The following history was generously written by Charles Buck ’69 and Robert Birge ’68 for inclusion in The Twentieth Century Project, the most complete compilation of Whiffenpoof history available, by Richard “Dog” Gould ’68. Visit www.thetwentiethcenturyproject.com to purchase the two-volume set.
Beginning as an outgrowth of the Glee Club, the early Whiffenpoofs generally performed songs published in Yale songbooks. In a practice that has long since gone out of date, however, they also created spontaneous four- and even five-part harmony on familiar tunes of the day. As time progressed, succeeding groups added to this repertoire a wealth of arrangements, essentially all written by the group’s own members.
In a remarkable eight-year period ending in 1950, for example, five individuals – Dudley Miller ’43, Bill Oler ’45m,Wally Collins ’47m, Ed Wolff ’50, and Fenno Heath ’50 (later to become director of the Glee Club for 40 years) – added ninety-nine new arrangements to the repertoire, forty-three in a single year.
The new Whiffenpoofs chosen each year owe surprisingly little musical allegiance to their predecessors. With the exception of The Whiffenpoof Song, the choice of repertoire is their own – sometimes closely reflecting the music sung by the groups immediately preceding them, but occasionally taking new, even controversial directions. Every group’s independence is due to a simple but extraordinary characteristic; each group’s membership is always completely new. The only exceptions were a handful of repeat members in the first few decades and in the years following World War II. Because each group starts fresh, it receives a heritage, but also the freedom to reflect its own time and create its own identity, a freedom that may even encourage challenges to accepted tradition, like the use of guitars. These experiments may go out of style or may occasionally become new traditions to be observed thereafter with reverence. But the vitality of the music-making owes a considerable debt to the autonomy of each group and the corresponding ability to discard the past and reinvent itself and its music. . . time after time.
The sources of the Whiffenpoofs’ music begin with barbershop, a particularly American type of four-part harmony that today is viewed as quaint. At the turn of the 20th century, though, barbershop was a vibrant practice with a well-developed, but often spontaneous structure. This spontaneity is underscored by the fact that vocal arrangements sung prior to World War I were generally not written down. The preface to Carmina Yalensia, an 1867 publication of songs sung at Yale, edited by Ferdinand VD Garretson ’66, describes this practice, which continued well into the 20th century:
The stranger who has been amused and entertained by the gusto with which our songs are sung, has naturally wished to procure a collection of them; but his inquiries have hitherto been in vain, as many of the tunes now, for the first time, presented to the public, had never been written or arranged, but simply sung traditionally on the jolly occasions and festivals of college life.
Nearly a century later, Marshall Bartholomew was apoplectic about the issue, entreating Fenno Heath, his successor as University Glee Club director:
You haven’t lived long enough to realize, as I do, how many of our best songs have gone into oblivion simply because nobody took the trouble to keep track of them. Even such favorites as Shall I, Wasting in Despair and The WhiffenpoofSong went for years without ever having been written down on paper and were only rescued by Frank Goodale when he was preparing material for the 1918 edition of the Yale SongBook.
A fascinating characteristic of ‘the songs we love so well’ is that many of them, far from deriving from written scores, belonged to an aural tradition passed down by the rote teaching of parts, while others featured free improvisation around a melody according to several organizing principles well understood by performers of the time. To illustrate how both of these principles operated in the music sung by the early Whiffenpoofs, it is important to view this practice not just from the historical perspective of performance practice at the time, but also by way of the music theory underlying a barbershop arrangement.