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The Five Jubilees

By Joe Flynn (Executive Committee member) and Bob Pierce (former Club historian)

(From: The Fifth Jubilee concert program, May 7,1991, with brief updating and editing in February, 2000.)



Mendelssohn Glee Club jubilee concerts seem to inspire long historical dissertations. Until this time, the tradition has been to read these aloud. At the centennial, over half an hour and the efforts of two members were given over to history and reminiscences. At other times we have presented dramatic readings complete with musical "illumination." This time, we'll leave the concert to music and use the medium of the printed word to share with our friends the story of our heritage, of which we are justly proud.

The Mendelssohn Glee Club, an organization for amateur male singers, is the oldest singing organization and the second oldest musical organization in the United States (only the New York Philharmonic is older). Tonight's performance is the finale of our 125th consecutive season of rehearsals and concerts.

The Club began as an organization of women and men who met during the 1865-66 season at the home of Mr. Henry Smyth on lower Fifth Avenue and sang under the direction of Philip Mayer. The organization disbanded at the end of the season, but the men of the group decided to continue as a male voice club. In the fall of that year, they began their rehearsals at the home of Dr. Bellows, pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church on 20th Street. The Club then leased the rooms above a book trade salesroom in Clinton Hall, a building that, 17 years before, had been the site of the Astor Place riots. It was dimly lighted in daytime by a few skylights and in the evening with gas jets; it was insufficiently heated and often wet from leaks in the ceiling. Yet the Club rehearsed here for the next ten years, and the first three concerts of the first season were given in this room.

First Concert

The first season began with concerts given on successive evenings, February 21 and 22, 1867, under the baton of Harvey Schrimpf. The Club was referred to on the program book cover as the "Amateur Musical Association" and on the inside as the "Male Voice Quartette Club." There were 14 members, eight of whom had been members the previous year. The program of the third concert, given on April 2, does not identify the Club by any name; but the fourth concert, given May 14, 1867, was announced as the "Private Concert of the Mendelssohn Glee Club." The first song presented by the Club on that evening was "Turkish Drinking Song" by (of course) Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a song already in the Club's repertoire and one that would be sung again many times at the 300-plus concerts that would follow.


Joseph Mosenthal

The second season, 1867-68, began with a new conductor, Joseph Mosenthal, who would direct the Club for the next 29 years. The success of the Club in the early years is due to Mosenthal's personality and musical attainments more than to any other single cause. Eleven men joined the Club in the second year, one of whom was Alfred Corning Clark, whose magnificent gift of Mendelssohn Hall at the time of the first jubilee would shape the Club's second quarter century

Perfection of technique was almost a fetish with Mosenthal, and through him the Club came to have an abandon, an absolute freedom from technical restraint and a vitality that electrified its audiences. His style at rehearsal was infamous. The Club would stand. Mosenthal would shout, pound the bare floor with his foot, then, in despair at the lack of results from his efforts, he would throw his baton into a corner and turn his back on the chorus. The singers would receive the outburst in undismayed silence and before long Mosenthal would retrieve his baton and work would start again. A single voice would stand out and he'd look up and cry "No Solos, Gentlemen"; and when the men would lag he'd call out "Time, Gentlemen, No Sentiment." The atmosphere is well-captured in a cartoon by Charles G. Bush, who Joined the Club in 1867, and later was honored as the "Dean of American Cartoonists."

Early Accolades

The Club established itself and quickly acquired a considerable following within the exclusive social circles of New York. Club concerts were undeniable successes and friends of the Club were insatiable. A review of the Club's program archives reveals that three regular "private" concerts each year were liberally supplemented with appearances at cultural and social events, inside and outside of New York City. The credit for the development of what was truly a phenomenon can be shared by a number of men and women, aided by a variety of circumstances. For one thing, the Club made its  concerts as unlike public concerts of the day as was possible. Audiences then, as now, were chiefly composed of friends of the members. The singers, and all who assisted, mingled with the audience and the entertainment had the character of a drawing-room gathering. But more than anything else, there was a novelty in the effect produced by a trained chorus of male voices. It was a character of music to which New York audiences were entirely unaccustomed. This form of music was almost never attempted. Yet the greatest of the European masters had contributed their genius to this form of composition: Lizst, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn!

The Club, through Mosenthal, developed supreme confidence in its ability to entertain, and informal singing proved to lead to the strongest of bonds between the members. The men seemed pleased to gather at any time and in almost any place to entertain any and all who would listen. The Club's written history is replete with notes of street singing forays through midtown Manhattan long after midnight, with members stopping, perhaps, before the windows of some young woman of current favor; and of concerts at social clubs in the city and its environs. Anton Seidl, German composer and eminent conductor, sitting one evening at the Liederkranz Club, turned to his companion, William Steinway, and said, after the close of a group of songs by the Club: "That is the most wonderful singing in the world. I have never heard its like anywhere." 

Sir Arthur Sullivan

In 1879, Gilbert and Sullivan were in New York preparing the production of Pirates of Penzance.
Arthur Sullivan wrote in his diary of December 16: "Went to concert of the Mendelssohn Glee Club. Heard 'The Long Day Closes.'  Admirably sung and encored." On the program book for the concert at which Sir Arthur heard his song, the Club's distinctive emblem appeared for the first time. 

So satisfying was its success that the Club developed a real missionary zeal. In 1871, the Club traveled to Boston and gave a concert that received wide critical and popular acclaim. These were times when classical music was not well received in the land of the bean and the cod. The Apollo Club was established shortly thereafter along the lines of the MGC. The Orpheus Club of Philadelphia blossomed next, and in 1875, the Orpheus and its parent club of New York gave joint concerts in both cities. The clubs commuted to each other's city on the newly established Pennsylvania Railroad. The Boston Symphony was founded in 1880, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was yet a quarter century in the future. The borough of Brooklyn followed with the formation of the Apollo Club in 1878. With help from the Mendelssohn Glee Club of New York, male chorus activity spread during the remainder of the century throughout the nation and into Canada.

Clark's Gift

By the time of the first jubilee in 1891, construction was under way on Alfred Corning Clark's most magnificent of gifts. The next quarter-century of the Club's history is dominated by the acquisition, consequences of the use and the aftermath of the loss of Mendelssohn Hall.  Clark's father, Edward, had amassed a fortune, reputed to be $50 million, as counsel and later partner of Isaac Merritt Singer, inventor and manufacturer of the sewing machine. Alfred had become chief stockholder in the Singer Company and, in addition, had large real estate holdings in New York City. Among these was a parcel of land, 80 by 100 feet, on the north side of 40th Street, east of Broadway. While Alfred Corning Clark had remained an active member of the Club for only a single season, he had remained close to the Club through its first quarter century.

While on a trip to Europe in the summer of 1890, Mosenthal had composed a musical setting for William Cullen Bryant's famous poem "Thanatopsis." A cantata-length work, this was surely Mosenthal's masterpiece. The work was described as "one of the most remarkable compositions in the repertory of male clubs." It is said there is perhaps in music no more beautiful phrase than the one musical sentence to the words "So shalt thou rest," and that no one who has heard Mosenthal's music can thereafter read Bryant's poem without associating the music with it. Clark fell in love with the music at its first performance by the Club on December 2, 1890. At his request the song was repeated at the jubilee concert on April 21 of that year and at least five more times at concerts through 1896. Among these, "Thanatopsis" was sung at the opening of Mendelssohn Hall on December 6, 1892, with the Orpheus Club of Philadelphia at the Academy of Music on February 5, 1895, and at the 25th anniversary of the Apollo of Boston on May 6, 1896. Alfred Corning Clark had been so impressed with "Thanatopsis" that he decided to finance the construction of a hall where serious compositions could be performed in  appropriate surroundings.

Mendelssohn Hall

Plans for the new concert hall were drawn by Robert H. Robertson, then President of the Club and an architect of note. On the ground floor was an 1,100-seat auditorium. Compare this with the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera House, opened a decade before, at 4,000 seats. Below were quarters for the use of members, a rehearsal hall, committee rooms, library, smoking room, and a dressing room for ladies. Above the auditorium were three floors fitted as bachelor apartments. The auditorium was 40 feet from floor to ceiling and was lighted by electricity. The exterior of the building was of gray rock and oatmeal brick, in a style known as composite, with classical details. Club initials were conspicuous on the stone gables. Construction costs exceeded $225,000.

Alfred Corning Clark, in addition to his interest in music, was a patron of the visual arts. As part of the decoration of the interior of Mendelssohn Hall, as the new building on 40th Street was called, Clark commissioned Robert Frederick Blum, muralist, colorist, and illustrator, to do twin panels for either side of the proscenium arch in the concert hall. The first, begun in 1893 and completed in 1895, was called "Moods of Music." The frieze was 50 feet long and 12 feet high. Later, Blum completed the companion piece, a canvas of equal size entitled "Feast of Bacchus."

The first MGC concert held in Mendelssohn Hall was on December 6, 1892. Joseph Mosenthal conducted the 55 active members in a program of Mendelssohn, Rheinberger, Mosenthal, Schubert, and others, including three songs presented for the first time, and the now venerable "Thanatopsis." Assisting the Club were Mrs. Carl Alves, contralto, Maud Powell, violinist, and  Samuel P. Warren, organist. Clearly, an organ was also part of the fittings of Mendelssohn Hall, although the instrument is not specifically mentioned in the descriptions.

Winslow Homer

Among the tenants of the apartments at Mendelssohn Hall was the artist Winslow Homer, whose best-known painting, Gulf Stream, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Homer at the time was making drawings at $50 a page for Harper's Weekly. Homer owed the Club $57 for back rent. In a letter dated March 3, 1896, to Club Treasurer Charles Scott, he writes that, money being unavailable, he would undertake to make a crayon sketch of members of the Club in the rehearsal hall "with their mouths open or shut." He added in a postscript that the sketch would be "finished and a good picture." The Club, in that year, was lacking in foresight in many ways. It refused Homer's offer.

The year 1896 was a low point for the MGC. On a blustery night in January of that year, the long and affectionate relationship between the Club and Joseph Mosenthal came to a tragic end. The musician had fought his way through snow and cold to Mendelssohn Hall where, exhausted and overcome by exertions, he was laid on a sofa directly under his own portrait by John Alexander, and there, half an hour later, surrounded by members of his beloved Club, he expired. Henry C. Potter, Episcopal Bishop of New York, presided at the funeral service.

Another Loss

Also in that year Alfred Corning Clark died and the Club found itself facing the loss of Mendelssohn Hall, a scant four years after it had been built. There is no doubt whatsoever that Clark had erected the hall with the expectation that it would become a permanent home for the Club. Upon his death it was found that no steps had been taken by him to insure the fulfillment of his intention. His widow, who later married Bishop Potter, was in no legal position to intercede, but during her lifetime the Club was permitted to use the building in the way that Clark had intended, and to lease the rooms on the top floors as a means of bringing in revenue. Upon her death, Mendelssohn Hall was lost to the Club and it was forced to vacate. Sold in 1911 to Philip Lewisohn, it was leased by him to the Kinemacolor Theater, a company that planned to show motion pictures in color at "$1 for the best seats." However, the enterprise failed and the structure was torn down in 1912 to make room for a loft building.

The Blum murals were lost, and speculation as to what had become of them engaged the interest of the Club members for years. Then, just before the centennial jubilee concert in 1965, the murals were found in the vaults of the Brooklyn Museum and were placed on display in the entrance hall of the Museum directly above the main portals.

Third Jubilee

With the loss of Mendelssohn Hall in the 46th year of its existence, and with the third jubilee approaching, the Club attempted to raise funds for a new home by giving public concerts. Frederick Bourne, Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, was chosen to head a building committee. His plans called for a national tour, but the venture was never undertaken because the members, for business reasons, could not get away from New York. However, local public concerts of the Club were very popular and so well attended that a newspaper commented that the reason, among others, was that "few music lovers outside the hermetically sealed immediate circle of the (Club's) friends have ever heard it sing." Nevertheless, nothing approaching the amount needed was ever realized.

The newspaper's comment was justified. The Club, during its first century, was often described as one of the most exclusive organizations in the United States. Admission restrictions were being drawn ever tighter, and at one point it seemed more difficult to become an associate member of the Mendelssohn than to enter the "charmed circle" of the four hundred. People waited for decades to be admitted as associate members. Each active and associate member was allowed six tickets for each of the three annual concerts. No other tickets were issued. Concert tickets were in such great demand that the Club secretary made a point of recording the exact number used at each concert. There were a number of incidents of counterfeiting over the years. Formal dress was so strictly adhered to that members or guests appearing otherwise at concerts were turned away at the door. Despite the restrictions, attendance at regularly scheduled concerts ranged from 1,200 to 1,400. Carriages with horses and coachmen attached would populate curbsides for blocks around Mendelssohn Hall on concert nights. The Club found it desirable to throw its dress rehearsal open to music lovers not fortunate enough to have access through usual means.

'Admission Requirements

Singing memberships were equally difficult to obtain. Two things were necessary for admission. First, the applicant had to have a voice of exceptional quality and range in his part and, second, he had to be able to read music at sight with tolerable accuracy. The active membership has always been made up of a mixture of amateurs and professionals. During the Mendelssohn Hall days, there was only a single city block separating the MGC from the Metropolitan Opera. Many a professional singer, male and female, made the trip with great pleasure and to their great advantage.


Golden Anniversary

The golden anniversary concert was held in the grand concert hall of the Hotel Astor on April 11, 1916. No special note was made of the jubilee in the program. Louis Koemmenich conducted 59 active members in a program that included a first performance of a song dedicated to the MGC, "Balaklava" by Bruno Huhn. The words were the famous Tennyson poem on the charge of the light brigade in the Crimean war. The second, third, and fourth jubilees each fell within a year of the involvement of the United States in a major war. The fifth jubilee, we hope, looks forward on a vista of peace.

The 50th anniversary of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company occurred in 1916. The MGC and AT&T decided to join in the promotion of the world's first transcontinental concert by wire. This project was undertaken on the evening of February 9, 1916. The wire distance from New York to Los Angeles was 3,875 miles. The prospect of an interchange of voices over so great a distance impressed the two gatherings that were to take part with a sense of the miraculous. The MGC was in the banquet room of the Waldorf-Astoria, and the Ellis Glee Club in the Gamut room in Los Angeles. Each of the 450 present at the Waldorf held a telephone receiver to the ear.

The telephonic connection was established by the "skip and stop method" across the country: New York to Pittsburgh, to Chicago, to Omaha, to Denver, to Salt Lake City, to San Francisco, and then to Los Angeles. Louis Koemmenich and Jean Baptiste Poudin conducted for the respective clubs. Unfortunately, reception was so blurry and indistinct that it was necessary to refer to the program notes to identify the sounds. Reviewing the event, Music America expressed the opinion that 'this long distance concert idea will be even more practicable when the device for transmitting the sound tone is further perfected ... our grandchildren will doubtless see nothing epoch-making in (such a concert)."

Notable Members

Among the professionals who valued membership in the MGC in the early twentieth century were Richard Crooks of whom one critic said that there were tears in his singing. Another wrote that Crooks could sing "I love you" to an audience of a thousand women and every one would believe he meant it for her alone. Oley Speaks, concert baritone and composer, was vice president of the Club for a time. He wrote over 200 songs in his long career, including "Morning" and the two on our program this evening.

Herbert Witherspoon, operatic and concert basso, joined the Met in 1908 and later became its general manager. Cesare Sodero, conductor of the Club from 1934 to 1947, was principal conductor of Verdi operas at the Met in the early and mid-forties. The litany of names of great singers and instrumentalists who have either been active members or who have performed with the Club is formidable.

Diamond Jubilee

The diamond jubilee concert was presented at the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria on April 22, 1941. Cesare Sodero conducted a chorus of 76 actives, among whom were Harvey Enders, one of the Club's most prolific composers and song writers, and John Royer Bogue. Then, as many times in his long career with the Club, John Bogue had a solo. He performed incidental music in the Club's performance of the Welsh folk song "All Through the Night."

The centennial concert, held at the Biltmore on May 16, 1966, was a grand affair. The gala was organized by Bob Pierce, our long-time member and frequent president. The archives are filled with congratulatory notes from prominent politicians and musicians. The conductor was John Royer Bogue, at his second jubilee, leading 67 active members. The program featured as soloist Nadja Witkowika, soprano, who offered a selection of favorites. 

The Last Quarter Century

And now, a look at the last quarter- century. It became the era of "The Marlboro Man," a fiercely competitive, outdoors-loving loner who shuns all vestiges of "joining" and passes his time on individual projects. When he plays, it will be at individual sports with little need for coordination or even communication. He does not join glee clubs!

For years we found our membership aging and declining through the most undesirable form of attrition. We were not alone. Most of our brother clubs have ceased to exist, and it has been only through the strength of the grand tradition and the fierce loyalty of our active and associate members and patrons that the cost of our nomadic existence could be met. Our concerts remain personal affairs: an evening's excellent entertainment by us for our friends. One by one, affordable rehearsal locations have been removed from availability. Most of today's professionals do not sing for fun. And yet -- and yet --!

Mendelssohn Today

The past few years have shown a definite reversal of the trend. Our organization is growing once again. The Marlboro Man is aging, perhaps, and mellowing? Young men are still reluctant, but the over-thirty crowd is definitely interested. Voices are not the gems of the golden age of the first century, but they are adequate and enthusiastic. John Bogue passed the baton to Eugene Wisoff in 1995 and Gene has been notably successful in attracting experienced singers. Most of us don't sight-read music. Modern technology in the form of practice CDs and tapes has helped. We learn our 15 songs in 12 weeks -- somehow!

The purpose of the Club is as it always was, to come out on a Monday evening about two dozen times a year and participate in one of the most exacting team sports known to man. To make sounds that have the potential to make the angels weep (taken either way), and to experience more pure enjoyment at a lower cost than any of the other still-popular recreational activities.

At rehearsals a member works with a consummate professional who insists on perfection and a remarkably adept teacher who understands the amateur and why he is present, what his goals are in singing and how to help him reach his goals. Professionals who sing with us remark at the low-pressure environment at Club rehearsals where laughter and high spirits are punctuated with opportunities to get down to serious business and sing a beautiful song by a composer and a poet of considerable genius and sing it in a way that would please its creator and probably ours as well.

As a Club and as individuals we really do love to sing, and to have others hear us sing, and to dwell together, at least for a little while, as brethren in unity!

Ecce quam bonum, Quamque Jucundum, Habitare Fratres in Unum!


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