Though once merely evocative of mirth, today the word “glee” seems almost inextricably linked to music—in particular to teen crooning, thanks to the eponymous TV show and its weekly dose of pop tunes. Glee clubs weren’t always belting Journey, though: Their inception dates back centuries—or, in the case of the Yale Glee Club, exactly 150 years. The group will celebrate its milestone with a special performance this Friday, April 8 at Carnegie Hall (881 Seventh Ave., at 57th Street).
Originating in England in the 1700s, the term “glee club” initially denoted a men’s society that performed short, lighthearted songs called “glees.” By the mid-19th century, the tradition made its way to American universities—first Harvard, then Michigan, then Yale—and continued to develop from there, through various iterations and styles, into its current co-ed choir format.
Though the Yale Glee Club is certainly proud of its history, this upcoming performance is not retrospective. “The focus of the Carnegie concert, actually, is new music,” Jeffrey Douma, director of the club since 2003, said. “I thought it would be interesting if this concert looked more towards the future, and also recognized the glee club’s historic role as a catalyst for new choral music.”
Just as Marshall Bartholomew innovated the choral arrangement of folk tunes as the club’s director from 1921 to 1953, Douma hopes to showcase the Club’s originality with the premiere of “Partition,” a contemporary piece he commissioned from Yale School of Music alum Ted Hearne. “I asked him to compose something that wasn’t necessarily about the Glee Club specifically, but that recognized the power of music to draw people together,” Douma said. “But I really left it up to him to decide what that might look like.”
Hearne chose to focus on a conversation between Edward Said and conductor Daniel Barenboim, specifically with regards to Said’s assertion that “when you divide something up, it’s not so easy to put it all back together.” The quotation can apply to a broad scope, from the British Empire to musical composition, and Hearne recognized a resonance with Yale’s socioeconomically stratified home New Haven, a town in which, as Hearne said, “different classes are very sharply divided—there are partitions.”
Though the inspiration is political, Hearne intends his piece to be more journalistic than message driven. For example, two of its movements consist entirely of the names of businesses that line the walk through New Haven toward the Yale campus.
Listed in order, these locations are meant to invite listeners—and, specifically, the club members themselves—to recognize New Haven’s geographic segregation in a way that is easy to overlook. “This is your city. Take responsibility for it or don’t, but notice it,” Hearne said. “I think the choir gets that, which is extremely gratifying.”
Douma interpreted a further significance, noting that these movements make manifest the “artificial boundaries and barriers between people, even though we live right next door to each other.”
Still, beyond this theme of separation, Hearne hoped to create a celebration of the unifying power of song. “Making music together, and even more specifically making vocal music together, connects people in an immediate and direct way because our voices are very personal,” Douma said, noting that he has attended multiple weddings of former Glee Club compatriots.
Hearne agreed: “I grew up in choirs, and I found that to be a very community-driven experience.”
As such, he said, “there are no solos in my piece—it’s very much about the interaction.” One movement finds the choir split in two, forming the word “easy” with section each saying half—the one literally unable to complete its message without the other.
Though perhaps without the TV show’s celebrity pop, this Glee performance seeks to provide contemporary relevance, while also showcasing the Yale Glee Club’s rich history of connection and innovation.