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Smith College Chamber Singers

Alexandra Ghiz ‘12

The Smith College Chamber Singers were the initiative of longstanding Choral Director Iva Dee Hiatt, who served at Smith from 1948 to 1979.  Born out of a desire to have a chorus who would perform regular tours abroad, or perhaps a desire to have a more intimate group of singers with whom she could work more closely, Hiatt founded the Smith College Chamber Singers in 1949, who went on their first European Tour in 1951.  Membership in the Chamber Singers was restricted to those in one of the other choruses, and was determined by an audition.  Over the years the number of members has fluctuated from as many as fifty-five (1955-1956) to as few as fifteen (1979-1980).

Traditionally, the chorus would tour in alternate years, often for as long as three to five weeks in the summer months during Hiatt’s time.  The historian from the first Chamber Singers tour in 1951 recalls the excitement of performing abroad for the first time in Paris, “The first concert in the American Cathedral.  The Stabat Mater came to life within its grey stone walls—lofty and pure; and there was our first performance on the continent.  The audience that we had drummed up from the boat came through in fine style, and we were all exceedingly pleased with ourselves (Student history, “1st Chamber Singers’ tour 1951 22 June—14 August”, p. 4, 42. Iva Dee Hiatt papers, Chamber Singers Tours 1949—1973 (3 of 13) Smith College Archives).  As one of the first touring undergraduate choruses and the first group from a women’s college to undertake such an endeavor, the Smith group became quickly famous.  The Smith College Chamber Singers have the distinction of being the first women’s choral group to ever perform in Canterbury Cathedral, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Chartres Cathedral in France.  The same historian quoted above recounts the joy of being discovered by the press:

“What was all the excitement?  Hey lemme see that paper!” Yes! Our first rave notice had appeared! The Lausanne Tribune (article titled “Un choeur d’étudiantes Américaines a Lansanne”) spared no adjective, much to our satisfaction. We had arrived!’ (Student History, July 7th, 1st Chamber Singers Tour, Hiatt Papers, SCA)

A photo caption from the 1952 tour describes Canterbury Cathedral: “None of us will ever forget Canterbury, or the thrill we all experienced singing there.  It was undoubtedly one of the greatest of our many wonderful experiences.” (Photo caption 9, Chamber Singers Tours, Hiatt Papers, Smith College Archives)

Partnership and collaboration with men’s chamber choruses were also common.  The Chamber Singers toured Mexico with the Wesleyan Chorus.  In the summer of 1965, the Chamber Singers performed a European tour with the Princeton singers as the Smith-Princeton Chorus, a collaboration that would reconnect three more times for tours in 1968 (Europe), 1969 (Mexico) and 1971 (South America).  The Princeton Glee Club offers a summary of these partnerships on their website:, excerpted below:

In the summer of 1965 the Smith-Princeton chorus gave concerts in Munich, Salzburg, Rome, and other cities, took part in the famous choral festival at Spoleto, made a radio and television appearance in Paris, and gave a final concert in the Chartres cathedral. In 1968 they sang a Josquin des Pres mass, a Bach cantata, and other works in West Berlin, Nuremberg, Prague, Vienna, and Venice, again concluding with a concert at Chartres, which was taped for radio and television. A French critic commended their “naturalness . . . dynamism . . . [and] truly contagious ardor of interpretation.”

The visits to Latin America were also well received. In 1969 the Smith-Princeton singers appeared with the Mexican National Symphony in Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts. They received standing ovations throughout South America in 1971. High points of their tour were appearances with the Argentine Air Force band at a Fourth of July celebration at the United States Embassy in Buenos Aires and with the National Symphony Orchestra of Brazil in a performance of Haydn’s “Paukenmesse” in Rio de Janeiro.

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

In 2001 the Smith College Chamber Singers celebrated their 50th anniversary with a European tour which included current members and alumnae.  The Chamber Singers continue to make bi-annual tours, either in the summer or in the spring March break, often in Europe but also places in the United States such as San Antonio and Hawaii.

Positive Reviews from International Newspapers

Strasbourg, France

“To sing with so much assurance and joy—a cappella—means indefatigable work in order to maintain what we in the old world call a tradition.  Iva Dee Hiatt conducts with as much precision as enthusiasm.  Under her direction the music never sleeps” (W., Les Dernières Nouvelles D’Alsace 8 Aug 1956)

From 1958 tour

“The Smith College Choir surprises us…with the number of young girls in it.  But what amazes us even more is the vocal worth, the purity of tone and the over-all smoothness of the registers which Miss Iva Dee Hiatt realizes in a balance of voice in the half tones.  Choirs which attain unity for octaves so pure and accurate are rare.”  (La Suisse, Geneva Switzerland.  August 8, 1958)

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