History of the Penn State Glee Club

Formation and the Early Years (1888 – 1912)

Nine students, calling themselves the Penn State Glee Club and Banjo and Mandolin Society, met on a Saturday afternoon in December 1888. Dr. George C. Butz, head of the Department of Horticulture, was the leader and second tenor of the group. Under his leadership the Glee Club began to tour immediately, with concertsin March 1889 in Bellefonte, Tyrone, Huntingdon, Altoona, Clearfield, Philadelphia, and Williamsport. Within a few years of its inception the Glee Club spring tour became one of the first of Penn State’s musical traditions.

A succession of music directors during the early years reflected the informality of the Club: F. P. Atherton (1889) led a group of twelve singers; Professor E. F. Davis (1890) led a contingent of sixteen singers. The early programs of the Glee Club reflected the choral music styles and tastes of the time. While the selections and composers are mostly unfamiliar to us today, the Club’s use of solo quartets and guest soloists began a tradition still followed today.

Charles M. H. Atherton brought stable leadership to the Club, beginning as director in 1893. Atherton, the son of Penn State President George Atherton, was himself a Penn State alumnus, having earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1892. Atherton was also a student athlete who excelled in both baseball and football, and he is credited with kicking the first recorded field goal by placement in any college game. Glee Club programs under Atherton were affable affairs, the second half of which often veered into revue and sketch comedy. Skits depicted student life with a mixture high jinks and Penn State college songs. A clever jab at a donnish professor could lead into a rousing chorus of “Hail to Old State” or the “Alma Mater.” As much a humanitarian as a musician, Atherton left Penn State and, during World War I, accompanied the Czech Army across Siberia as a YMCA volunteer. After the war, Atherton memorialized those soldiers in a collection of Czech folk songs which he published in New York.

A Glee Club Golden Age (1912 – 1940)

The Glee Club was next led by Clarence C. Robinson, director from 1912 to 1922. Robinson was the first “director of music” at Penn State and later became the head of the newly created Department of Music. The first composer-conductor of the Glee Club, Robinson worked to expand the Club’s audience and prestige. In 1913 he led the Club on a coast-to-coast tour, courtesy of the Santa Fe Railroad. In 1916 the Varsity Quartet conducted a singing tour of the recently completed Panama Canal. The first Glee Club recordings date from Robinson’s tenure. (In fact, you can hear this bit of history for yourself on The Blue and White Album. The CD opens with a recording of the 1914 Glee Club that was preserved on an old 78 rpm record.) Indeed the Glee Clubs of 1912-1916 were a natty bunch. Photographs depict a Glee Club of fifty members smartly attired in tux and tails with an air of worldly insouciance. Their sartorial dash and musical finesse won them many singing competitions against Pitt and the Ivy League schools.

In 1922 Robinson left Penn State to become Ohio University’s Dean of Music. Richard W. Grant, a prominent music educator and composer, became the new Glee Club director. Under Dean Grant, the Club continued to compete in intercollegiate contests. His groups won the Pennsylvania State Championship for seven consecutive years. The Glee Club even broke into publishing in 1925 with “The Pennsylvania State College Song,” words by A. Howry Espenshade and music by Samuel Richards Gaines, written especially for the group. This was the first piece of sheet music published by The Pennsylvania State College Glee Club. Grant took the Glee Club on its first European tour, a six-week adventure through England, France, and other romantic locales, in 1928. The nineteen twenties, thirties and forties were golden days for the Glee Club. The annual Mother’s Day Concert packed Schwab Auditorium, and throngs sat on the lawn outside to hear the concert through open windows. The Hy-los were formed in 1934 as a small ensemble within the Glee Club, and they continue to this day as the Hi-Lo’s. The Glee Club often joined forces with the Penn State Thespians for productions like 1939’s “Swing Pinafore,” a hep cat adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Expansion & the Frank Gullo Years (1940 – 1970)

Frank Gullo, a new assistant professor of music and graduate of New York University, filled in while Dean Grant was on leave in 1940. Gullo arranged for the Glee Club’s appearance in New York for a radio broadcast on Fred Waring’s Chesterfield “Pleasure Time” program. The Penn State Glee Club had hit the national media! Gullo assumed directorship of the Glee Club completely in 1942, but there followed difficult years for both the club and the nation. In 1945, with most of its men gone to the military, the Club became inactive. (This break in the history of the Glee Club is the source of that perennial controversy: wh
ich is older, the Thespians or the Glee Club? The Glee Club is older by nine years, but the Thespians have the longest continuous run.) With the end of World War II and the return of the veterans to campus, the Glee Club gave its first post-war campus concert on May 19, 1946. Frank took the Glee Club on many memorable tours throughout Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey and expanded the repertoire of the Glee Club to include Renaissance motets, German partsongs, and English madrigals, plus the novelty songs and humorous selections still remained apart of our repertoire.

Gullo’s last concert with the Glee Club was Mother’s Day, May 14, 1967 in Schwab. He was succeeded by Lewis Spratlan, who had come from the Yale Glee Club. Spratlan, who wrote and arranged many works for the Glee Club, took the Club to the southeast and Florida for the first time. He also started the tradition, long continued, of joint concerts with women’s choruses, singing with choirs from Wilson and Elmira colleges.

Douglas Miller succeeded Spratlan in 1969. Dr. Miller led both the Glee Club and the Penn State Symphony Orchestra in his first year at Penn State. He continued his distinguished conducting career by founding Musica da Camera, directing the State College Choral Society and, most recently, founding and conducting the Penn State Concert Choir and Chamber Singers.

Bruce Trinkley’s Choir (1970 – 2005)

Douglas Miller was followed in 1970 by Bruce Trinkley, the Glee Club’s director from 1970-2005. Bruce came to Penn State after having directed the Columbia University Glee Club. Under Trinkley the Glee Club continued its fine traditions: annual spring tours throughout the Commonwealth and overseas from Erie to Philadelphia, and more recently from Wales to France. Recordings under Trinkley’s baton have included the 90th Anniversary Concert of Pennsylvania Songs (1978), P.S. – Happy Holidays (1994), The Blue and White Album (1997), The Green Album (2002), and Glee Club Gold (2005). Bruce has also led the Glee Club in performances at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Into the 21st Century… (2005 -)

Christopher Kiver began directing the Penn State Glee Club in 2005 following the completion of his doctoral degree in conducting at the University of Michigan. Since 2005, the Glee Club has appeared regularly at state and regional conferences including the PMEA annual state conference in 2007 and 2013; MENC Eastern Division Conference in 2009; Intercollegiate Men’s Choruses National Seminar in 2008, ACDA Eastern Division Conference in 2010. In 2012, the Glee Club performed in Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh as part of the President’s Concert. The Glee Club continues the tradition of the spring break tour and destinations have included Iceland, Texas, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Washington DC. On-campus collaborations have included settings of the requiem mass by Brahms and Verdi, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9, Poulenc’s “Gloria,” and Mendelssohn’s immortal oratorio “Elijah.”

Dr. Kiver also has been the champion of a new initiative to bring male collegiate singing to younger male students across the state. In 2011, the Glee Club hosted their first Men of Song Festival in Esber Auditorium where over 50 young men from 6th – 12th grade came for a day-long workshop and informal concert. Since 2011, Men of Song has moved to Eisenhower Auditorium and grown to host over 120 public school students. Men of Song offers a unique opportunity to foster a lifelong love of singing for young men with changing and changed voices. WE ARE excited to see it continue to grow even more in the future!

GCMC -1890's
Glee Club Banjo & Mandolin Choir (1890) 

Old Glee Club
Glee Club & Mandolin Choir Formal Photo (1894)

GC 1915-1916
Glee Club Formal Photo (1912)

GC 1920
Glee Club Coast to Coast tour (1914)

GC 1924
Glee Club Formal Photo (1924)

GC 1927trophy
Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Choir Competition (1927)

Director Frank Gullo around the piano (1946)

GC 1953
Glee Club performs for University President
Milton Eisenhower and current
U.S. President Dwight (1953)

GC 1955 (2)
Glee Club performance (1955)

Around Piano
Informally around the piano (1961)

Penn State Hi-Lo’s (1971)

Art Museum Photo
Glee Club Formal Photo at Palmer Art Museum Steps (1995)

Glee Club performs at the conclusion of the
For the Future” capital campaign (2013)

125th Eisenhower

Eisenhower stage during the Glee Club’s 125th Anniversary Concert in 2014 featuring over 100 Glee Club alums.