A dream of Christmas: the Glee Club Christmas Concert’s first ten years

Oldest known Glee Club Christmas Concert program, from 1943

This year marked the 74th annual Christmas concerts of the Virginia Glee Club. Started during wartime in 1941 by Glee Club conductor Harry Rogers Pratt and continued through to the present day without interruption, this concert series has been the longest running musical tradition at the University of Virginia. I thought I’d look back and see what we know about these concerts and their evolution.

The first Glee Club Christmas concert was held in 1941 under the direction of Harry Rogers Pratt. We don’t have any documentary evidence of this concert; somehow no one associated with the University saved the program, at least not that we’ve found. But we have a College Topics (forerunner of the Cavalier Daily) article documenting the existence of the second concert, in 1942. The concert was to include a procession down the Lawn, “several Wassail songs,” and an audience singalong.

The 1942 concert was Pratt’s last performance as Glee Club director; he resigned the following spring to focus on war efforts. His successor, Stephen Tuttle, continued the tradition during wartime and arguably made the Glee Club Christmas concert what it is today, with a mix of audience carols, familiar and new holiday music, and interesting collaborations. We have the program from the 1943 concert, and it’s interesting reading. Arguably a little heavy on Holst and Bach, there are a few jewels among the items chosen, including a Tuttle arrangement of the Spanish carol “Hasten, Shepherds” that would show up performed by the Virginia Gentlemen in the 1967 Christmas performances. While composer and music department head Randall Thompson was accompanist for the performances, none of his works were programmed; that would change in years to come.

The other noteworthy thing about the 1943 performance is the inclusion of the Madrigal Group. Comprised of women associated with the University community, this group of thirteen women appears to have been UVa’s first women’s chorus! (I previously wrote about the Madrigal Group in 2011; sadly nothing came of my appeal for information.)

We don’t have a program from 1944, but the performance is attested in College Topics, including a roster of the Madrigal Group (which included a few members who had sung in 1943). 1945 continues in much the same vein, including a performance of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia (first performed by the Glee Club in its fall concerts that year).

The postwar years saw a massive swell of membership in the Glee Club, but the Christmas Concert formula remained remarkably stable, albeit with one major change, the departure of the Madrigal Group — there’s no attestation of the group’s existence after Christmas 1945 (save for a brief revival of the name in 1957). Over time, as Tuttle’s tenure in the directorship lengthened, his influence on the repertoire increased, with Renaissance composers like Orlando di Lasso and Josquin appearing alongside the customary Bach in 1947. This concert was also the oldest for which a recording survives, according to the UVA Special Collections library.

In 1948, during Tuttle’s Harvard sabbatical, Henry Morgan stepped in and delivered a fine entry in the canon, with a program that differed in specifics (a new Peter Warlock carol, a new carol by Morgan himself) but overall fit the general formula that was by now well established. I don’t have the 1949 program in the Glee Club archives, but 1950 continued along the same track, with new carols (“How Still and Tiny,” a Polish carol, makes its first appearance this year) joining the well established English and French numbers.

In the first ten years, the formula for the Virginia Glee Club Christmas Concert was well established: audience carols, familiar and unfamiliar tunes, larger works, guest groups, and lots of reflective holiday works. That you could take any of these programs from the first ten years and perform them without modification today suggests the longevity of the formula, and helps to drive home why these concerts became an annual tradition.

“Rugby Road” revisited

Thanks to the horrific article in Rolling Stone detailing the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student at Phi Kappa Psi, I’ve been thinking a lot about my alma mater this week. As part of that, I’ve revisited a piece I wrote in 2011 about the song used as a framing device for the article, “From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill.” I spent some more time thinking about the piece last night after my Virginia Glee Club Wiki article about the song was linked from the New York Times yesterday.

Late last week, the current president of the Virginia Glee Club announced that he had taken an executive action to ban the performance of the song during his presidency. Left unreported in the Cavalier Daily article was the fact that he had also called for a vote of the membership to consider a permanent ban on the song; the ban was instead reported as “temporary,” prompting a storm of comments accusing the president of disingenuity or worse.

I wrote a letter to the president of Club and to other Club alumni last night about the issue and my thoughts regarding the prospect of a permanent. On reflection, I’m opening up the letter to a broader audience. I welcome reasoned discussion in the comments or elsewhere.

I have long jokingly said that those who criticize “Rugby Road” for sexism miss the point, since the first stanza celebrates the sort of conflict between faculty and student that led to the murder of John A.G. Davis by a rioting student. But of course, Davis’s shooting in 1842 led to a very public examination of the issues of student behavior, lawlessness, and entitlement that led to the tragedy, and to major changes in the course of the University’s history. By contrast, the issues raised in the second stanza, to say nothing of the apocryphal subsequent stanzas, are just now being publicly examined by the entire University community. This may well be this generation’s equivalent of the John A. G. Davis moment.
My feelings as an alum? By the time I came along, “Rugby Road” was only performed after midnight at the Clubhouse – we knew it wasn’t made for daylight. While there is a case to be made for celebrating history and for songs of revelry, my personal belief is that times have changed and the time for this song has passed. I am usually one to argue for preserving tradition, but not now. I am glad you retired the song; as a Club alum and the brother of a Women’s Chorus alumna, I hope it stays retired.
That said, the thing that makes me most proud of you guys and that gives me most hope for the University is that fact that you acted as a student leader, and not on the orders of an administrator or faculty advisor, to retire the song. The culture of self governance that grew from the tragedy in 1842 can still act in positive ways. Indeed, it is the only possible force for long term changes to student behavior. Thanks for showing that it still works.
The whole University is struggling to understand how the events alleged at Phi Kappa Psi, and especially the lukewarm response of the administration, could have happened at Mr. Jefferson’s University. In the process of our self-reflection, I think many of us, myself included, are becoming aware of aspects of the culture long taken for granted that contribute to a culture that protects attackers and blunts justice. I think it’s important to support the University, and particularly its current student population, as they work with best intentions to address those aspects of the culture, and not to tear them down.

More on the Parker-Morrell-Dana House

Stone building 1865

When I wrote about our most distinguished neighborhood house, the Parker-Morrell-Dana house, I compared a modern day photo to an 1865 one from Lexington’s Cary Library and evinced surprise at the large number of alterations, including changing Doric to Ionic columns and changing the shape of the parapet windows. How, I asked, had the local historic district permitted such alterations?

Of course, they didn’t. The library had mislabled a photo of the Stone Building as being the Parker-Morell-Dana house. In retrospect, the giveaways were obvious, and I probably would have caught it myself if I had used the modern day shot of the Stone Building below, rather than the front facade shot that I used instead.

Stone building 3

But that’s the Stone Building. The Parker-Morrell-Dana House is something else again. Here’s an undated print of the front of the house, courtesy the Cary Library (again).

Dana house

In this picture — probably not from 1865 — you can see all the features that were present in my modern day photo, including the Ionic portico, the conventional square windows, and even the brick sides of the house (if you look very closely. You can also see one of my favorite features: the elongated window frames, made to look as if the facade had triple sashed windows like the ones on Jefferson’s Pavilions at the University of Virginia. But the bottom third inside the frame is just regular siding.

So anyway, that’s the story of how a mislabeled photograph led me astray. As they say, we regret the error.

The historic survey form from the 1970s has more information about the house and its history.

Update: Just heard from the library and they’re correcting the exhibit.

New house, new neighborhood

One of the big surprises of our new place (well, not so new any more — we’ve been here almost three months) was that it was in a neighborhood. A very old neighborhood, established almost 200 years ago. As I wrote in my last post about the house, there’s been a house in this location for almost 300 years. There was building all around this area then, but it really got going in the early 19th century.

Follen Church

Follen church

About 120 years after the old Robbins house was built where our place now stands, the Follen Church Society called their first minister, and built their unique octagonal church building four years later, in 1839. The Follen Church feels like the center of this little village here in East Lexington. The bells chime every hour. And all the other civic buildings are spread out around it.

Yes, civic buildings. And the Follen Church isn’t even the second oldest one. There are a little cluster of them here, or not far from here. Fire station, a little further up the road. Then there’s…

The Waldorf School

Adams school

Originally the Adams School, this is the second school building in and around this site. The original Adams School building, dating to 1890, was just across the street where a parking lot now stands. The “new” building, constructed in 1912, has been home to the Waldorf School of Lexington since 1980. The school stands far back from Massachusetts Avenue, just south of the Follen Church. It’s got a town park behind it with a playground, soccer field, tennis and basketball courts too.

The Stone Building

Lecture hall

The Stone Building is not to be confused with a stone building. It’s a fantastic Greek Revival building that is the second oldest civic building in the cluster. Built in 1833 by Eli Robbins as a lyceum, it housed quite a few notable speakers over the years, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Josiah Quincy, Jr. It was used as a branch library until a burst pipe in 2007 caused significant damage, causing the structure to close. It’s still closed, though some repairs were done to contain the damage; plaster was stripped from the entire ceiling and some walls in the first floor, but carved decorative lintels around the windows are still intact, as visible in a video shot inside the building in 2008. You can read the architectural recommendations made five years ago.

“Brick Store”

General store

Now owned by the Waldorf School, the “Brick Store” was the original East Lexington post office. Built in 1828, it’s the oldest of the civic buildings in the East Lexington area. It’s also the building that abuts our property, though we’re separated by a parking lot and a stone wall.

Parker – Morrell – Dana House

Parker morrell dana house

This last stop on our tour is the first building I noticed in our neighborhood, and the oldest of the buildings on this tour — but it’s not a civic building, it’s a private residence. Abutting the house on the other side of the cul-de-sac from ours, this fairly magnificent Greek Revival home dating from the early 19th century has apparently always been a pillar of the surrounding community. Built around 1800 for Obadiah Parker, it was converted into its current temple form in 1839 for furrier Ambrose Morrell, who was Eli Robbins’ neighbor and business rival. It’s worth noting that it has undergone some changes over the years; while it currently sports Ionic order capitals on its front porch columns, a photo from 1865 shows a plainer order — maybe Doric — as well as other alterations that have been made, such as the removal of a side entrance and the removal of clapboards on the sides to show the original Federal brick façade. Even more striking is the removal of the quarter-lune windows in the triglyph. I’d love to find the meetings of the historical committee meeting that let that one go down. (Update: Of course the historical committee didn’t allow such a change. See my next post for an explanation of the confusion.)

So yes, our little cluster of buildings on the side of Mass Ave is architecturally delightful and complex—and fun. And that’s even before we talk about the bike trail, the Great Meadows, Wilson Farm…

The Brahms Requiem at 41

Symphony Hall, orchestra rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem.

Symphony Hall, orchestra rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem.

(By which I mean, of course, my age, not the age of the work.)

I last wrote about Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem in 2009, at the end of a run in which we performed the work in Symphony Hall, issued an official recording, and reprised it at Tanglewood. It was a different time: James Levine was at the relative height of his powers and I was singing more regularly with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

We reprised the work a few years later under Christoph von Dohnányi, in a totally different performance. By that time I wasn’t blogging as regularly so I don’t have any notes from that run. I remember a few things, though: his tempi were brisk, his interpretation totally unsentimental, and his demands on the chorus’s diction were fierce.

This run, which concluded a week ago, was to have been conducted by the great Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, with whom I was fortunate to sing a few times. But he passed away this summer, and the task of filling his shoes went to Bramwell Tovey. The chorus had sung with him before, but I had not, and had heard about his affability but not much about his musicianship. He turns out to be, at least with the Requiem, a conductor concerned not so much with putting an individual stamp on the work than with seeking how the text determines the flow of the piece. To that end he, like Dohnányi, asked the highest level of diction and pitch precision from the chorus. Our chorus conductor, Bill Cutter, helped with that, pitilessly letting us know when we could be doing better.

For this performance, my third time through the work, I had a pretty good idea of what some of the major challenges would be for me. I wrote about some of them in the post from Tanglewood:

I found what may be the real culprit of the sixth movement, for me at least. It’s not just the overall arc of the piece, but specifically the tenor part immediately preceding the fugue, where all choral voices respond… And the text is sung at absolutely full volume over some of the thickest orchestration in the work, and in the high part of the tenor range.

This is the rub, at least for me. The need to support the voice is strong, but at that volume and emotional fervor it’s very easy to tip over from supporting to tightening, and then the battle is lost and the voice closes progressively until it is difficult to get any sound out at all. Once that happens the following fugue is unsingable.

Well, friends, I’m here to tell you that I had the right problem area, but the solution was both easier and harder than I thought.

The hard part was in placing my voice properly. I have never had more than a few hours of formal voice instruction since I got my full instrument, and so it takes me a while to learn things that I suppose most voice majors know inherently. (The hazards of being a sciences major and not taking advantage of the meager vocal instruction offerings at my undergrad, among other things.) Sometime over the past few years, though, I managed to learn about two important concepts in voice placement: singing toward and through the mask, and keeping the ceiling of the vocal chamber high. What follows is an embarrassing amateur’s assessment of how this works; I welcome correction.

The “mask,” or the frontal bones of the face, is where a good portion of the resonant overtones of the voice develop, due in no small part to vibrations through the sinus cavities (yes, they’re good for something besides infections). But the voice must be directed through this part rather than being allowed to linger in the back of the vocal chamber for the resonance to take effect. Once it does, the difference is startling: a brightness and sharpness to the sound that cuts through surrounding noise for far less vocal effort. The challenges are in keeping the sinuses clear (no small task thanks to the common cold) and managing the position of the facial muscles that support singing so that the placement happens properly.

The full vocal chamber, otherwise known as the front of the face, the cavity of the mouth, and the back of the throat, is important in developing the fullness of the sound. Again, my amateur guess is that this has something to do with developing the right resonant frequencies. It turns out that for me, one of the most important parts of this process, in addition to the mask, is keeping the soft palate, which forms the ceiling of the vocal chamber, high and out of the way. If it comes down, producing sound on pitch is much harder, the sound is muddied, and if you’re singing through the mask and not taking advantage of the full chamber you get a sharp thin sound rather than a penetrating fuller sound.

This leads me to the other thing that was much easier in solving the problem. One of the things that makes keeping the soft palate in the proper place extremely hard is not being prepared for the next vowel sound that is being produced. If you are unsure about whether an e or an ah is coming next, the palate doesn’t know where to go, and producing any sort of sound at all becomes a challenge of brute force.

In this context, my prior problem about my voice “tightening” had a simple diagnosis: I was not comfortable with the text. By that point in movement six my memory was generally unreliable so I couldn’t anchor the Den es wird die Pasaune schallen. I finally figured out what was going on in one of our rehearsals when we started on the second repetition, Der Tod is verschlungen in den Sieg, sung on virtually the same tune, and I had no difficulty in keeping the voice from tightening. Why? I knew the words better! I didn’t have to force the sound, and that meant I could keep the palate high and the muscles in the proper place! All I had to do to make this a general solution was focus on ensuring that I had the right words!

So for this run I managed, most of the time, to keep the apparatus such that I was producing the right sort of sound throughout, and it made all the difference in the world. I even sang in my church choir the following morning; usually after a Brahms Requiem run I’m a ragged baritone for at least a week.

Lessons learned?

  1. Stay conscious of the mask and the ceiling of the chamber.
  2. Learn the damned text. First, if possible.

This should be fun as we head into the Rachmaninoff that we’ll sing next. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to learn that much Russian.

Symphony Hall, 2014

Symphony Hall, 2014

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New house, new history

The fence in front of our house is more than 150 years old, but the house itself is only 67 years old.

That was one of the surprises I had when researching the history of our new house. It sits on a main thoroughfare of Lexington, down the street from a church, meeting hall, and old village grocery store, and I always wondered how it was that there was relatively new construction here. It turns out the answer was simple: they moved the old house.

On our lot in 1716, Stephen Robbins built his homestead, and the Robbins family lived here through the mid-19th century. Around 1850, his family built the fence in front of the house, the one historical structure on the property. It’s sturdy, built of wrought iron and granite posts, and it isn’t going anywhere.

Unlike the Robbins house. After a long history (among other things, the house was apparently a station on the Underground Railway), the house moved on—literally. In the 1940s, Helen Potter bought the place for $500, then spent more than $3,000 to move it up the street, where it still stands today. In its place, the Cataldo family built our brick Colonial, completing it in 1947.

The Cataldos have been in town since the early 20th century. There’s a good oral history by one of the brothers that talks about the early days of the family, including Anthony Cataldo, who founded the Depository Trust Company of Medford and who purchased the depot building for a bank branch when the Lexington West Cambridge Railroad stopped running.

At some point before 1993 the property changed hands, and the biggest alteration was made: a subdivision of the property (and maybe the adjacent property) resulted in the creation of a cul-de-sac and three old-looking modern Colonial houses that surrounded it. Aside from the demolition of an old barn that once stood on a corner of our property, the biggest change to our house was a remodel that left us with gold fixtures in the bathrooms. 

Fast forward twenty years. After a few owners, the house was purchased by a nearby school eight years ago and became a rental property. When they realized they needed cash for renovation projects, the house went on the market and we snapped it up. Now comes the fun part of its history: making it ours.

New house, new start

lexingtonHouse.jpg

The Jarrett House North has moved. I don’t mean this blog, though given my relative silence here for the last too-long-to-count you’d be forgiven for thinking all the action was going on elsewhere. No, I mean our physical house. Ten years to the day after buying our first Massachusetts home, we became the owners of this 1947 Colonial in Lexington. After ten years in a Cape, I still can’t get over all the space. I mean, we certainly made that little Cape as spacious as we could. But it’s no match for center hall, full second floor, full attic. Even with only a half-finished basement it’s still a lot of room. So of course, we’re still in boxes despite having moved six weeks ago. But we’re getting used to the place and the neighborhood. And what a neighborhood! East Lexington was a separate village once upon a time and we’re right at the center of it all. I’ll post a little about our neighboring architecture soon. And the grounds are astonishing — after having to cut down a bunch of diseased trees at the old house, to have a bunch of healthy horse chestnut trees, maples, a gorgeous plane tree, and even what I think might be an apple tree is a fantastic blessing. So even on a rainy day, I can sit here and look out the window and say: we lucked out.

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1895 Map of the University of Virginia Grounds

1895 map of the University of Virginia from the YMCA Student Handbook

1895 map of the University of Virginia from the YMCA Student Handbook

It’s not every day that you get to see a picture of the world just before it changed. But that’s what I found in my latest eBay finding, a copy of the Y.M.C.A. Student’s Hand Book to the University of Virginia, 1895–’96. Inside the book, after the title page and opposite the calendar of the year (more on that in a second), is a fold-out map of the University as it existed at the beginning of the 1895 school year.

It’s literally a peek backwards in time. The infirmary (now Varsity Hall) is on the map where it was built and stood until its move in 2005 to make way for the expansion of Rouss Hall for the McIntire School of Commerce (and Rouss, Cocke, and Cabell are not on the map at all). The original Dawson’s Row buildings dot the map in an arc leading away from Monroe Hill. The lost Jefferson Anatomical Building, here labeled “Biological Laboratory,” stands on the map alongside a pair of more modern buildings for Anatomy and Chemistry, both now lost to time. Memorial Gym is still the skating pond. Carr’s Hill is a set of wooden dwellings, with no sign of the president’s home that Stanford White built — of course, this was before the University had a president. Madison Bowl, and the original Madison House building, are just the “YMCA Campus.”

And of course, the Rotunda only has one set of east-west wings, and it has a big Annex.

It’s all poised on the brink of a monumental event: the destruction of the Rotunda Annex and the burning out of Jefferson’s Rotunda on October 27, 1895. In a day the University was turned upside down. Two years later the Rotunda would be rebuilt in a grand style, three academic buildings would close off Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn, and the unprecedented fundraising challenge would prove the last straw for the old faculty government model. Within ten years the University’s first president would take office. It’s a fascinating look back into a lost world.

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