“It was ten years ago this coming October, when, after a concert by the Yale Glee Club, one young lady in the old time Choral Class, instead of dutifully gibing her attention to the intricacies of the “Wanderer’s Night Song”, which was then rehearsing, thought to herself, “Why can’t we have a club for singing glees like the Yale men?” (Smith College Monthly, 1895)
To such a challenge, students from the class of 1888 quickly and joyfully responded to form a singing group that in 1886 would be known formally as the Smith College Glee Club. Originally the group of 14 “’88-ers” formed in 1885 following the tradition of singing at the House Dramatics (in Hubbard, called Tertium Quid), with little more than the newly purchased Yale Glee Club book, which had arrangements for men’s voices only. This small but dedicated student-run group would later broadcast on national radio and television, debut at Carnegie hall, and achieve national if not international acclaim as one of the finest undergraduate choruses in the United States, whose tradition still continues today.
The early repertoire of the 14-member Glee Club of 1885-86 was material borrowed and transposed from the Yale book, serving as the musical selection for the house dramatics. It should be noted that this was not the first time such an organization was attempted; a previous endeavor by the class of 1883 to start such an organization apparently ended with the graduation of the class. Jennie Chamberlain Hosford (1888), in her history published in 1938, thus proudly exclaims, “…we wish to be remembered, and each reunion year proudly fling [upon] our banner our banner, ‘ ‘88 started the Glee Club.’” (1. Hosford, Jennie Chamberlain. “Smith College Glee Club “Genesis and Exodus”, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, August 1938)
The Smith College Glee Club (whose name was adopted officially in the 1886-1887 academic year) made their first public appearance as such in February 1887, asked by President Seelye to perform in Social Hall with a reception following. The Glee Club made another performance June 1st of the same year, and the tradition of performing for the Smith community was thus established. Until 1923, the Glee Club remained under student leadership, performing frequently with the Mandolin and Banjo clubs, opening programs with the song “Fair Smith”. In the tradition of house dramatics, the members would also produce operettas in the 1920s such as the Mikado, Chimes of Normandy, and H.M.S. Pinafore.
New leadership was found in the person of Ivan T. Gorokhoff, who directed the Glee Club from 1923-1945. A native of Russia, in 1912 Gorokhoff founded the Russian Cathedral Choir in New York City, and had served the Smith College community since 1918 directing the four class choirs, the Oratorio Chorus, which in 1923 was absorbed by Glee Club. Under his direction, the chorus made their first radio appearance in 1934, part of a music department series run out of Springfield. The Glee Club repertoire also expanded to include Russian works from Gorokhoff’s homeland, and the chorus frequently performed with men’s choruses from Harvard, Dartmouth, Amherst, Yale, Princeton, and Trinity.
The Smith Glee Club continued to break new ground under the direction of second director Robert S. Brawley, who oversaw the recording of their 1st album in November 1947, in collaboration with the Yale Glee Club, and a television performance with Princeton the same month in New York City.
In 1948, Iva Dee Hiatt began what would be 30 years of service to Smith, directing both the Glee Club and the Smith College Chamber Singers, a smaller select chorus comprised of Glee Club members who would tour internationally in alternate years, frequently to Europe. Under Hiatt, the Glee Club reached a level of achievement that was unprecedented, performing at least once a month, frequently combining with men’s choruses from other schools, making regular concert tours of the United States, and performing twice in Carnegie Hall (in 1951 with Harvard, and 1958 with Yale). Highlights also include radio and television performances, two performances with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C. and a performance with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops (“Smith Evening at the Pops”) in 1974.
Hiatt revised the structure of choral organizations at Smith to reflect the following structure: two freshman choirs, Alpha and Omega; a sophomore choir, called the College Choir, and a Junior-Senior Glee Club, whose membership was restricted to those who had spent at least a year in the other choirs. Shortly after these revisions (in 1948), an All-Smith-Choir was formed (open to all four classes), and Glee club was open to qualified sophomores. Through this system, approximately 400 Smith students were involved in some sort of choral singing through Smith, giving Smith the nickname “The Singing College” (N.B. Amherst College seems to claim this title per their website).
A study of the performance schedule from the ‘58-‘59 and ‘59-‘60 academic years shows the high standard to which Hiatt held the chorus. Both years the chorus made a Spring Tour in March, and averaged about 10 other performances throughout the year, including traditions such as the Thanksgiving Program, Rally Day Program, and the Commencement Concert. In keeping with this observation, a 1961-62 folder entitled “evaluations” detail the responses of students to the rigor of Glee Club membership in this period. The students collectively complain of an excess of “little things”: “too many works to dig deeply into any of them—much better a year centered on a work of fair length.” (“Evaluations”, May 9 1962, Iva Dee Hiatt Papers, Box 4).
In her later years at Smith, Hiatt conducted from the wheelchair, as she became more severely afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. She died on January 5th, 1980. Memorialized in the President’s Report of 1979-1980, the obituary recalls, “Those in the class of 1980 who worked with her worked with a woman who knew well her life span was short. They also worked with an artist so passionately committed to her art that an apparently crippling burden of physical limitations was seemingly easy to transcend…Under her direction, singing became a way of life at Smith and music was the center of a liberal education. She was a brilliant teacher in her lifetime and never taught better than in the manner of her dying.” (President’s Reports 1979-1980)
Hiatt was succeeded by G. Roberts Kolb in 1979, who led the Glee Club for one year before Theodore Morrison became director from 1980-1986. In a 2006 survey of Glee Club alumnae, Joanne Core ’82 remembers, “during my time at Smith, the Key person in making choir fun and expressive and moving and, well, musical, was Rob Kolb. He had fabulous rehearsal technique that was very liberal—artsy, in that he always brought in the meaning and emotion of the text that we were expressing, besides doing all the necessary technical things like pitches and rhythms and intonation and diction.” (October 2006, Survey Sent out to Glee Club alumnae, Box 1179, Smith College Archives)
Glee Club in the last 30 years has continued moving forward, premiering new works, some of which have been specially commissioned for the group. Under director Theodore Morrison the Smith College Glee Club premiered ‘Silhouettes’ by composer (and friend of Morrison) Alan Bonde in November 1984. Quoted in an article, Morrison remarks, “the number one goal I have at Smith…is to create a forum for new music. If I leave any legacy, I hope that it will be that I helped find new music, and created an atmosphere in which new music could come into being” (“Helping New Music Happen: Smith Glee Club to premiere ‘Silhouettes’ by Alan Bonde”, 9 November 1984)
Most recently, the Smith College Glee Club has been conducted by Lucinda Thayer (1986-1995), Paul Flight (1995-1997) and Jonathan Hirsh (1997-present). The present Glee club consists of 60? members and continues in the tradition of performing at college events such as Convocation, Vespers, Rally Day and Commencement, and generally performs a major work with a visiting men’s chorus in the Spring.
A Commentary on Singing at Smith (from 1986 Yearbook)
“Help! I can’t Sing!” Sandy Moats, p. 209
“…They make it sound so easy. As if everyone at Smith can sing like Beverly Sills (lest we forget Sills spoke at last year’s graduation)
All this makes me wonder how my inability to sing slipped by the admission committee. Someone has to control the influx of singers—Do people sing at their interviews? Perhaps the government has quotas for non-singers”