Choral Union (1888–1918)

When the College opened its doors in Pomona, California in September 1888, Professor Frank Brackett founded a “choral class” that gave small-scale concerts in the city, often at the Pilgrim Congregational Church.[1] After the College moved to Claremont in 1889, the class remained active at the church, but eventually it evolved into a new ensemble, the Choral Union, which sought to perform large-scale works such as Handel’s Messiah.In its first fifteen years, the Choral Union was led by six different conductors: Professors Frank Brackett (1889–92), Arthur Bissell (1892–95), John Comfort Fillmore (1895–98), Dwight Rice (1898–1901), William Andruss (1901–02), and Theodore Irwin (1902–03). Of these, Professor Fillmore, a prominent music historian and early ethnomusicologist, was the most influential in raising the ensemble’s standards. Under his direction, the group gained recognition across Southern California as the only ensemble in the region to perform oratorios, almost always with piano accompaniment rather than orchestra.

After this period of rapid turnover, the ensemble’s heyday emerged during the tenure of Professor Fred Bacon. Already a prominent solo singer in Los Angeles by the turn of the century, Professor Bacon came to the College in 1902 as a voice teacher; a year later, he was tapped to head the School of Music and to conduct the Choral Union. He conducted the ensemble until 1917, during which time, according to newspaper reviews, it became the most prominent musical presence in the region in and around Claremont and the Pomona Valley. It was known for giving concerts of large-scale oratorios featuring famous soloists from Los Angeles, often with orchestral accompaniment. People would come from all over Southern California to hear it perform such core works as Mendelssohn’s Elijah and St. Paul, Haydn’s The Creation, and Handel’s Messiah.

Perhaps Bacon’s biggest challenge was determining where the Choral Union would perform. Although no documents preserve the exact size of the ensemble during this time, we believe it was substantial. Some programs list the group’s membership, including the names of 30 singers or so. However, we know the ensemble performed works like Mendelssohn’s Elijah (in 1914), which requires a large chorus that can handle the movements that call for double choir. Thus, it is not unreasonable to think the ensemble maybe have been double in size or more, at least in some years.

The only auditorium on campus when Bacon arrived was the chapel of Holmes Hall, which was small and not suitable for an ensemble as large as we think the Choral Union was.[2] Further, the School of Music was located in the increasingly overcrowded classroom space in Holmes. Bacon knew the School of Music needed its own building, and he began lobbying the College for one as early as 1907. However, other buildings, such as Carnegie (the shared library of the College and city until 1928) needed to be built first. The College provided temporary relief for music classrooms and studios when the men’s dorm, Smiley Hall, opened in 1909. The School of Music took over the northern segment of Smiley, but the question of a performance space remained unaddressed. Soon thereafter, the College received a generous donation for a new music building from the parents of Mabel Shaw Bridges ’08 in honor of their daughter, who had passed away after an extended illness. Construction began in 1914, and the Mabel Shaw Bridges Hall of Music (affectionately known as “Little Bridges”) opened its doors on 12 June 1915, with a concert by the Choral Union and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. Ever since, it has been the primary performance venue for Pomona’s musical ensembles.

When Professor Bacon left Pomona in 1917 to resume his music career in Los Angeles, he passed the Choral Union on to the care of Ralph “Prof” Lyman, who was the choral director at the University of Oregon prior to joining Pomona’s faculty. Professor Lyman, however, only directed the Choral Union for one year. In the fall of 1918, the combination of World War I and the influenza outbreak deterred any ensemble from organizing, and the group dissolved permanently, leaving the Glee Clubs as the only choral ensembles at Pomona. In the spring of 1919, members of the Claremont Congregational Church choir teamed up with the Glee Clubs to perform Theodore DuBois’ cantata, The Seven Last Words of Christ for a Good Friday Vespers service under Lyman’s direction. A year later, in the fall of 1920, Lyman officially founded the Pomona College Choir, which immediately became the College’s only large mixed-voice ensemble.[3]

[1] Information for this section comes from The Student Life, vols. 1–32 (1889–1920); Frank P. Brackett, Granite and Sagebrush: Reminiscences of the First Fifty Years of Pomona College (Los Angeles, 1944); Charles B. Sumner, The Story of Pomona College (Boston, 1914); The Metate of Pomona College, vols. 1–25 (1894–1918); extant Choral Union programs (1888-1918); and other materials in the Music Department archives. [back]

[2] To combat the issue of the chorus’s size for the 1914 performance of Elijah specifically, the Choral Union performed it outdoors in the Greek Theatre. [back]

[3] The Student Life, 11 December 1920, 135. The transition between the 1919 Vespers ensemble and the founding of the Pomona College Choir is still a bit unclear. The ensemble listed in the service bulletin for that performance of the Dubois was identified as the “Pomona College Choir.” However, this service appears to have been an isolated event, and The Student Life’s account of it specifically mentions the two Glee Clubs as having sung in collaboration with members of the Congregational Church choir; it does not mention a “Pomona College Choir.” [back]