Oh, When the Saints….
In 2004-05, Laurentian Singer and Gospel Choir member Wendy Berner ’06, Hamburg, N.Y., undertook a University Fellowship project to contribute to the University’s sesquicentennial observances a substantial paper on the history of vocal music at St. Lawrence. The edited excerpt that follows is from the section on vocal organizations.
A brief look at the history of singing at St. Lawrence
|The Laurentian Singers
have toured often throughout their history; in the 1960s, they
sang at both the U.S. and Canadian seats of government.
The Dramatic Side of Vocal Music
By the end of the 19th century, the musical interests of the campus
included dramatic productions in addition to group singing. Professor
W.B. Gunnison, Class of 1875, took it upon himself to form a musical
society that in the spring of 1879 staged Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S.
Students teamed up with members of the Canton community to
mount musicals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It
was also common for the Mummers, the student thespian organization,
to join with members of the music department to put on musical comedies
during the first half of the 20th century. The musical
and dramatic performances put on by the Glee Clubs and the Mummers
were annual social high points.
In 1947, the Mummers and the music department combined on The Pirates
of Penzance. A 34-member cast and 10-member orchestra gave
performances in Watertown and Gouverneur. Back in Canton, the
show opened to a student audience of 1,200, and the second performance
raised $350 for the Canton Hospital Association.
The Chapel Choir
In the 1880s, the University was comprised of the College of Letters
and Science and the Theological School. Each boasted its own
chapel and choir.
By the 1940s, the two schools had long since united, while the Chapel Choir
was split into two separate ensembles in order to let those in the “senior” group
further their musical accomplishments by preparing more advanced selections. They
became widely known throughout northern New York, toured annually,
and broadcast programs over radio station WSLB in Ogdensburg.
The popularity of small ensembles and the prevalence of talent
on campus demanded that there be both varsity and JV “University
Quartettes” by 1929. The Varsity Quartet toured
to high schools, appeared at special St. Lawrence events and recorded
a phonograph record, a copy of which was given to every graduate.
Bill Buschmann ’42 remembers that “just about everyone
sang.” A member of the University Quartet, Buschmann remembers
traveling with President Jencks and singing over local radio stations. Greek
houses had their own ensembles; Buschmann was also a member of the
The Laurentian Singers
When Warren Slocum ’48 returned from World War II in March of
1946, he was one of a group of students who “desired to sing
something other than religious music,” he says. Friday
afternoons in Lee House, Music Professor Kenneth Munson directed the
student ensemble that evolved into the Laurentian Singers.
The Laurentian Singers became one of St. Lawrence University’s
best ambassadors. They sang at Carnegie Hall in New York City
and were the first choral group invited to sing in the Canadian Parliament. They
also performed at the White House, Chartres Cathedral in France and
the Royal College of Music in London. They gave coast-to-coast
broadcasts over the ABC, CBS, and NBC radio networks and appeared on
television. The group’s repertoire remains extensive, with performances
in 2004-05 including works by Randall Thompson, Dvořák
|Succumbing to a trend of the times, these 1962
Saints posed on a vehicle. The editor will be grateful to anyone
who can supply their names.
Men's and Women's A Cappella Singing
Some St. Lawrence men started an a cappella group in 1953; it came
to be known as the Singing Saints. The “boys” once
sang at Whiteface Ski Center in exchange for room, board, and lift
tickets. While performing at Sarah Lawrence College, they sang “Mood
Indigo” with Duke Ellington in the audience.
One Saint, Craig Thorn ’57, was dating his future wife, Edwina “Winnie” Pisani ’56. In
December 1953—with the “boys’” encouragement—she
formed the Sinners as a female a cappella group. The groups
began to co-sponsor the annual Saints and Sinners Ball, during Homecoming,
and would treat the dancers to songs at intermission.
Today, the Saints and Sinners remain student-directed ensembles
that arrange much of their own music. They perform concerts
and at special campus events and ceremonies. Much to the delight
of the rest of the student body, the Saints continue their tradition
of impromptu dormitory and sorority serenades.
Early Music Ensembles
In the early 1950s, the Madrigal Singers appeared briefly. By the 1960s,
St. Lawrence could boast an Early
Music Ensemble, which specialized
in learning the music and performing techniques of the music of the
13th to 17th centuries. By the late 1970s, the select group
had toured to Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle and had
performed on radio and television.
Today, two ensembles make
up the Early Music Ensemble, which performs music from the medieval,
Renaissance and Baroque eras. The Players
use period instruments from the University's Romer Collection—recorders,
crumhorns, lute, viols, harpsichord—as well as modern instruments. The
Singers perform the great a cappella repertoire of these periods.
In 1970, Music Professor Robert Jones started the St. Lawrence University
Community Chorus. Open to all students, faculty and staff,
as well as local residents, it performed larger choral works, accompanied
by the Community Orchestra, such as Mendelssohn’s Elijah,
Faure’s Requiem and Vaughan Williams’ Serenade
to Music. The ensemble continues today as the University
Chorus, open to the entire University and regional communities.
The newest vocal music group on campus is the Gospel Choir.
The choir sings as part of the Progressive Christian worship services
in Gunnison Memorial Chapel, and on special occasions such as
the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance.
*In January 1878, the College Quartet had the distinction of attempting
the first musical tour in St. Lawrence’s history, with DeKalb
Junction as the destination.
*J. Kimball Gannon wrote the words to “Alma Mater” in
the early 1920s. In 2004, his “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was
number 7 among the 25 all-time most-performed holiday songs, according
*In the 1880s, Memorial Hall was the site of the Κappa Kappa
Gamma national convention, and St. Lawrence’s Beta Chapter—already
known, on account of its many original songs, as “the singing
chapter”—was chosen to publish the first national Kappa
Kappa Gamma Song Book.