The Ties That Bind

The Virginia Glee Club, est. 1871, is one of the ten oldest glee clubs in the United States.  A century and a half ago, students at historic American universities (mostly male, nearly all single-gender) often banded together to make music outside their coursework as a source of camaraderie and artistic endeavor while away from home.  Once a staple of the collegiate experience, single-sex choirs became more commonly mixed-voice choirs, including male and female singers, as university campuses also became commonly co-ed institutions, and ‘Choir’ became an academic course rather than a club or hobbyist’s pursuit.  At the University of Virginia, two single-gender choruses have persisted in their early incarnations as centers for social bonding and a shared musical experience among student singers.

The Virginia Glee Club traces its origins to the Cabell House Men, a group of singing and banjo strumming students living together by happenstance in a boarding house on West Main and 10th Streets in 1871.  By the late 1800s, the group had formed a more permanent organization and began performing under the purview of the University proper.  The Virginia Women’s Chorus was begun as a curricular choir in 1974, just a few years after the full-scale inclusion of female students on Grounds.  In 1989, the University of Virginia interpreted Title IX legislation as a prohibition of single-gendered activities at the school and disbanded both groups in favor of mixed-voice choruses only.  The Glee Club was able to survive the blow.  The Women’s Chorus was not.  Happily, the VWC reformed 5 years later, and both groups continue to thrive as fully self-funded, student-governed entities located at the University of Virginia.

Admirable as these groups are for maintaining their historical form, are these kinds of clubs viewed as outdated and antiquated?  Given the explosion of pop a cappella groups on today’s college campuses you might think so, but new men’s and women’s classical choral ensembles are still springing up.  The Roanoke College Oriana Singers were formed in 2009 by Jeff Sandborg, choral director at Roanoke College.  The demand for choral singing among female students was so great, he created a new ensemble to meet the need.  The Oriana Singers are a robust group of 50 voices with a full schedule of performances in addition to those they share with the Roanoke College mixed-voice choir.  The Chicago Men’s A Cappella was formed in 2005 at the request of male student singers at the University of Chicago.  While the Oriana Singers are a curricular choir, CMAC elected to form as a separate, self-governed entity. The founders of CMAC admired the independence of the Virginia Glee Club and replicated the structure of its operations, including using the Club’s Bylaws as a model for CMAC’s own.  CMAC conductor Bruce Tammen relays the story:  (read the full story here)

“…a small group of first year men decided amongst themselves that they did not much like the choral offerings available to them through the Music Department — that they wanted a single-sex ‘glee club.’… Well — I knew the culture at U of C: …lack of the cooperation gene, lack of desire to devote time to something so un-academic, as well as so laughably traditional, etc;  no money, no library, no rehearsal space — and I had no great hopes such an organization would get off the ground. …They proved as capable as the UVA students, when given the opportunity, of making their own rules, of planning concerts, of bringing their friends aboard.  It was good for them.  They blossomed in the process of creating the club, and continue to blossom each year.  We are a much smaller undergrad institution than UVA (5,000 opposed to 15,000) and membership in CMAC is not yet entrenched as a traditional activity, so we never have the numbers you have; but in our own way, we prosper, we grow, and we graduate young men trained in leadership, in cooperation, in mutual trust and interdependence.  And even in singing! …I’m not sure your current membership would recognize that we are their younger brothers.  But we are.  I know it.”

There is value in maintaining these “old clubs,” to the choral singer and to the listener.  Will Wheaton, VGC President 2017-18, appreciates the musical and “extra-musical” benefits of membership that have spanned the Club’s 146-year history. “Having a common interest to rally around helps form friendships, but the environment Club fosters cements and develops them. Regardless of what musical interests drive members to join the organization, it’s the bonds of brotherhood formed while singing that keep the fire alive.”  The Club’s time spent in rehearsal, whether working on their brotherhood or on their repertoire, is appreciated by those outside the group as well.  The sound of single-gender vocal ensembles is rare and thrilling to the listener, and Charlottesville audiences are as eager to fill the hall for these local performances as the singers are eager to join.

Illustrating the stunning versatility of choral singing in single-gender ensembles and as a collaborative, mixed-voice choir, the Virginia Glee Club is hosting an intercollegiate showcase featuring two women’s and two men’s choirs.  The concert will be held in Old Cabell Hall (UVa Central Grounds) at 3:00 pm on Saturday, April 1st.  Joined by the Virginia Women’s Chorus, the Roanoke College Oriana Singers, and Chicago Men’s A Cappella, the Virginia Glee Club invites all our fossils and friends in the Charlottesville community to share in this multifaceted musical experience.  Free admission.  No ticket required.