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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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…
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.
Stay conscious of the mask and the ceiling of the chamber.
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.