American universities inherited a choral tradition from England where, centuries ago, student choruses gathered to sing songs with different vocal parts known as glees. Today, dozens of U.S. colleges have glee clubs - a cappella choruses open to students who pass an audition.
The Yale Glee Club is the nation’s third oldest collegiate chorus. What began as a group of friends serenading passersby, has grown into a powerhouse vocal ensemble. This year marks its 150th anniversary, and this month, decades' worth of Yale Glee Club alumni head to New Haven, Connecticut for a reunion.
Singing has always been a big part of life at Yale, no matter what you’re studying. Art major - later actor - Vincent Price and music major - later minister - William Sloane Coffin sang in the Glee Club. And so did Cole Porter, one of America’s most popular composers, who wrote a football song celebrating Yale’s mascot, "Handsome Dan the Bulldog."
Another alum is Richard Brookhiser, who’s now senior editor at the conservative magazine National Review. In college, he was already active in politics and recalls he enjoyed the wide cross section of people he met in the Glee Club.
"These were people who weren’t into politics, or didn’t share my politics necessarily," says Brookhiser. "But when you were singing, that didn’t matter, because you were all focused on the music, and having a good time doing the music."
The Glee Club performs a mixture of folk songs, spirituals and classical music.
"And that also showed someone who was maybe snobbish like I was, that all these different kinds of music have a value," says Brookhiser.
The Yale Glee Club dates back to February 1861, and in all that time, there’ve only been seven conductors. Stowe Phelps, 93, sang under the fourth one, Marshall Bartholomew - known as Barty.
"Barty was a wonderful, affable teacher and conductor," says Phelps. "He made us work hard and insisted upon perfection."
Barty arranged dozens of folk songs and spirituals for what was then an all-male Glee Club. Jeffrey Douma, current conductor of the Glee Club, says it was no wonder that a music publisher snapped up those arrangements to sell to other groups.
"From our vantage point in 2011, they seem very old fashioned, but they were very fresh, and very exciting," says Douma, "and that’s why his collection of Songs of Yale was the staple of male chorus repertoire for decades. Still is, actually."
Barty led the Glee Club for over three decades, and his successor, Fenno Heath, spent nearly four decades conducting and composing for the group. Yale went co-ed during his tenure - in 1969 - and so did the Glee Club.
Phelps had mixed feelings about the change. "There is a passion, there is a vigor, there is a forcefulness, which is more thrilling," he says of an all-male Glee Club.
But the Glee Club survived and thrived as a mixed chorus. Yale Students down through the years have found the Glee Club’s rehearsal room in Hendrie Hall a refuge from academic, and other pressures.
Roy Byrd, a Glee Club soloist, was there in the 1960’s. "Being black at Yale was a big deal. Being black in the Glee Club was no bigger deal than Yale generally. And in fact, because we had something in common with one another in the Glee Club, it was a small deal."
Prochie Mukherji arrived at the Yale Law School in 1972. "There I was, a student from India, very far away from home. And the Yale Glee Club really was my door to making friends and to meeting people. It was a wonderful experience to have a common language in music."
For many, the people they met in the Glee Club are friends for life. Touring reinforced those friendships, with concerts across the country every winter, and tours abroad every other summer.
Conductor Jeffrey Douma considers the social element key to his group. "When the personal connections are strong, we’re not only trying to serve the music and the composer, and we’re not only singing for the audience, but we’re also singing for each other. And we want to get it right for each other."
Current Glee Club members are just beginning to appreciate the group's rich history.
"The continuity of Glee Club across time, for the last 150 years - that’s something I hadn’t thought about as much until my senior year," says Mari Oye, a senior studying political science. "I’m hoping we’ll still be kicking for the 200th reunion, and we’ll be able to come back to Hendrie and bawl our eyes out."
Seventy-five years worth of Glee Club members were scheduled to take to the stage together at the reunion - from Stowe Phelps, class of 1939, through current Glee Club freshmen, class of 2014.