The Men’s Glee Club (1892–1982)

Beginnings (1892–1947)

In April 1892, Lillian Link Brannan, a piano instructor at the College, founded the Men’s Glee Club with 10 members, thus beginning a long and proud tradition of singing that remains the most recognizable musical face of Pomona College’s choral program.[1] The original group gave its first performance on 7 May 1892 at one of Pomona’s School of Music recitals. The next month, it embarked on its first tour, which took it to cities across Southern California, followed by its inaugural Home Concert, offered at the Armory Opera House in Pomona on June 9th. Its repertoire was mostly comic, often consisting of popular music of the day rather than choral pieces from the classical literature. Its concerts were structured such that the first half contained a combination of choral and solo pieces,while the second half was some sort of skit.

Unlike today, the Men’s Glee Club was an extracurricular ensemble rather than an academic class, and much like the early years of the Choral Union, it went through a series of conductors in their first decade. Following Brannan’s initial efforts, Professor Arthur Bissell directed the group in the fall of 1892, and remained its leader until April 1894, when Arthur Smith ’94 took the reins for the remainder of the academic year. From that point, the group went in and out of existence several times, periodically being replaced by a male quartet. Reorganizations during this time included those led by Professor John Comfort Fillmore (Spring 1897), Professor Arthur Bissell (1900-01), and Bissell’s brother, Professor Frank Bissell (1901-02).

In 1904, after a two-year hiatus, Professor Fred Bacon reorganized the Club and led it for the next three years. In 1907, he passed the baton to Earle Blakeslee ’08, a student who continued to conduct the group after he graduated until 1911, when William Clary ’11 became the conductor, also during his student years. Bacon returned to conducting the Club in 1912. During this period, the ensemble mostly stuck to popular music, although some more traditional classical literature for chamber choir was occasionally integrated into the program. The repertoire periodically even included light-hearted songs by various faculty members such as Professor Joseph Clokey’s humorously titled, “Cocaine Lil.” Additionally, a quartet made up of members of the Men’s Glee Club became a regular feature of concerts, as well as frequently performing independently. In the 1920s, this quartet became known as the Blue and White Quartet, and remained a fixture of Glee Club performances until 1990.

The group regularly toured during Bacon’s years, usually to various cities around Southern California, although occasionally to the northern part of the state as well. Its most extensive tour (and the only time any Glee Club traveled east of the Mississippi River until 1986) came in 1917 when it received funding to travel to Chicago on the Santa Fe Railroad and to give concerts at various Santa Fe Club Houses in honor of the Club’s 25th anniversary.[2] By the time of Professor Bacon’s departure at the end of that academic year to pursue his career in Los Angeles, the ensemble was a well-known institution in Southern California and around the country.

Professor Ralph Lyman, who arrived as Bacon’s replacement in the fall of 1917, directed the Men’s Glee Club for the entirety of his tenure at the College, and during his years their tours began going farther afield than they had under his predecessor, reaching as far as the Pacific Northwest and Arizona. They normally traveled by bus and sometimes by train; the first tour to include air travel occurred during the 1940 spring tour when they flew roundtrip from Oakland to Sacramento to sing in the capital city one evening. As had been the case since the beginning of both the Men’s and the Women’s Glee Clubs, student business managers were responsible for every aspect of their respective club’s tours: scheduling concerts, collecting performance fees, obtaining accommodation, and booking transportation. In addition, since the College did not fund the tours in those days, it was customary to ask for a meal or payment in exchange for giving a concert. Extant tour itineraries from Lyman’s tenure indicate that the ensembles sang two or three performances every day in order to make the tours break even financially. These annual tours were crucial in promoting the name of Pomona, a small, largely unknown institution, in other areas of the southwestern United States.[3]

During his time at Pomona, Lyman worked to foster a relationship between both of the College’s glee clubs and those at other schools in Southern California. In 1922, the conductors of Pomona College, California Institute of Technology, and the University of Redlands formed the United Glee Clubs of Southern California (now known as the Pacific Southwest Intercollegiate Choral Association). The organization held its inaugural joint concert in the Pasadena High School Auditorium on 16 May 1924, featuring choirs from the three founding schools plus others from the University of Southern California, Whittier College, and Occidental College. The following year, they sponsored a competition instead, with the men’s and women’s glee clubs of each institution competing separately. Pomona’s Men’s Glee Club took first place in that first competition and won thirteen out of seventeen total competitions. In 1941, Howard Swan ’28, who was director of the Occidental College Glee Clubs at the time, suggested the organization move away from the competition model because “one could always tell who the winners would be by who the judges were.”[4] Since then, the association held its annual festival concert to spread goodwill among Southern California institutions.[5]

Lyman’s crowning achievement came in the spring of 1932. After winning the PSIGCA competition that February, the Men’s Glee Club was eligible to compete at the National Intercollegiate Glee Club Contest in St. Louis on April 8th. No West Coast school had ever participated in the contest, which had been dominated for years by Ivy League and prestigious East Coast schools such as Harvard, New York University, and Yale. Although Pomona had qualified for the championship in past years, traveling all the way to New York City (where every championship had been held to that point) was unrealistic logistically and financially. However, the 1932 competition was held in St. Louis, which finally gave Pomona its opportunity to participate. Having barely raised enough money for the train fare, Lyman and the choir set off to compete against the best glee clubs in the country. The tiny unknown school from the far west dazzled the crowd with their renditions of Orlando di Lasso’s “Echo Song”; the so-called prize song, Richard Faltin’s “Fight”; and Pomona’s very own college song, “Torchbearers.” Even though it was their first time competing, Pomona College won. The ensemble returned home heroes having defeated schools with ten times as many students and gained national recognition for both the College and “Torchbearers.” Because the National Intercollegiate Glee Club Contest was discontinued after 1932, Pomona’s Men’s Glee Club remains the reigning national champion.

Another of Lyman’s lasting legacies is well known as part of the biography of one of his students: the most prominent American choral conductor of the 20th century: Robert Shaw ’38. Lyman noticed Shaw’s potential early on and gave him ample opportunities to develop his skills, including letting him conduct the Men’s Glee Club while Lyman was on leave during his junior year. As the oft-told story goes, Fred Waring (of the then-famous Pennsylvanians, originally a dance band whose members also sang) saw Shaw’s work with the Glee Club while filming the musical Variety Show (1937) on Pomona’s campus. When Shaw wrote to Waring later in the year to ask if he could come to New York for several months to “see what professional music life was like,”[6] Waring gave him the chance of a lifetime: he invited him to New York to form a choral group that would appear on his weekly television and radio shows. Shaw accepted the offer, forming the Collegiate Chorale. From there he would go on to prepare choruses for Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra, and to be named the associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra during the tenure of George Szell, before accepting the position of music director of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, a position he held from 1967 to 1988. Shaw would win sixteen Grammy Awards (38 total nominations)[7] and conduct world-famous orchestras and choral ensembles, including the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, which he founded, and the Robert Shaw Chorale, with which he toured extensively from 1948 to 1965. It was with the RS Chorale that Shaw’s unmistakable and lasting influence on the art of choral music-making had its greatest impact both in the United States and abroad. Shaw came back to Claremont to guest conduct the Choir and Glee Clubs several times over the years, including for the celebration of the centennial of Pomona College in 1988.

Transitions (1947–51)

In the fall of 1947, Lyman handed the Glee Clubs over to Professor Arthur Hitchcock ’24, who directed the them for just four semesters. Perhaps Hitchcock’s biggest accomplishment with the Men’s Glee Club was conducting them in its first international concert, at the First United Church in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, during its spring 1948 tour. When the College decided not to rehire him in 1949, Hitchcock joined the faculty at Portland State University.

With Hitchcock’s departure, the College hired Edgar vom Lehn, who was teaching at the nearby Webb School. Professor vom Lehn was the first conductor since Fred Bacon to combine the Home Concerts of the Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs, which became the common practice until the ensembles combined in 1982, and in the process did away with skits and solo pieces. Unfortunately, vom Lehn was in the unlucky position of closely following the beloved Prof Lyman; moreover, his leadership style was not the right fit for the ensembles. These issues led to his quick departure in 1951.

The William F. Russell Years (1951–82)

For 31 years, Professor William F. Russell led the Pomona College Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs.[8] From the time of his arrival, he quickly asserted himself as an institution at the College, and his still strong base of loyal alumni continue to express their admiration and appreciation for the experiences they had under his leadership.

Russell retained the structure of two independent Glee Clubs and they continued to sing some music written for men’s and women’s voices alone. The bulk of their repertoire, however, was for mixed voices, either a cappella or accompanied by piano, and their concerts were combined. The repertoire was of necessity broader than that selected by his predecessors, taking advantage of the large body of music from the Renaissance to the 20th century that was suitable for a chorus smaller and more nimble than the College Choir.

Due to financial constraints and various other institutional concerns, the Glee Clubs did not tour under Russell until1955, and unlike in previous years, both ensembles toured together. In the early years, the College was on the old semester system, so the groups toured during the semester break in the first week of February; when the academic calendar changed in the 1977–78 academic year, to a schedule in which the first semester ended before Christmas, tours moved to mid-January. The two groups, consisting of about thirty singers each, traveled by bus with the exception of the 1968 trip to Oregon and Washington, which required air travel, something Russell reported he did not enjoy. Like tours under previous conductors, student business managers were responsible for planning the entire trip; Russell was not involved in the process at all. They would include daytime and evening concerts at a variety of venues from schools to churches to community centers, with the singers usually staying overnight with local alumni.

In 1954, Russell was invited to bring a choir to perform as part of the Los Angeles County Auditorium’s Monday Evening Concert Series. He enlisted the help of some members of the previous year’s glee clubs to form the Pomona College Polyphonic Choir (or simply, the “Mass Group”), which performed Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua for a concert on 6 December. For the next 14 years, Russell and the Mass Group would prepare Renaissance masses and sing them in local churches, and sometimes while on tour, as part of a church service.

Another hallmark of the Glee Clubs during the Russell years was their appearances at the annual Ojai Festival, at which the combined ensembles performed nine times, including the 1953 premiere of Lukas Foss’s A Parable of Death (conducted by the composer), and other performances conducted by Igor Stravinsky (1956), Pierre Boulez (1967), and by Michael Tilson Thomas (1973).

The Glee Clubs continued their involvement in the Pacific Southwest Intercollegiate Glee Club Association’s annual festivals once they resumed in 1949. In the late-1950s, with the rise in popularity of mixed-voice ensembles, the organization changed its name to the Pacific Southwest Intercollegiate Choral Association (PSICA), as it is known today. Pomona valued its place in PSICA history as a founding member of the association. Unfortunately, the festival was held in late April or early May during the Russell era, which made preparing the ensembles for it difficult since they did not rehearse regularly after their Home Concert, which took place in February or March. In time this scramble to prepare for PSICA proved to be too much, and after the 1969 event, Russell agreed with the students’ request to sever their relationship with the organization.[9] In 2004, they returned as full members good standing during the tenure of Professor Donna M. Di Grazia after a 34-year hiatus.

In 1982, Professor Russell reached the College’s mandatory retirement age and thus stepped down as the head of the choral program. As an emeritus professor, he continued to be involved in the Music Department by guest conducting the band, periodically accompanying students in recitals, and preparing the concert programs on his IBM Executive typewriter. When he passed away in 2000 several hundred of his alumni turned out for his memorial service at Claremont United Church of Christ. His legacy lives on in the cherished memories of the College and the many alumni that sang for him, and through the William F. Russell Fund, established with memorial gifts in his honor to help support the cost of Glee Club tours.

[1] Information for this section comes from The Student Life (Vol. 3–39: 1893–1928); The Metate of Pomona College (Vol. 1-54: 1894–1947); interviews with various alumni; Graydon Beeks in conversation with Matthew Cook, 2017-20 passim; the Pacific Southwest Intercollegiate Choral Association; the Robert Shaw website; extant Men’s Glee Club programs; other materials in the Music Department archives. [back]

[2] Bacon also directed a freshmen men’s glee club this same academic year, but it did not last. [back]

[3] The only interruption to the annual tour schedule during the Lyman years was during World War II. [back]

[4] PSICA History [back]

[5] The first PSIGCA festival concert (rather than competition) did not take place until 1949 due to the outbreak of World War II. [back]

[6] Robert Shaw - Beginning of Career [back]

[7] This number comes from the Recording Academy Grammy Awards website. However, there are discrepancies across sources: The Georgia State University Library says Shaw won 18 Grammys, and Grove Music Online says he won 15. [back]

[8] Information for this section comes from The Metate of Pomona College, vols. 59–89 (1952–82); interviews with Jon Bailey (1 November 2019), Graydon Beeks (2017–20 passim), Donna M. Di Grazia (4 March 2020) and various alumni; extant programs of the Men’s Glee Club, Women’s Glee Club, and the Pomona College Glee Club; and other materials in the Music Department archives. [back]

[9] Letter from William Russell to PSICA, June 1969. [back]