Words and music
The University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club wants you.
Not to sing, exactly. They want you to submit lyrics for an original new “Michigan song,” which the members will premier in April 2017 to mark the University’s Bicentennial.
Lyricists are invited to submit entries online between Sept. 1-Nov. 15. The winner will be announced by Dec. 15.
A monetary prize is part of the package, but the ultimate reward will come from making a contribution to U-M’s musical legacy, says Eugene Rogers, AMusD ’08, associate director of choirs and professor of conducting at U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD).
“It gives me goose bumps to talk about it because we are marking history,” he says. “This song will live on in perpetuity.”
A revered tradition
It’s common for university glee clubs to mark special occasions, anniversaries, and other milestones with new music, Rogers says. “The Hymn,” by Earl V. Moore, with lyrics by J. Fred Lawton, ’11, was penned to mark U-M’s centennial. “The University,” by Hazen J. Schumacher, ’50, with lyrics by Jerry H. Bilik, ’55, marked its sesquicentennial.
“Michigan puts a lot of stock in its musical history,” says Men’s Glee Club member and unofficial historian Dan Walden, a fifth-year PhD student in classical studies. “I’m quite moved by the fact that the University considers the Glee Club to be such a valuable asset.”
Of loyalty and love
In 1886, an instructor in Latin and English named Charles Mills Gayley responded to an ad in the Michigan Palladium (forerunner to the Ensian),and thus a tradition began. It was time, the student editors said, for Michigan to have an official alma mater, a song of loyalty and love to rival Yale’s tearjerking “Bright College Years.”
They offered a prize of $20 for the winning entry, $5 to the runner-up. Gayley won for “The Yellow and Blue,” which the Men’s Glee Club still performs today.
In 1925, near the end of a long life, Gayley reflected:
“It has always been a great joy to me, revisiting Ann Arbor, to hear the song still sung in fraternity houses, and on the campus in the twilight … I have heard it in mid-ocean, on the streets of Florence and Rome, and hither and yon as I have traveled about the world. A song written in the days of one’s youth, if it by good luck expresses the emotion and enthusiasm of succeeding generations of young men and women, is a thousand times more worthwhile than many books of learning.”
Join the club
Contemporary composer Kristin Kuster, AMusD ’02, and her yet-to-be-determined lyricist may have that same experience in the future. The Men’s Glee Club recently commissioned Kuster, an associate professor of composition at SMTD, to write the music for the new song. She also will participate in the lyric selection process.
This is not the first time Kuster has written for the singers. As a composer who writes primarily for the voice, she is the first and only female artist ever to write for the Men’s Glee Club in its 157-year history.
“Writing for this commission on this occasion is a tremendous honor,” she says. “I’m grateful to be part of this important milestone. I’m committed to advocating for the underrepresented composers in our contemporary classical music scene; namely, female composers and composers of color. My hope is that my presence in commissioning projects such as this will help transform our field into a more inclusive, and therefore more enriched culture of music making.”
No pressure …
Kuster will begin composing once the committee chooses lyrics in December.
“I go into our lyrics submissions evaluations open to anything and everything,” she says. “I expect all of the submissions will be fabulous and interesting. Because our lyrics will come from U-M-affiliated writers, I also expect we’ll be moved by something beautifully and brilliantly unexpected.”
She laughs when asked if she is daunted by the prospect of writing a song predestined to live, as Rogers puts it, “in perpetuity.”
“While it will be great if this song lives on forever and ever, I believe that when we put art that we love into the world, it has its own life,” Kuster says. “I will give the Glee Club music I love, that I hope they will enjoy singing, and it will be fun to watch and hear whatever that music decides to do with itself in the future.”
To have the lyrics come from someone in the U-M community, in tandem with having “a fantastic composer” who also happens to be an alumna, adds a nice note to the historic aspect of this new composition, says Rogers.
“I’m confident [Kuster] will write something so musically rewarding that our members will want to sing it over and over again.”
So what will the lyric selection committee be looking for?
The Men’s Glee Club pillars are tradition, camaraderie, and musical excellence, Rogers says. And glee clubs, by their very nature, exist to celebrate life, song, and love.
“For students of the University of Michigan, that evolved into: ‘What do we love? We love our university,’” he says. “So that’s what we want this new song to do. To conjure up all that love for our days together in Ann Arbor and at U-M.”
As a rule, most glee clubs today adapt and reharmonize existing melodies. Lyrics tend to be the only original element. Gayley, in fact, wrote his winning lyrics for “The Yellow and Blue” to complement a soft, wistful melody called “Pirates’ Chorus” from The Enchantress, an opera by the Irish composer Michael William Balfe.
In its earliest days, the U-M Men’s Glee Club also sourced material from operettas and the Michigan Union Opera, but the club has long since embraced a tradition of commissioning original work from composers and lyricists (students, non-students, and faculty) who are leaders in U-M’s musical community. This focus on originality and quality lends a rich depth to the Michigan canon, says Rogers.
“We have taken the songwriting seriously, and that makes for a really good body of music,” he says. “Our most beloved songs have been written by some of our most skilled musicians at the time. Many were written by the heavy hitters whose names we now read on buildings.”
Michigan also has one of the largest bodies of original work because it is home to the second-oldest collegiate choir in the U.S. (Harvard beats U-M by one year.)
The song remains the same
“So in a sense, the Glee Club always starts on the same note and ends in harmony with the alma mater,”says club president Patrick Kiessling. This consistent bookending of Michigan songs in its live repertoire demonstrates the group’s respect for tradition, as well as its members’ pride in the University, he says.
The significance of belonging to the Men’s Glee Club at a time when a new song will be added to the “Michigan Songbook” is not lost on current members.
“Writing the first chapter in this new song’s journey is a unique privilege,” Kiessling says. “To participate in the premiere of not just a new ‘Michigan song’ but one composed by a professor in the School of Music — and the first Michigan song composed by a woman — will be an unforgettable experience.”
The April 2017 spring concert marks the beginning of the Men’s Glee Club’s yearlong celebration of the University’s bicentennial. The group will tour and perform in historic sites across the state, and will end the year with a November symposium titled “Ambassadors of Song.” The program will feature international speakers, choirs, and Men’s Glee Club alumni participating in workshops, sessions, and performances.
The year 2017 also marks the 50th anniversary of the group’s historic world tour in 1967. That event marked the University’s sesquicentennial, and, as noted, also showcased an original composition.