UVA Today (um, four years ago): What We Found in Alderman Library. This tab has been sitting open in my iPad since the week it was published, and I haven’t been quite sure why. But there’s something about a University library for the sheer heart-clutching density of human knowledge. And mystery.
This was maybe the thing about Alderman Library. More than the merciful solitude it offered to stop, think, right, read, study. (I translated more than a few works from Old English there because the deafening quiet allowed me finally to speak the words to myself in my head.) More than the memories of happy discoveries — like digging out the Alderman bound copy of the 1870-1871 archive of the Virginia University Magazine, opening it to the January issue, and reading “Music: There is one point on which we are deficient, and that is college musical clubs… We know of but one exception to this rule. Those gentlemen rooming at the Cabell House, and in that neighborhood, have made great efforts, and we understand tolerably successful ones, to form a Glee Club.”
But even more there was the sense that in any room, you could climb a narrow set of stairs (oh, those submarine-scale stairs between the half floors in the Stacks!), sidle down a row of shelves, pick up a book, and find something miraculous.
I get a little thrill when I turn up new Glee Club material via Google, but it doesn’t compare to perusing the library stacks. It’ll be interesting to check out the new experience when it reopens.
I was in Charlottesville this weekend. The last time I visited was before the pandemic. Much was the same—the Corner will always be there, even if some of the restaurants are not; the Rotunda still stands above the Lawn; the Virginia Glee Club continues to spread harmony, love and brotherhood.
And yet: much has changed. The Glee Club is surging in membership, but off a small base due to pandemic attrition. Masks still abounded, though the positivity rate at the University among students is minuscule (less than 0.5%). And it was difficult to see the Rotunda and the Lawn without the overlays of the fascist torch march of August 2017, or the protests for racial justice in 2020.
In this context, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers looks even more like what it is: simultaneously a good first step to establishing a dialog of truth and a small but inadequate corrective against 200 years of corrosive white supremacy.
It was in this frame of mind that I revisited the Lawn in the dark, when the abstract promise of freedom was most believable, and then again in the Sunday morning sun, where I could see the temples of learning rising above the walls, gardens, and outbuildings where laborers, enslaved and otherwise, supported the faculty and students who would, in 1861, raise a Confederate flag above the dome of Jefferson’s temple of knowledge.
If America is a contradiction, it is in many ways due to Jefferson himself, who argued for the unfettered power of the mind over religion and tyranny even as he fettered his fellow humans. The contradiction is evident in his greatest accomplishment, where a great University can be seen to carry the shadows of the slaves who built it.
So it is that I find myself, with Jefferson, trembling when I reflect that God is just.
And yet, as Jefferson sought to continually improve, never satisfied with his house, his writings, or the state of democracy, so must we continue to iterate on his works. Because the plain truth is that the University’s symbol as a temple of knowledge is the more profound for having arisen out of its beginnings as a school for privileged white men. And it has arisen, as is readily apparent by even a cursory glance at the current student body, to say nothing of a dinner spent speaking with them. My neighbor at our table was a strikingly lovely first generation college student from New York, who was a history major, an archivist at the Small Special Collections Library who had accessioned the latest round of Glee Club historical materials, and a powerhouse low alto. The kids, as Pete Townsend said, are alright.
And so is the Glee Club. In the last five years I had sometimes worried about the musical output of Virginia’s Messengers of Harmony, Love and Brotherhood. But the strength of the vocal technique of the young men I heard last night was a massive step forward. Turns out that Frank Albinder knows how to teach young voices, if they’ll listen. And it also turns out that when you focus a group of young men on both singing and friendship, you build something stronger than the sum of the individuals.
And it was also profound, after making my way up the East Range, across the Lawn, past the Mews (an outbuilding behind Pavilion III occupied by enslaved persons, and then 100 years later by Harry Rogers Pratt, the conductor of the Glee Club, and his wife Agnes), by the Chapel, and then back up to the plaza that Stanford White built after sweeping away the ruins of the Rotunda Annex. On that plaza stands the statue of Jefferson atop four allegorical angels, representing Liberty, Equality, the Brotherhood of Man, and Justice. Jefferson’s back may be to Justice; she may have stood silently on an August night in 2017 where hundreds of men who sought to destroy Jefferson’s higher ideals waved torches, threw lighter fluid, and struck at a group of about twenty-six student protestors. But, by God, She is still there, and still holds the scales, and they will be balanced.
A quick one today. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in various kinds of work, but this was too cool not to write about.
The Glee Club has thousands of known alumni and all of them have some sort of story to their lives. One who I didn’t know much about was Dr. Lawrence Thomas Royster (1874-1953), who was a member in 1893-1894 and 1896-1897. A physician, he taught pediatrics at the University of Virginia Medical School. And he saved Thomas Jefferson… or at least his statue.
While Royster was a student, in October 1895, the annex to Jefferson’s Rotunda, his library and centerpiece for the Academical Village, caught fire and burned. Efforts were made to keep the fire from spreading to the main Rotunda with little success, and the building burned completely, leaving just the brick shell behind. But while the fire progressed, students rescued what they could from the building, including books from the library and, notably, the enormous marble statue of Jefferson that had been given to the University by Alexander Galt in 1861.
A few minutes before the explosion occurred, the fine marble figure of Jefferson by Galt had been lowered by ropes to the level of a table hastily pushed forward to catch it. So great was its weight that this support at once gave way under it; but luckily the fall to the floor did not damage the statue. Turned over on its face, it was rapidly dragged to the door opening on the front stairway, and just as there began the attempt to pull it through this narrow exit, the explosion shook the whole building. “The statue,” says Morgan P. Robinson, in his vivid description of the scene, “was gotten out on the staircase, and step by step, it was carried down the western stairs feet foremost. As the base of the statue was eased over each step, it would gather momentum, and gaining speed, would tear off the top edge of the next step, while, under the combined weight of the statue and twenty to thirty of the students, the whole staircase would tremble. It is conservatively estimated that it took from ten to fifteen minutes only to remove the statue from the library to the Lawn.”
Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, Vol. IV, p. 260, 1922.
The story is well known to me, but until today, I didn’t know that a Glee Club member was among the students who rescued the statue. Then, while checking my sources on Royster’s photo, I found the entry for the photo at the UVA Library and read the following:
A native of Norfolk, Virginia, where he was born in 1874, Dr. Royster received his prepatory education at Norfolk Academy and entered the University in 1892. In the memorable fire of 1895 he was one of the group of students who entered the burning Rotunda and lifted the Galt statue of Jefferson from its pedestal, drew it through the room on a mattress, safely eased it down the curving stair, and deposited it on the Lawn. The only damage to the statue was a slight chipping of the edge of the drapery.
Bulletin of the UVa Medical School and Hospital, Fall 1942.
So, Royster was one of those responsible for saving the statue of Jefferson. And it’s interesting to note that, in this age of iconoclasm, the statue was not one of the post-Reconstruction Civil War statues. Instead, Alexander Galt, Jr., a native Virginian who took up sculpture after being inspired by the work of Houdon and studied in Florence, was commissioned to create the statue for $10,000, completing it in 1861. (Galt died in 1863 of smallpox while serving as aide to Virginia’s Confederate governor John Letcher.)
I wrote two posts from 2018 on finding a copy of part of the premiere recording of Randall Thompson’sThe Testament of Freedom (part 1, part 2). Recorded at its initial performance on April 13, 1943 in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia by the Virginia Glee Club and rebroadcast over the Columbia Broadcasting System, the recording of the work is significant for all sorts of reasons—the commemoration of Thomas Jefferson’s 200th birthday, the premiere of one of Randall Thompson’s most significant works, the occasion of greatest music-historical significance that the Glee Club was ever involved with, the connection to World War II.
Over the past few months I’ve gotten a few questions in the comments that I thought I’d answer here.
Can you supply label scans of these discs?
I didn’t originally take photos of the labels, but here they are.
I am a music researcher into Columbia Electrical Trancription 16″ record pressing that feature matrix numbers. Alas, this is not one of those. The record I received was a 12″ 78RPM record that featured just the last movement. Apparently there was, at one point, a multi-record album of which this was just the last piece.
Would I be willing to digitize the entire performance? I would, if I had it. As it turns out, as noted in the original post, the record I have is just the last movement, and judging from the College Topics article it was part of a set. I suspect the only place that has a full set of all the discs of the original recording is the University of Virginia Library. That said, they have already digitized it and could probably arrange access.
I started writing this post six years ago, and for some reason never finished. It felt like a good time to pick it back up, since we were robbed of the chance to defend our NCAA championship title this year.
As I began writing this in 2014, UVa men’s basketball is in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995. It’s pretty sweet, and it’s a good reminder that Virginia has its fair share of sports successes. The games have inspired me to dive into the archives, and I’ve found eight Virginia Glee Club alums who also played hoops for UVa. In chronological order:
George Harold Atkisson. From Quincy, Illinois, Atkisson (1887 – 1964) played center in 1906–1907 for Virginia.
Percy Rudolph Ashby. A Hampton boy, Ashby (1888 – 1931) was an engineering student who was also at home on the court and on the track.
Edward White Kearns. Born 1890 in Taunton, Massachusetts, Kearns wasn’t just a basketball player–playing at right forward, he was also captain of the team in 1911–1912, having played the previous year with Ashby. That year the team went 7 and 4, losing to Guilford, Georgetown (twice), and Washington & Lee (a blowout, 24 – 9).
Charles Cazeove Plummer. This engineering student from Mobile, Alabama (born 1899, died 1967) was also in the German Club, meaning that he was responsible for helping to plan and organize the germans, or formal cotillons, for the student body.
Carlysle Allen Bethel. Bethel (born 1904 in Richmond, Virginia, died 1996) appears to have been a well rounded athlete, as he played on both the football and basketball squad in 1923 – 1924.
Norman N. Adler. Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, Adler was a basketball player, ran track, and was in the Navy ROTC program during the war years, graduating in 1944. He went on to become a physician, practicing in New York until his death in 1988.
Roger Dana Fraley. Fraley likely played on the team alongside Adler. Born in 1923 in Cleveland, Virginia, he appears to have been highly active at Virginia, as he was also a member of Alpha Tau Omega, the Raven Society, the Honor Committee, Alpha Kappa Psi, the semi-secret T.I.L.K.A., and the political organization Skull and Keys. He died in 2011.
Robert B. Roberson. The last (so far) singing hoops player on the list, Roberson, graduating in 1964, played varsity basketball and baseball and was also the sports editor of the Cavalier Daily, which is a pretty neat trick if you ask me.
Yes indeed! The mystery DATs were the master recordings from the 7pm and 9:30pm performances of the Virginia Glee Club 57th Annual Christmas Concert! Notable as the Glee Club’s first Christmas performances with conductor Bruce Tammen, the unedited tapes include the full range of a Glee Club Christmas, including audience carols, the eternal struggle between the Four Calling Birds and Three French Hens during the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” solo performances by Jayson Throckmorton, Craig Fennell, Eric Buechner and Bill Bennett, and some seriously moving renditions of favorites like the Gretchaninoff “Nunc Dimittis” and the Biebl Ave Maria. To say nothing of riveting announcements by Glee Club president Drew Cogswell.
I’m going to try to make the whole concert available somehow, but for now here’s a teaser: Club’s performance of the Marvin V. Curtis arrangement of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” from the 7pm show. Enjoy!
I read with interest a UVA Today article about Andrew Ashcraft, a fourth year architecture student who has had the privilege of exploring attics and other hidden spaces at the University as an intern in the Historic Preservation team. Having been an inveterate explorer of the University’s nooks and crannies myself (with a particular fascination for Old Cabell Hall and the roof of Clark Hall), I envy Ashcraft his job. However, one paragraph caught my attention:
“His favorite view so far has been from the attic of Old Cabell Hall, where he could look down through an ornate false skylight into the building’s grand two-tiered theater.”
It may be a “false skylight” today, but it certainly didn’t start out that way. The evidence, as always, is the University’s collection of the photographs of Rufus Holsinger. In a collection of views of the Grounds dating to 1914 we get the photo below, showing the view of the stage but also the ceiling above:
That sure looks like a working skylight to me! The Library’s online exhibit on the work of McKim, Meade, and White (the designers of Old Cabell Hall) indicates that the skylight was eventually enclosed “to accommodate modern lighting equipment,” and from the stage you can see the lighting in the space that would originally have let natural sunlight in.
The University has a small tradition of enclosing skylights, apparently, or at least doubling them up. As an undergrad I learned from some of my older neighbors how to enter Clark Hall (originally the home of the Law School) at night and climb up to the dusty hidden room enclosed by the outer skylights and the inner skylights of the building. Yes, there are two layers of skylight. I haven’t been able to determine if this was the original design or a concession to weatherproofing. (You can see a hint of the double-layered design in this photo.)
While the reckoning is long overdue at UVa, it’s worth noting that it isn’t the only university coming to grips with its history in this regard, and may even be ahead of some of its northern colleagues. As an MIT alum, I got an email from the president of the institute yesterday discussing MIT founder (and former UVA professor) George Barton Rogers’s slave-owning history, which is discussed in a Boston Globe article today. The fact that L. Rafael Reif could say “Quite frankly, it was shocking to me” and that he is still “reeling” simply means he, and the Institute, haven’t been paying attention.
As part of my ongoing work on the history of the Virginia Glee Club, I started researching the lives of Club members who became casualties of World War II. With some help from fellow fossil Andrew Breen, who thoughtfully photographed the Rotunda memorial tablet for me, I’ve been able to fill in a few additional names of Glee Club alums who gave their lives in service. This work is ongoing; I have no doubt I’ll find more than the seven I’ve found thus far.
Finding the record on eBay was a heady, exciting moment, tempered by two things: it wasn’t complete, and I wasn’t alone.
I have learned over the years that, while they don’t draw hundreds of bidders, works of history from the University are of enough interest to a small number of collectors that bidding can be competitive. I knew that I could probably win the auction if I paid enough attention—though I’ve lost my fair share of items, I’ve won more than I lost, thanks to a sixteen-year-old paper by one of my grad school professors. I knew that there was at least one other bidder, so I set an alarm for the last day of the auction and waited.
The completeness point was a little more concerning. The available information about the recording indicated that it was a three-record set (not uncommon in the days before 33 1/3 RPM records), but this was only one record. Thankfully, the photo of the label indicated that it was the last movement, easily my favorite of the four. Though Thompson’s setting of Jefferson’s text still plods in places (like any time the word despotism is sung), there is a note of real challenge to the opening words “I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance…”
The day of the auction arrived and I won, despite a flurry of bids earlier in the day. (The odds are good that the other bidder is reading this; sorry and better luck next time!) Now I just had to get the record. And here Fate intervened and made me wait.
The auction ended New Years Eve, one of a series of bitterly cold days with highs in the single digits. The next day the seller contacted me to tell me that he would mail the package a day later, since it was so cold his truck wouldn’t start. I could sympathize, having had to jump-start my own car so that I could take it to the garage to get a new battery. So I waited and watched as the package was shipped—two days before a huge storm that dumped 17 inches of snow on Lexington, Massachusetts.
Perhaps because of the storm, the package took a … circuitous route from New Hampshire to Lexington:
But it finally arrived earlier this week, and to my delight, while the original sleeve was in poor shape (the seller thoughtfully put the record in a new sleeve), the record looked like it was pretty good. Now all I had to do was to listen to it.
Here we had a small snag: my otherwise-wonderful Denon DP-45F turntable has no 78RPM setting. But I was going to digitize the record anyway. So I played it back at 45RPM, and then (as I noted earlier this week) used Amadeus Pro to speed up the playback by 173.3% (78/45). I tried noise reduction but didn’t like what it did to the tone of Thompson’s piano, so I left it alone.
Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance. Listening to Thompson’s solo piano introduction to the movement, one is reminded of the historical moment in which the work was written. This was April 1943, more than two years into World War II, and many of the young men singing the work were painfully aware that Jefferson’s words about dying with light and liberty on the advance were not going to be hypothetical for them. The following vocal entrance is appropriately hushed, and the Glee Club declaims Jefferson’s text with clarity and good pitch. The reintroduction of the first-movement “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” is not strident (as in the 1945 BSO/Harvard Glee Club performance) but nuanced—perhaps because the Virginia men only had to be heard above a piano, not a full orchestra. Only the final chord shows vocal strain in the high tenors.
And here it is! As noted above, the only manipulation was speeding up the playback to restore normal speed, and to join the two halves of the recording into one—which fortunately was pretty straightforward. Enjoy!
Sometime in late 1942 or early 1943, University of Virginia president John Newcomb commissioned a new work from the head of the music division (not yet the McIntire Department of Music), composer and professor Randall Thompson, to commemorate the 200th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, which would be celebrated April 13, 1943. Thompson looked for appropriate texts for the occasion and found them in Jefferson’s own letters.
In January 1943, Thompson had taken over the directorship of the Virginia Glee Club as Harry Rogers Pratt stepped down to focus on the war effort. The Glee Club provided, presumably, a solution to a significant challenge: how to mount the forces for a concert with a student body that was perpetually being shipped off to war. The Glee Club, while reduced greatly by the war effort (the 1942-1943 group officially numbered 45, down from 130 in 1940-1941), at least still performed. And Thompson knew them, having conducted them in his “Tarantella” the preceding spring. Accordingly Thompson composed the new work for men’s chorus and piano.
UVA Today: The Gift That Keeps Giving: Bookstore Donates Annual Surplus to Students in Need. When your non-profit is running almost a half million surplus every year, where can applying that money have the most impact? If you’re the UVA Bookstore, the answer is taking the entire profit and donating it to Access UVA, which allows kids from disadvantaged economic backgrounds to attend the University of Virginia.
The actions over the weekend are a direct outcome from the events that happened in Charlottesville over August 11–13, in which torch bearing neo-Nazis marched through Grounds shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Passing up into Grounds from the Bookstore and presumably passing the student center at Newcomb Hall on their way up the Lawn, they came around the Rotunda, which bore these plaques on its south side, and surrounded a group of 25 counter-protesting students at Moses Ezekiel’s statue of Thomas Jefferson. They jeered and chanted at the students, and then they threw kerosene and lit torches at them.
Tyler Magill, who was in the Glee Club with me in the early 1990s and who I count as a friend, had joined the students by this time. He was struck by a torch on the side of his neck, which eventually led, a few days later, to his suffering a stroke.
More horrors happened over the weekend, including 20 year old James Alex Fields driving his car through a crowd of protesters, deliberately murdering Heather Heyer and injuring many others.
I have been trying to write my feelings about what happened that horrific weekend for over a month, and have not been able to. Among other reasons, it feels as though once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.
But part of it is that today’s liberal Charlottesville sits atop a veritable Indian burial ground of undercurrents of racism and secession. This is, after all, the school where the Jefferson Society debated, on January 14th, 1860, whether a state had the right to secede from the Union (the conclusion was affirmative), and where the Washington Society decided in a November 1860 debate that the Southern States should secede; where students flew the flag of the Confederacy atop the Rotunda in February 1861. And it was also the school that was built with slave labor and that ran on the efforts of enslaved workers, and that was founded by a United States President who wrote “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” but who held both a peculiar definition of “all” and over 100 slaves.
So it is that Charlottesville seems a seat of that original sin of our country, and that our past is now coming home to roost.
The University’s actions to remove the names of those who fought to uphold slavery from its most central, symbolic building are a good start. I think the decision to display the memorials elsewhere is a good way to resolve the tension I have felt about removing public Confederate symbols. I don’t want us to forget our historic complicity in injustice and violence, but I also don’t want those reminders to continue their mission of oppression.