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A Pioneering Choir Since 1882
Ensemble singing began at Hastings College under Professor John Rees, a Welsh musician who served from 1879 as music director of the First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, and at the college for thirty-five years from its pioneer founding in 1882. Singers from the college soon formed the nucleus of an active choral scene in Hastings and in nineteenth-century Nebraska.
In 1903 Harvey Bartlett Gaul's The Holy City became the first in a continuing series of oratorios, cantatas, and masterworks presented by a succession of variously named college-community choral organizations. By 1909 the combined men's and women's glee clubs had begun a series of annual concert tours by train and over still-unpaved wagon roads to schools and churches in Nebraska. Their eclectic repertoire — an enduring hallmark of the choir — included sacred anthems, choral tone poems, opera choruses, and collegiate novelty songs.
Dr. Hayes M. Fuhr
In 1912 Hayes M. Fuhr came from Indiana to begin his forty-nine-year tenure as head of the Conservatory of Music at Hastings College. Under his five decades of guidance, the choir earned nationwide recognition as innovators in the establishment of collegiate choral singing in America.
In the pre-war era, when sentimental Victorian morality songs performed by a male quartet were the standard for sacred music, Dr. Fuhr and the choir mounted full-scale productions of Haydn's Creation and the Rossini Stabat Mater. At First Presbyterian Church the college choir had long provided music, not for Sunday morning services (some thought the idea of a mixed chorus leading worship to be "radical"), but, rather, as the Sunday evening "Chorus Choir." Beginning in 1914, however, and for the next three decades, the Hastings College Choir also served as the Chancel Choir for Sunday morning worship in the historic vaulted sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church.
An Eclectic Repertoire
After the interruption of travel during the First World War, and through the 1920s, the college choir resumed touring. A post-war reviewer wrote of the choir, "Its music, while not frivolous, is wholesome and cheering. Into a world that has for years been darkened by a great shadow, they throw a ray of light."
Based largely on the demonstrated artistry and success of the college choir, a formal music major was established at Hastings College in 1924, and in 1925 the college choir performed a demonstration-concert for the inaugural convention of the Nebraska State Music Teachers Association. Fully-staged and costumed light operas were added to the bill of fare on tour, and by 1928 a company of more than sixty college musicians were making annual tours of Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. Depending on time and circumstance, they could present a Saturday night stage show, provide sacred music for Sunday morning services, or perform a formal concert of five centuries of choral masterworks.
The Tradition Of Excellence
During the 1930s, the Dust Bowl and depression-era economics imposed another recess from the choir's popular tours, and in the fall of 1931 rehearsals focused exclusively on choral singing, re-establishing the eclectic concert format of The Hastings College Choir. In 1932, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the college, an eighty-voice choir contributed a wide-ranging concert from the masterworks of Palestrina and Morley to contemporary choral art songs, Russian liturgical music, and spirituals.
In 1933 the choir's traditional Yuletide Service of sacred music, "selected and arranged from the masters of the 17th and 18th centuries," was featured in the widely-circulated national music magazine The Etude and inspired similar Christmas choral programs around the country.
A collection of Dr. Fuhr's philosophical essays titled Fundamentals of Choral Expression was published in 1944 by the University of Nebraska Press. Combining his characteristic lavish prose and ready humor, "Pop" Fuhr revealed the bedrock foundation of what had come to be known as "the sound" of The Hastings College Choir:
"Though I sing with the tongues of men in many languages, and have not good tone quality, I am become as sounding brass or tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of talent and understand all music and all tradition, and though I have all technique so that I can astound multitudes, and have not good tone quality, I am nothing. And now abideth technique, interpretation, and tone quality, these three, but the greatest of these is tone quality!"
In 1928, the college choir served as the core of a 350-voice "Civic Chorus" to present the first in a series of sixteen performances of Handel's Messiah under Dr. Fuhr's direction. Continuing the tradition, one of Fuhr's students, Millard Cates, conducted the 1954 performance and an additional four performances when he returned to chair the Department of Music.
Our 1999 production of Messiah, dedicated to the memory of Dr. Cates, was performed by "his former students, friends, and colleagues as soloists, conductors, and choristers" from across the nation. Our largest production to date (the twenty-fourth of the series) was performed in celebration of the college's — and the choir's — 125th anniversary, and was heard and seen worldwide by means of a twenty-first century innovation, a live internet broadcast.
A Passion To Persevere And A Bright Future!
Dr. Fuhr's standards for choir membership were rigorous, but it has long been claimed that the fall-semester matriculation process for every new Hastings College student included being matter-of-factly ushered into a small room for an unexpected singing audition: "How else to you think he found all those guys who could sing the low octaves in our Russian choruses?"
The Second World War took a toll on the size and configuration of the choir. Special arrangements of standard repertoire and folk songs from around the world were crafted for the all-female incarnations of The Hastings College Choir during the 1945 and 1946 seasons. After the war, two former members of Dr. Fuhr's choir, Gordon Ohlsson and Millard Cates, were pressed into service to conduct The Hastings College Choir.
Until moving into the Hayes M. Fuhr Hall of Music in 1956, the choir rehearsed for more than 70 years in the second-floor assembly room of the the college's first building, McCormick Hall. In addition to touring the heartland of America for more than a century, beginning in the 1970s the choir has toured Mexico, continental Europe, England and Scotland, and Japan. The roll of conductors who followed Dr. Fuhr's retirement from the podium includes Alan Lehl, David Nott, Warren Scharf, Deral Johnson, Lawrence van Slambrook, Ken Johnson, Elmer Schock, Jerry Giger, James Stegall, Charles "Chip" Smith, and two of Millard Cates's students, Robin Koozer and the choir's current conductor, Fritz Mountford.
Of course, we continue to create our exciting history day by day in rehearsals, performances, and special events To stay up to date with our latest news, please accept an invitation for all choir alumni, current students, future students, friends, and fans to join The Hastings College Choir on Facebook!