When was the Virginia Glee Club founded?

Virginia Glee Club, 1895-1896

On the eve of the 140th anniversary of the Virginia Glee Club, whose founding date (1871) makes it one of the seven oldest collegiate glee clubs in the United States, it feels curmudgeonly to point out the relative lack of hard evidence for the 1871 founding of the Club, and the abundance of pointers to other prospective founding dates—1886? 1893? 1914? What about dates before 1871? Each has some degree of validity as a starting point for the messengers of harmony, love, and brotherhood. So, curmudgeonly as it feels, we should at least take a peek at the alternatives.

First, the official date of 1871 has been claimed since at least the 1970s, when the liner notes for A Shadow’s on the Sundial quoted an 1871 issue of the Virginia University Magazine as saying that the men of the Cabell House had made “great efforts, and we understand tolerably successful ones, to form a Glee Club.” On the basis of this description, assuming that the founding of the group happened in 1871 seems reasonable. To get forward to modern times, though, you have to connect the dots across a series of other groups that called themselves Glee Clubs but had no institutional connections between them, starting with the Claribel in 1874, through the Glee Club in which Woodrow Wilson sang in 1879-1880, and on and on. Let’s take a quick look at some of the other dates that have claims for posterity:

1886: In the early 20th century, the Glee Club looked back to this year as the year of its founding. Harry Rogers Pratt’s Glee Club counted 1935-1936 as their 50th anniversary year and celebrated it with a tour to New York as well as a 50th anniversary concert, held 75 years ago tomorrow. But no historical record remains to tell us what happened in 1886 save a single mention of a Glee Club tour in the Magazine, and that reference makes it sound as though the Club had been around for a while.

1893: The birth of the Glee Club (actually, the Glee, Mandolin, and Banjo Clubs) as a group that toured beyond the University precincts. Their six city tour in January-February 1894 resulted in press in the Atlanta Constitution among others. But there appears to be continuity between this group and its 1891-1892 predecessor, so while 1893-1894 was an important turning point for the Club it would be inappropriate to call it a founding date.

1914: After the Club disbanded in 1912-1913, it re-formed after a brief hiatus under A. L. Hall-Quest. This is one of the first few firm dates attested outside of the pages of College Topics, as it appears in Philip A. Bruce’s History of the University of Virginia. We can trace continuous activity of the Glee Club forward from this date, even through both World Wars; 1914 thus stands as a significant milestone in the life of the group.

So 1914 is the latest date that we should think about in terms of the (re-)formation of the Glee Club. But is there an earlier date than 1871? Would you believe two?

1870. A full 11 months before the Virginia University Magazine famously wrote decrying the lack of musical clubs, it was writing about … the Glee Club! Albeit satirically: “The [Glee Club], we are told, has succeeded in procuring most of the fragments of an ‘ante-bellum’ violoncello, and hopes are entertained of their ultimate union.” Apparently they also mistook rain for bouquets. But there was a glee club at the University before February of 1870, and it was well established enough to be called “the Glee Club.” And then there’s…

1861. Cited in several places, including the Shadow’s on the Sundial liner notes and Barringer’s 1906 University of Virginia: Its History, this was apparently a serenading group that came out of the student housing on Carr’s Hill, just as the Cabell House Men were themselves a boardinghouse group. Traditionally we have considered the 1861 group a “predecessor” and not part of Glee Club history; separated not only by ten years but also by the Civil War from the “official” group, the Carr’s Hill Glee Club might as well have been a century before.

So where, after all, does this leave us? Perhaps with this thought: If we are to accept the gaps in the Glee Club’s history after the 1871 date, should we not extend the founding date to 1870? Perhaps not all the way to 1861, but absent any other information, it seems as though the Club referenced in 1870 is the same as the one in 1871.

Or, perhaps, we should leave well enough alone, and leave traditions where they stand, and accept that, when you are tracing the foundation of a group of students, one beginning point is as good as the next.

All I know is that I’ve got a definite research agenda for when I head back to Charlottesville before the reunion. I’ve got to find that January 1871 Virginia University Magazine, and any other old records I can.

4 thoughts on “When was the Virginia Glee Club founded?”

  1. Hi Tim,
    You make a compelling point about the peculiarity of fixing the founding at 1871 when there is evidence of a group by the same name (“the glee club”) the year prior. What I would wonder is when a college-wide group referring to itself as “the glee club” emerged. Ostensibly it came into being sometime between 1861 and 1886. Selfishly, I like the 1870 date, because it would allow us to hold dual reunions linking to the 1989 transformation of the Club into its current form. We could hold the 145th / 25th in calendar 2015. Inertia may make it difficult though . . . and, besides, 1871 is just a cooler number than 1870.

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