Archivist’s Angle: NYU’s Choral Tradition
December 15, 2019
by Emily Rose Clayton (GSAS '20)
Music is an integral part of the holiday season, especially here in New York City, where the strains of traditional carols and popular new songs weave their way between the glittery windows and festive trees of the city streets. People gathering in song is a traditional part of winter celebrations, whether it be a choir performing Handel’s Messiah, or a group of carolers bundled against the cold wind.
Here at NYU, the tradition of song has a lengthy and distinguished history which has served to brighten the cold winter months, as well as entertain audiences throughout the year. In 1873, the first iteration of the NYU Glee Club was founded by brothers James Henry and Thomas Darlington. The small eight-man group began by singing in the daily chapel exercises held at the university, and soon pooled their resources to hire James Sterry as a conductor and chorale leader. Singing in churches and social gatherings across New York, this inaugural Glee Club lasted until 1878.
The Glee Club was re-formed in 1883, under the leadership of Dr. Joseph H. Bryan. Since then, a continuous choral tradition has been maintained, including all-male and all-female groups, specialized choirs and select performance groups. In 1969, the men’s and women’s Glee Clubs were merged, along with the School of Education Chorus, and the Chapel Choir, to form the NYU Choral Arts Society.
A ground-breaking organization amongst college singing groups, the NYU Glee Club dedicated the same focus and intensity to their craft as might be expected of athletic teams.
In 1934, NYU became the first Glee Club in the country to hold training camps, which put members through a week-long intensive focus on the upcoming season, in addition to twice-weekly rehearsals throughout the year. A 1967 Glee Club Bulletin notes that in addition to a “typical college glee club repertory,” filled with collegiate fight songs, parlor songs, and folk songs, the NYU singers “gave thought to mastering music of cultural value.” The club’s repertoire ranged from singing Handel, Bach, Mozart, and other classical composers to mastering liturgical music of the Russian Orthodox Church, sung fully in its native language.
This dedication to the choral tradition landed NYU singers a number of prominent engagements. In addition to performances across the US, the Glee Club appeared with the Oratorio Society of New York, Temple Emanu-el Choir, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1962, the Goliards, an elite twelve-man group chosen from the ranks of the Glee Club, were chosen to perform on a U.S.O. tour throughout France and Germany. In the 1980s, under the leadership of Professor E. John de Revere, the Choral Arts Society toured Europe, performing for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
It is at the holidays that NYU’s singers truly shine as ambassadors for the university. The Goliards provided Christmas entertainment at Rockefeller’s Caneel Bay Plantation in the US Virgin Islands from 1964–1970. In 1974, the Choral Arts Society performed in St. Peter’s Basilica along with the St. Cecilia Brass Choir of Rome, participating in the Christmas Mass.
NYU’s singers have lent their choral talents to a number of holiday celebrations within their home town of New York as well, adding to the festive spirit which envelopes the city.
In 1956, a group of carolers from the Glee Club performed atop the Pepsi-Cola sign in Times Square. NYU choral groups have been featured in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and participated in the Lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree. In addition to events around the city, the Choral Arts Society hosts a Winter concert each year, featuring festive songs for the holidays.