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Forty Years of Harmony

Every fall the river valley beneath the campus explodes into its seasonal glory of evergreen and gold. And every fall one of the larger halls on the U of A campus explodes into the glory of music as the University of Alberta Mixed Chorus reconvenes for another season.

While not yet as old as the hills around it, the Mixed Chorus, at age 40, is certainly older than much of the surrounding campus. And the group appears even longer in the tooth when one considers that the Chorus, as organized under the leadership of Gordon Clark in the fall of 1944, was actually built on the bones of a smaller choir founded in 1939 by Ottaman Cypress to supply music for Student Christian Movement services. However, these bare facts tell little about the unique character of the Chorus itself — or the reasons why it will probably still be going strong 40 years hence.

One feels that an early reviewer put his finger on the matter precisely when he said, "There is nothing that promotes good fellowship as well or develops artistic sensibilities more than chorus singing." He was right on both counts; within those two phrases, promoting "good fellowship" and developing "artistic sensibilities", exists much of the unspoken charter binding four decades of chorus existence.

It is true, of course, that the actual terms of that "charter" have evolved and changed through the years, reflecting the individual mark of succeeding conductors and changing times. The Clark years, for instance, are marked by the freshness and excitement of new beginnings. A campus, and indeed a city, still under the shadow of the war responds enthusiastically to this unique new group of keen if inexperienced singers led by a spirited medical student. Though its repertoire of short classical pieces and traditional folk songs would seem at odds with the predominant campus taste for jive and jazz, the Chorus grows rapidly in three years from 70 to 135 members to become "the largest choir of its kind in Canada." Mingled with humorous accounts of Clark's exuberance and wit, one finds rave reviews from Calgary and Edmonton critics alike and the expressed hope that the Chorus will help lead a resurgence of interest in choral singing, an art neglected during the war.

With Clark's resignation due to the demands of final year Medicine, Richard Eaton, a new professor of music, takes the helm in 1947 and sets about fulfilling that hope. Under the direction of "the boss", as he is affectionately nicknamed, the Mixed Chorus moves into a new phase of expansion and consolidation. The music becomes more challenging and diversified, the reviews more numerous and favorable as the Chorus expands the spring tours begun under Clark, moves into regular radio appearances and is asked to sing for special occasions, such as Princess Elizabeth's visit in 1951. As many as 300 applicants join the long line outside Eaton's office to vie for the 50 to 80 spots open each year in the 155 member Chorus. Unfortunately, this rigid auditioning tends to rule out the keen but less capable singer. However, as the choir's musical competence and reputation grows, it becomes capable of not only awakening even more people throughout the province to the beauty of high quality choral music, but helps train future educators to fan the interest thus created into concrete results.

Eaton's sudden death while on sabbatical in 1968 brings an important era to a close. Under the direction of James Whittle for three years and Dr. David Stocker for one, the chorus moves into an uncertain transitional period. Not only has the Chorus lost the sure hand that has guided it for 20 years, but its own success has ironically helped to place it in a difficult dilemma. As the interest in choral music has increased so have the demands for a more specialized and professional training than that provided by a general student organization. To meet these demands, the chorus would have to move under the music department, thus forfeiting its status as an independent student association. Yet a decision to remain outside the department would virtually assure the loss of some of the best student talent always previously available to the group.

In deciding to remain true to its original mandate to the student body, the Chorus passes through yet another crossroads. Today, with its membership once more over the 100 mark, the Chorus under the direction of Dr. Ron Stephens is still very much a vital part of the campus and larger community. The spring and winter tours and appearances at special occasions, such as the recent special convocation for the Prince of Wales, still continue. So do the parties, alumni nights, steak roasts and pig roasts so much a part of the Eaton, Whittle, and Stocker years. Musically, however, the Chorus of the last decade has perhaps moved a little closer to the original purposes of the Clark years as stated in a 1945 poster: to accept "anyone associated with the University who likes to sing", giving them the opportunity to do so regardless of previous musical experience or ability to read music. In the Chorus of the '70s and '80s as in that of the '40s, "if you like to sing and can attend rehearsals, you are welcome."

While the terms of the group's musical mandate may have altered with the years, what has never altered is its love of singing and the close fellowship this has created. The reminiscences of members of all 40 years radiate an infectious spirit of joy, friendship and fun that transcends all barriers of age or musical ability. An early alumnus's memory of the chorus invading The American Dairy Lunch in 1947 and bursting spontaneously into song to the surprise and delight of the patrons, is uncannily echoed in later alumni's memories of similar impromptu concerts conducted throughout the years in bars, restaurants, campgrounds, cafeterias and wedding halls throughout Alberta.

For many the memory of these impromptu concerts is inseparable from equally warm recollections of spring tour, yet another touchstone of common experience. For all but a very few of the 40 years, choristers have been emerging from the bleakness of final exams into the warmth and freedom of the prairie spring and five to 10 days of singing in the halls and churches of rural Alberta, and sometimes the neighboring provinces as well. Many of the memories are humorous: collapsing risers, impossibly flat pianos, conductors inadvertently locked into washrooms in mid-concert, ingeniously lost or strayed choristers, and bogged-down buses hauled out by tractors or pushed by the whole group into a neighboring town are all part of the UAMC collective consciousness. So are the warm memories of horas, roadside picnics in the beauty of the awakening countryside, mid-tour parties with singing, dancing and skits, and the incredible hospitality of small towns all across Alberta which somehow managed to house and feed us in our multitudes.

For many others the touchstone is the memories of innumerable parties, pig roasts, steak roasts and bi-weekly practices, all of which helped transform a large, strange, impersonal campus into a place of laughter, song and human warmth. For many, the comradeship thus shared in rehearsals, tours and social events has developed beyond pleasant memories and lasting friendships into something even more intimate. As a consequence, many of the names one finds in the files of the '40s, '50s and '60s are beginning to appear again in the Chorus of the '70s and '80s as the children of former chorus members reach university age. One former alumnus of the '50s who pleads guilty, as tour manager, to making sure a certain "lovely, lilting soprano" was always on his bus, has not only seen three of his own children join the Chorus in recent years, but the eldest, in his turn, marry a "lovely, lilting soprano" of his own. As the latter marriage was only one of seven Chorus romances which ended in marriage that particular summer, it would seem that the seeds for yet a third generation of singers have already been planted.

To sum up, if there is a single quality that makes the University of Alberta Mixed Chorus unique, it is a deep sense of continuing tradition and community spanning 40 years — a tradition that is as human as it is musical. Through music the Chorus has helped celebrate the marriages of its members, and through music it has tried to soften the grief of death and parting — the passing of a beloved conductor, the death of another's brother, the death of a fellow member's spouse.

Through music, too, the Chorus bridges the gap of time and space separating choristers. For me the essence of the University of Alberta Mixed Chorus is those special moments at the end of a concert when all members there — past and present — are invited to join in the singing of the "University of Alberta Cheer Song." Sometimes, that simply brings a single person forward from the audience in some small town on tour; on other occasions, as it will most certainly at the 40th anniversary, almost the whole audience rises to its feet. Whenever it happens, however, there comes a certain magical moment when all of us, from young people in their late teens to balding businessmen in their sixties, put aside all differences in age, background, creed and occupation to raise our voices in the resounding glory of four part choral harmony.

That is the essence of the University of Alberta Mixed Chorus: 40 years of musical and human harmony.

Published Winter 1983.

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