy rather than classical voice. Today the musical diet of these groups is a main course of rock covers; the songs are listed by their performers. The Whiffs retain a much broader based rep, still with the addition of pop-rock material. These days all the groups use mikes and sophisticated engineering which can include “auto-tuning,” correcting out-of-tuning. Usually one member is making percussion noises.

As in so many ways, the great turning point in the singing world was the arrival of women. Fenno immediately admitted women to the Glee Club, ending joint concerts with Smith et al. but greatly expanding the repertoire. For him this was a great new impetus, which helped him get over his feelings of abandonment when the Whiffs in the late ’60s departed the Glee Club.

Jumping to now, there has been in the 60 years since our departure an enormous increase in singing opportunities, both in quantity and variety. The Freshmen and Apollo Glee Clubs have vanished, as today’s Yale students are interested in kinds of performance not known to our generation. For example, there is an undergraduate opera society, separate from the School of Music’s professional path, that does 2 or 3 staged opera performances each year. Open to all Yale students and on into the New Haven community are the School of Music’s Camerata, the Institute of Sacred Music’s Schola Cantorum, and the Battell Chapel Choir (also evident in our day). These groups are by audition and do a great range of music. Student-run groups include the Yale Russian Chorus and the Yale Slavic Chorus, the latter an enormously charming women’s group singing Eastern European folk and composed music.

Here’s a list of current undergrad a capella groups. I’m grateful to ’64 Whiff Roger “Abomic” Thompson who prepared a talk for his class for much of the following.

The list divides by pitch range, what used to be described as women’s voices, soprano and alto, or men’s voices, tenor and bass, but these categories have been considerably relaxed. I include some senses of their repertoire which despite being dominated by rock and roll covers, where the songs are listed by the artist they are covering, still includes other stuff.

Something Extra – mostly rock covers
New Blue of Yale -soft rock tending to ballads
Proof of the Pudding – jazzy covers
Whim ‘n Rhythm – the senior women’s version of the Whiffs, a wider rep and they admitted their first male who’d been the business manager of the Spizzwinks?

Pitch & Tones – ca. 25 members
Out of the Blue – jazz
Living Water – Christian gospel
Mixed Company – wide repertoire
Shades – mainly African-American gospel
Redhot & Blue – jazz

TTBB – these groups do a lot of rock covers
Baker’s Dozen
Society of Orpheus and Bacchus (SOBs)
The Yale Alley Cats
Doox of Yale – onetime Duke’s Men but officialized their former nickname when they became all gender. n.b. the women sing tenor
The Spizzwinks? – admitted their first woman this month
The Whiffenpoofs – all gender with still a variety of repertoire

Other changes include lots of jokey patter and choreography. Almost all these groups can be found on YouTube. Two factors helped me make the leap to appreciate what my former group, the Spizzwinks? does. First of all, they are very very good at it: complicated arrangements sung in tune and precisely, mostly interesting soloists, but most important is they LOVE doing it, and this communicates wonderfully, transcending my dislike of the genre, of microphones, of jokes and choreography.

I think we all can look back at our lives with great gratitude for those lucky happenings that help form us. I went to Yale because my college counselor suggested it (getting accepted was part of the luck!) not knowing much more than the very prestigious name. Singing solos in high school brought more mockery than admiration and to discover that singing at Yale had positive social value was a happy discovery. In our day there were well over a dozen undergrads possessing voices with operatic potential and our class was abundantly gifted; Bill Gross, Dixie Carroll, Sherm Chickering, Boyd Murray, Al Overmyer, Bob Hempstead and Charlie Grant, to name only a few. The singing groups needed no mikes, the desired sound had carrying power and some tonal richness. Again, I was lucky that the ‘Winks’ membership had been reduced by members taking a year off so 5 of us newbies were inducted: Charlie Michener, Bill Gross, Charlie Grant, Lew Spratlan, and Cam Carey. We had a great time. The next stroke of luck was to be elected music director or pitch pipe (you probably remember the P P walking back and forth in front of the group blowing mightily and hoping that the membership remembered what you’d given them.) The experience of leading the Winks? for two years gave me more preparation for what I thought my career path would be – choir director – than any single subsequent experience. I had the musical know-how but lacked patience and charity, and had an ill-governed temper. But they were patient and charitable with me, with a certain degree of chiding, and I got better. I learned much from Fenno Heath in three years and joining the Yale Russian Chorus exposed me to the amazing Denis Mickiewicz, Dionysus to Fennos’s Apollo. Through the Glee Club I had a voice lessons scholarship, but never thought I had the goods until I was 24 and held an apprenticeship singing in the chorus of the Santa Fe Opera (whose director was John Crosby ’50), which was even more fun. But the lifelong friendships formed in the Winks? and Whiffs continue to nourish me. In addition, the alumni of the YRC over the years have done their own concerts in which I’ve sung and conducted, creating another strong bond.

We welcome your comments below.

2 comments to Singing at Yale

  • William Henry Gilbert

    Hi John, 6 July 2023 (Thur)
    Thanks for your email yesterday about “Singing at Yale…Yale Class of 1962″… very interesting and a well written summary from the most notable “gentleman songster” in our class! You and I followed similar music trajectories at Yale: I sang in the Freshman Glee Club and got to know you and John Knutson & Rud Platt. Knutson, Platt & I roomed together our next 3 years at Yale’s TD College.
    I took singing lessons freshman year from a “Mr. May”, who was assoc. with Yale Music and taught me how to sing correctly.. which I didn’t know how to do despite singing in my high school glee club. Knutson & I moved on to the Yale Glee Club our sophomore year, and Platt sang with the Apollo Glee Club.
    At the urging of fellow TD-er, Bob Hempstead, I resigned from the Glee Club at end of our Junior year, after 2 years with Yale’s ‘varsity singing club’, to Join the Yale Russian Chorus, as they planned a European Trip after our senior graduation in ’62… and Rud Platt moved from Apollo to Yale Glee Club for his senior year. Best wishes, Bill G.

  • John

    I contend I’m the least talented in the class of ’62 at singing. My credentials are; I was kicked out of the boys’ choir in elementary school. Then in High School, for my graduation day, the music director asked one person out of 400 not to sing. That was me. But sing I did anyway. I figured that she would not come after me on stage during the graduation and afterwards didn’t matter. In my heart I was happy and I was going to sing out strong.
    I have always enjoyed listening to people sing or play music. Still do.
    My Ukrainian mother was different at being able to sing. She was very talented and she sang in a group and also the church choir into her 90s. I’m essentially tone deaf, but in my heart I love singing. And I love string music. Most of all, the violin. I could never ever play it. I don’t have the ear. I am not embarrassed with my physical and mental musical shortcomings.
    When I was at Yale, Judi and I went to concerts to hear Ray Chales, Peter, Paul and Mary, Harry Belafonte. Then later in New Orleans, Al Herbs, Pete Fountain, Preservation Hall. Later years still, we went and listened to Van Cliburn play the piano in Las Vegas. We sat above and behind him and could watch his very long fingers glide across the keyboard.
    Still later in the In 2011 I was asked to participate in Dancing with our Stars here in Tucson for a fund raiser. I had a great dance instructor who, on the first lesson, spent an hour replaying the music over and over again, until I caught on the subtleties of the music being played. We never got onto the dance floor but I learned a lot about how to hear music. I wish that had happened when I was five years old.
    That said, I might have learned something. I danced the Tango in competition and came in second to Diana Madaras, an artist, former dance instructor and she had a gown that was open to her waist. I couldn’t beat that.
    That said, I greatly appreciated the Whiffenpoofs in ‘62s and at our graduations. They are a special part of my Yale memories. This article that you wrote on the history on Singing at Yale and of the Whiffenpoofs touched me.

    Classmate ’62,
    Bob Breault