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Music at Pomona: Beginnings

June 16, 2014

It is often astonishing to discover how much one can learn about the history of Pomona College from ephemeral documents such as the three music programs shown here. Surely never meant to be preserved, these records of musical evenings in the late 1880s-early 1890s offer a glimpse of one aspect of the College’s life in its first years and a sense of the broader community of which it was a part.

 

The earliest of the three programs dates to January 12, 1888, a mere three months after the incorporation of the College, and was held in Pilgrim Chapel, Pilgrim Congregational Church, Pomona. PCC had been established in 1887 by the Reverend Charles Burt Sumner, who served briefly as its first pastor but soon left to lead the fledgling Pomona College. Even today, some members of the church maintain that PCC “created” the College; if that is not entirely the case, there’s no question that the two institutions were closely allied. Pomona College was, indeed, a “child of the churches.”

 

The “Delightful Entertainment” featured Miss Grace Scrafford’s “Character Sketches and Imitations of Birds,” praised by the Los Angeles and San Diego press as “Marvelous,” along with a few “very choice” musical selections. Details about the evening are a bit difficult to discern, surrounded as they are by a wealth of advertisements, primarily by local businesses. Also on the program that night was Frank Brackett, who was to be a major figure in the history of Pomona College and who, at the time, directed a private school in Pilgrim Chapel, an advertisement for which can be seen on the first page of the program. Many of Brackett’s students were part of the College’s first “preparatory” class at Ayer Cottage six months later. By then, Brackett, only 23 years old, had been appointed professor of mathematics and Latin, one of the College’s first faculty members. His position also included teaching “voice culture and choir work,” leading Wilson Lyon to remark in his History of Pomona College that Brackett’s “chair might well have been called a settee.”

 

In 1888, Brackett, who had led the Choir at Pilgrim Congregational Church, founded the Pomona Choral Union. The second document shown here pertains to its concert on May 27, 1889, also at the church, and lists Brackett as director.  This appears to have been an ambitious program, particularly for a mere four singers and three musicians. Here, advertising has been relegated to the back pages, the program looking more like those we’re accustomed to today. However distracting advertising may be when one is interested in the content of a program, it offers a sense of the business culture at the time, just as the unimaginably low prices quoted for concert tickets and haircuts, say something about the economy.

 

The third program, for the Pomona College Glee Club, is dated only “June 14,” but since the Glee Club was founded by Brackett in 1891, it would have been that year or later and, given the advertising, probably held in Pasadena. The venue, M.E. Tabernacle, is a bit of a mystery but might have been the First Methodist Episcopal Church, which, according to the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration, was listed in the 1900 Pasadena City directory; it was located at the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Marengo. (The “Methodist Episcopal Church” was the first expression of Methodism in this country, dating from 1784); “tabernacle,” which can be used as a generic term for place of worship, may have been more common in the 19th century than is true today.

 

In terms of Pomona College history, these three programs reflect Frank Brackett’s earliest efforts to promote music in the city of Pomona and at Pomona College, where he is listed in the first catalogue (1888) and was appointed Professor of Mathematics in 1890. There was no music department at that time, but in 1890 an affiliated School of Music was organized that continued through 1910 as a discrete entity, after which it became the Department of Music. Brackett turned over his conducting duties to Arthur Dart Bissell, who was appointed Professor of Modern Languages in 1892, but continued to be active as a soloist for a number of years. The programs of the Choral Union were ambitious, including challenging oratorios such as Handel’s Messiah along with lighter fare. Early concerts were held mostly in the city of Pomona—at high schools, churches—and transportation was often by foot. The Men’s Glee Club, ranging from 12 to 24 voices, toured throughout the state of California and spread the name of the new College. It was joined in 1902 by a separate Women’s Glee Club under the direction of Kate Condit. The next year the job of conducting both the Choral Union and the Men’s Glee Club was given to the new director of the School of Music, Fred A. Bacon, who held it until 1917, when he was replaced by Professor Ralph Lyman. By this time the Choral Union had been eclipsed by the all-student Pomona College Choir. It lasted only one more year, but the Choir and the Glee Clubs (merged into a single organization in 1982) continue to provide music today.

 

Further research will be needed to verify many of the details to be found in these documents. Even so, it is clear how many historical clues can be found in documents that, in their time, were probably considered quite unremarkable.

 

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