History of the Radcliffe Choral Society
The Radcliffe Choral Society was founded in 1899 by the first President of Radcliffe College, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, and is the oldest women’s collegiate choir in the nation. President Agassiz called upon Marie Reuter Gallison, the first conductor of the Choral Society, to establish RCS in order to “give the chance to join in singing with others to every Radcliffe student who wished to do so.” The Radcliffe Choral Society proudly upholds this legacy today through its rich tradition of choral music, celebrating the community formed through “singing with others,” and sharing its joy of collaborative music-making with audiences around the world.
RCS first performed for Radcliffe’s Baccalaureate and Commencement ceremonies in 1900, and became Radcliffe College’s official chorus in 1904. In 1911, the Choral Society sang with the Harvard Chorus in Appleton Chapel for the first time, conducted by Dr. Archibald Davison (known as “Doc”). Doc assumed conductorship of the Choral Society along with the Harvard Glee Club, and in 1915 Doc led the combined groups in their first large-scale performance: Christoph Gluck’s “The May Queen.” In wake of this performance’s success, the two choirs continued to perform great works together, including a celebrated performance of Gluck’s “Orpheus.” In 1917, on the wave of the choirs’ growing critical acclaim, Doc established a relationship between the choirs and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). The combined groups performed Johannes Brahms’ “Song of Fate” to great success, launching a tradition of collaboration that lasted over 50 years.
In 1925, Wallace G. Woodworth (known as “Woody”) assumed conductorship of both the Radcliffe Choral Society and the Harvard Glee Club. For the celebration of Radcliffe College’s 50th anniversary in 1929, the Choral Society and Glee Club combined with the BSO to perform Mabel W. Daniels’ “Exultate Deo.” As an RCS alumna from the class of 1900, Daniels broke exciting new ground for women’s conductorship by conducting the performance herself. During his 33 years as conductor, Woody established the tour tradition for both choirs, taking them on their first transcontinental tour in 1954. Under his baton, the Choral Society’s popularity surged, allowing it to grow into a select choir of renowned distinction.
Woody retired in 1958 and was succeeded by Eliot Forbes, conductor of the Radcliffe Choral Society and the Glee Club until 1970. Forbes expanded the choirs’ tour tradition, leading them on far-reaching tours, including the 1964 North American tour and the 1967 “Asian Tour,” whose itinerary included Colorado, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, India, Israel, Yugoslavia, and Scotland. Under Woody, the Choral Society and Glee Club continued to gain critical acclaim throughout the United States, and the Choral Society’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem with several other Boston choirs at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral received a Grammy nomination in 1965.
The 1970s was a transitional period for the Choral Society as Harvard University became co-educational, merging the all-women’s Radcliffe College with the all-male Harvard College. In 1971 F. John Adams became the conductor of RCS and HGC, and merged the Choral Society with members of the Glee Club to form the mixed Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum. The women in HRCM performed an annual RCS concert and held the RCS charter through this period, but women’s-only choral singing experienced a temporary hush during this transition. In 1974, two singers wrote to female members of HRCM calling to re-establish RCS as a choir in its own right, seeking more opportunities for women singers at Harvard. RCS was re-formed, and Priscilla Chapman became the first new conductor in 1974. In 1975 Chapman led RCS in its first concert since re-formation, featuring a variety of works from different eras in RCS history. In 1976, coinciding with the first year that male and female students both were admitted to Harvard-Radcliffe jointly, RCS regained its charter and sang at Freshman Welcome in Harvard Yard for the first time.
In 1978, Beverly Taylor became conductor of the Choral Society and realized great success in re-establishing RCS’s prestige, bringing the Choral Society to greater levels of musicianship and to international recognition. She led the Choral Society on four international tours: to the British Isles in 1979, to Northern Europe in 1983, to Central Europe in 1987, and to Sweden, Poland, and Czechoslovakia in 1992. The Choral Society received several international prizes on these tours, including second prize at the Dutch International Koorfest in the Hague and first prize in the Youth Division of the International Eisteddfod in Llangolen, Wales. At home, Taylor earned prestigious critical recognition for RCS by leading the Choral Society on four appearances at conventions of the American Choral Directors’ Association (ACDA). She also initiated new and distinctive repertoire for RCS, commissioning works by composers such as Grayston Ives (1984) and Stephen Paulus (1990) to great acclaim. Under Taylor’s dynamic leadership, RCS achieved tremendous growth and renown.
In 1995, Jameson Marvin became the conductor of the Radcliffe Choral Society, in addition to the Harvard Glee Club and Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum. The three choirs became known together as the Holden Choruses. Under Marvin’s direction the ensembles rose to be among the premier collegiate choruses in the United States. Since 1995, the Choral Society has made two more invited appearances at ACDA conventions; has commissioned new works in its honor, including distinguished compositions by Hilary Tann (2005), Tarik O’Regan (2008), and Robert Kyr (2010); and has hosted four Festivals of Women’s Choruses, celebrating women’s choral music with renowned composers, publishers, conductors, and fellow singers throughout the nation. Under Marvin’s conductorship, the Choral Society developed a rich and distinctive repertoire embracing over nine centuries of sacred and secular music. In 2010, Andrew Clark was appointed the new Director of Choral Activities at Harvard and became the conductor of the Radcliffe Choral Society. The Holden Choruses continue their tradition of collaboration by combining to sing a choral-orchestral masterwork every year. Recent masterwork performances include Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem in D, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Missa Solemnis, Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.
The Choral Society’s dynamic tour tradition continues to be upheld: today RCS tours together every year, traveling on a summer international tour every four years, and on spring tours around the United States the years in between. In the past fifteen years RCS has shared its music and spirit with communities around the world: the 1996 Western Europe tour included concerts in France, Monaco, Switzerland and Italy; the year 2000 took RCS to a new continent, touring throughout South America; the 2004 tour to South Africa made history at Harvard when RCS became the first choir to travel to Africa; and the most recent international tour took RCS to the remarkable cities and rainforests of Costa Rica in 2008. Additional tours to the United Kingdom, Canada, and throughout the United States from New Orleans to Seattle have furthered the Choral Society’s reputation at home and around the globe.
One of only five Harvard organizations continuing to bear the Radcliffe name, the Radcliffe Choral Society is proud to honor its history and legacy by celebrating excellence in women’s choral music and the extraordinary community formed through its music-making. If you have any questions about the Choral Society’s history, or would like to receive e-Newsletters about recent and upcoming events, please e-mail our historians and we’ll be happy to respond to you.
For a closer look at the Radcliffe Choral Society’s rich history, over 150 historical photographs of RCS can be found http://via.harvard.edu. Search for “Radcliffe Choral Society”; and limit your search to “Radcliffe Archives”. Enjoy!