Student directors of the Virginia Glee Club

I uncovered another student director of the Virginia Glee Club this weekend, poking through the New York Times archive. It got me thinking about how the group’s governance and musical direction has changed over the years and how large a role students have played in its direction.

Virginia is not unusual in having had students conduct its Glee Club. Princeton didn’t have a professional conductor until 1907, and the Harvard Glee Club invited its first professional conductor, Dr. Archibald Davison, in 1919. But the Virginia Glee Club is unique in having returned to student and other non-faculty conductors as a consequence of its separation from the UVA music department.

Most of the students who conducted the group are doomed to anonymity, but a few have names that have been recorded, even in the earliest years of the Club. I suspect that more could be found were someone to go through and comprehensively digitize the old University of Virginia Magazine (hint, hint). Some of the students went on to lead interesting lives. Here’s a snapshot of four of them.

John Duncan Emmet (ca. 1879-1880). One of the Club’s first directors, Emmet was there during Woodrow Wilson’s first year at the University, the 1879 – 1880 season. Wilson’s presence earned Emmet immortality, as the New York Times dug into Wilson’s student past to uncover a few gems about the Glee Club:

The [University of Virginia] Magazine contains several humorous descriptions of the reception accorded the Glee Clubbers on their serenading expeditions. A pert comment on the editorial page of one issue is typical of the many to be found in the files: “Painfully do we record the last unhappy adventure of the unhappy Glee Club. Most lamentable was their failure! Wrapped in sweet sleep the serenaded slumbered peacefully on, unconscious of the frantic efforts of the serenaders. We can only wish them better success next time.

Emmet graduated with his medical degree in 1880, and went on to bigger and better things, serving as the chief gynecologist at St. Vincent’s Hospital and founding the American Gynaecological and Obstretrical Journal. Emmet was the grandson of Dr. John Patten Emmet, professor of chemistry at the University, and namesake of Emmet Dorm.

Harrison Randolph (ca. 1893-1894). I’ve written about Randolph before. The only student director named by University historian Philip A. Bruce, Randolph went on to the presidency of Charleston College.

John Amar Shishmanian (ca. 1904-1905). Shishmanian is a little bit of an enigma. His leadership of the Club is attested by a 1905 Atlanta Constitution article about the Club’s concerts there: “The clubs are now undergoing bi-weekly rehearsals under the leadership of Mr. Shishmania [sic], the winner of the southern intercollegiate oratorical medal last winter.” Digging deeper, we find Shishmanian’s accomplishments as an orator attested in John S. Patton’s Jefferson, Cabell and the University of Virginia,which preceded Bruce’s account and is packed with all kinds of trivia–including a list of Jefferson Society medal winners. Shishmanian, who was registered with the University from Lexington, Kentucky, was a graduate student in law, having finished his BA at the University of Kentucky. The October 1903 Alumni Bulletin was a little more forthcoming about his origins: “an Armenian resident in this country, has entered as a student in the course recently established leading to a consular service certificate.”

He was the president of the Jefferson Society in 1905, and was also awarded the medal for oratory in that year. He is attested as a speaker at the honorary initiation of Virginia governor Claude August Swanson into the Delta Chi fraternity in 1905 or 1906. He graduated in 1906 and went west, joining the firm of Barbour and Cashin, before going east, eventually far east, joining the faculty of Robert College in Turkey.

Michael Butterman (1989-1991). Butterman is better known to modern Glee Club members, serving as joint conductor of the group with Cheryl Brown-West in the first season after its separation from the University, then taking over as solo conductor in 1990-1991 during the 120th anniversary year. Butterman was a grad student at the time, and left in 1991 to head to Indiana University in their conducting program. He’s now conducting the Boulder Philharmonic and the Shreveport Symphony, and is director of outreach for the Rochester Philharmonic, according to a 2007 Boulder Daily News interview.

6 thoughts on “Student directors of the Virginia Glee Club”

  1. Hi Tim–I’m so honored to have made your list! I doubt that I would be a professional musician today without my experience in the Glee Club. It opened a world of opportunity to me that I hadn’t previously considered. I’m sorry that I couldn’t attend the reunion this past spring. I’ve heard that it was quite an event. For more updates, feel free to check out my (very new and not yet polished) website– Would love to catch up with alums and hear how everyone is doing…

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