Not many people know that the Pomona College Glee Club is the reigning champion among American glee clubs--and has been, in fact, for 68 years straight. Perhaps the monotony of that great honor has caused it to fade from public knowledge, or perhaps it is the fact that the last National Glee Club Championship was held exactly 68 years ago.
It was in 1932 that the first (and, as it turned out, the last) National Glee Club Championship was held in St. Louis, Missouri, a site selected for its central location at a time when transportation was a significant challenge. That year both Pomona's Men's and Women's Glee Clubs (they generally performed separately until 1951) took first place at the Pacific Southwest Championship in San Diego. In claiming that title, the men won the right to represent the region at the Nationals. (A sign of the times, there was no national competition for women.)
The men traveled to St. Louis by train and on April 8 took the title they would hold unchallenged for the remainder of the century. Yale came in second and Penn State took third. The men returned to a hero's welcome, with The Student Life announcing in its headline that Pomona had the "Best Glee Club in the Western Hemisphere."
Since that day, even the regional championships have disappeared, but Pomona's Glee Club is still thriving. On a bright April day seven decades later they rehearse standing in a semicircle on the blond hardwood floor of Lyman Hall.
Today, the Glee Club is a small group of male and female singers, drawn from the Pomona College Choir, who perform classical choral works. All have passed rigorous auditions evaluating their strengths in singing and sight-reading, their ability to learn a lot of music quickly and their readiness to work within a small ensemble where blend and musical sensitivity are essential. The term "glee club," in fact, has become less appropriate over the years. As Assistant Professor of Music Donna Di Grazia, who directs the group, notes, "Most people in choral circles would call us a chamber choir or chamber singers." Certainly it's a far cry from the traditional all-male ensemble that was founded in 1890 or the complementary women's group formed in 1902.
That transformation happened slowly, however. Over the years, the Glee Club has been influenced by the times and shaped by the aesthetics of three major conductors: professors Ralph Lyman, William Russell and Jon Bailey.
Lyman conducted the men's group from 1917 to 1948, concentrating on a core repertory of traditional glee club fare and college songs, polished by repetition year after year. Russell, who arrived in 1951 and matched his predecessor by conducting for 31 years, broke from the traditional mode, broadening the literature and bringing men and women together for some of the music. Bailey, who followed Russell and directed from 1982 until 1998, fused the two groups to form a fully mixed ensemble.
While it's far too early to tell how Di Grazia's aesthetics will steer the ensemble in future years, she is clear about her immediate goals: "I try to choose music that both maximizes our resources and shows off the singers' strengths, and that I think the students will like," she says. "I also try to construct programs that blend unusual repertoires with classical masterworks, many of which our students have not had an opportunity to learn."
Beyond the primary business of making music, the Glee Club has always been known for its camaraderie. Though students enter the group by demonstration of their musical ability, without regard to how they would fit together socially, they routinely become fast friends. "When I first joined Glee Club I was highly skeptical of the social aspects--I thought the music should be more important," said Margaret Hunter '00. "But eventually I found myself completely involved."
Di Grazia approves, so long as her singers keep their priorities clear. "I think it's important to have a healthy social bond in the group, one that extends well beyond rehearsals. But socializing shouldn't be the group's number one priority--it can't be if the music is to be served and if we want to give performances that we are really proud of."
Friendship is important, however, because Glee Club members spend so much time together--especially during their annual tour, a tradition that began in the Lyman years. Currently, the group tours each spring. As alumni often provide housing and come to concerts in their area, the tour becomes a way to connect with the past. "I stayed with Lucy Coolidge '70 and we had an instant bond," said Joanna Takagi '01. "She was so excited to talk to us about when she was in the Glee Club, about her boyfriend and singing in the Grand Canyon. Her memories were so vivid and so much was the same as my own experience."
In addition to providing a link to the past, the tour also reaches toward the future. During their spring 2000 trip to New England, the Glee Club performed at several high schools. "We sang at Worcester Academy," remembers Brendan Walsh '01. "The kids were saying, 'Oh my god, these guys are good.' Just like that, Pomona is on the map."
To support the Glee Club--and the tour, in particular--a new endowment fund has been created in memory of Russell, who died in May. Contributions to the fund are still being accepted.
Like any enduring institution, the Glee Club has changed over the years. New traditions are born while others fade. Style and repertory shift. The power of the learning experience that the Glee Club represents, however, hasn't changed.
"Choral singing involves much more than learning notes," Di Grazia explains. "It requires artistic sensitivity and an ability to shape each musical line so that it really means something. It involves some understanding of foreign languages, of history and of poetic syntax and meaning to make it all work. And no matter what the repertoire, no two pieces are ever the same, so there are constant challenges to face on every level. Indeed, I think a choral ensemble, especially a small ensemble like the Glee Club, is an ideal, interdisciplinary liberal-arts course." --Nate Johnson '01