Old Yale

The birth of the Yale Glee Club

Manuscripts & Archives

Manuscripts & Archives

This 1861 photo is said to be the oldest of a glee club group. View full image

Throughout this academic year, the Yale Glee Club will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding. The 80-voice coed chorus had its beginning in an informal group of 13 men organized by the Class of 1863 during their sophomore year.

Those early days are well documented, thanks to Charles McCormick Reeve, Class of 1870, who wrote a letter to the editor of the Yale Alumni Weekly (precursor of this magazine) in October 1907: "Sir: - It has been a much discussed question as to when the first Yale Glee Club was organized." In response, Charles S. Sheldon, one of the founders, wrote a 13-page article about the club that was published in the Yale Courant in January 1909.

In his article, Sheldon quoted from several documents of the time, such as a November 1860 letter to his parents: "Twelve of us '63 men have formed ourselves into a glee club. … We go serenading some—to the female boarding schools and sometimes to private houses. The other night, besides the bouquets, we were presented with a large basket of delicious grapes by one of the young ladies." One of his sources, Sheldon wrote, believed the club's public debut had been in Guilford, Connecticut, on February 27, 1861. But the earliest concert Sheldon could vouch for—because he had saved the program—was held in Meriden on March 6.

In May 1861, Sheldon wrote, the club had serenaded the Civil War troops encamped in New Haven. They also sang national airs at a lecture on the war by temperance orator John B. Gough. The war was not a propitious time to start any club. Sheldon's biography in his class history states that he was drafted in his senior year, "but furnished a substitute"—meaning that he paid another man to take his place—"as did all of his classmates who had a similar experience."

The Glee Club tradition continued strong after the Class of 1863 graduated, as Reeve's letter to the Yale Alumni Weeklyshowed. He still had the program for an 1866 performance, which was, he wrote, "a splendid concert and old Music Hall, which seated 2,500, was packed."

Interestingly, three other historical accounts, two written by the first two directors of the Glee Club, assert that the club was founded eight or ten years later. In a landmark 1879 history of Yale, Gustav Stoeckel, a music professor and the club's first director, wrote that a "musical society formed in 1812 by members of the Class of 1813, somewhat later took the name Beethoven. In addition to its social functions it served as the College Choir singing at morning and evening prayers. In 1855 it resigned from that function but continued to thrive until 1868 when the Class and University Glee Clubs were formed which have to all appearances supplanted it." Thomas G. Shepard, Glee Club director from 1873 to 1905, wrote in the same Courant issue in which Sheldon's account appeared that "the first club composed of men from various classes, and thus representing the entire college, was the Yale Glee Club of '70–71." And finally, the Yale Obituary Record biography of Gustav Mozart Stoeckel, Class of 1871—son of music professor Gustav Stoeckel—affirms that the younger Stoeckel was a founder of the Yale Glee Club.

How are these different dates possible? The varying dates depend on the writers' views of what constitutes the Yale Glee Club. The Glee Club cofounded by Charles Sheldon in 1861 was a Class of '63 group. But those who place the date in 1868 or 1870 are focusing on the period when the class-based Glee Club evolved into a college-wide Glee Club. In his 1871 memoir, Lyman Bagg, Class of 1869, wrote that glee clubs were organized as either class or "college affairs," and that the two could exist at the same time. In his article for the Yale Courant, Sheldon quoted alumni who said that the glee clubs continued as class organizations until 1868.

Ultimately, the founding date of 1861 is the appropriate one, for that was when the tradition began. As Sheldon wrote: "And so, when we left New Haven in June, 1863, we left the nucleus of the Yale Glee Club. 'Thus endeth the first lesson.'" The editors of the Yale Literary Magazine offered their own ringing endorsement of the 1861 date when they published the following statement in August of that year:

We have chosen to designate this company of Student singers by this general title, because all College is grateful to them for the excellent music with which they have furnished us from time to time, and also feel a pride and, perhaps, some conceit in their success. The concert on the 1st of this month was well attended. … The approbation was most hearty and deserved.  

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