Fenno Heath ’50 MUS ’52, director of the Yale Glee Club from 1953-1992, passed away Friday evening at the age of 81. His family did not wish to release the cause of death.
One of only seven Glee Club conductors ever, he devoted 39 years to the chorus and played a vital role in the a cappella community on campus.
“Fenno made so much music, with so many people, for so many years, and anyone who ever sang with Fenno became a much richer person for it,” said Jeffrey Brenzel ’75, the dean of undergraduate admissions.
Heath was a leader to singers all over the world, and an inspiration in his own home.
“He was our encyclopedia, our dictionary, our movie critic, our connection to the Arts world, our literary scholar, and our rock, as he would give anyone in his family, his beloved wife Carol, his 6 children, and his 6 grandchildren, the shirt off his back,” daughter Peggy Heath Ogilvy wrote in an email to the News Tuesday night. “He was the family patriarch.”
Heath majored in music as a Yale undergraduate, singing in the Yale Freshman Chorus, the Apollo Glee Club, the Yale Glee Club and the Spizzwinks(?). During his senior year, he served as conductor of the Whiffenpoofs.
Heath continued his musical pursuits at the Yale School of Music immediately after graduating from Yale. It was during this time that he became the conductor of the Apollo Glee Club.
One year after graduating from the School of Music, Heath became the conductor of the Yale Glee Club. In 1969, when women were first admitted to Yale, Heath took a progressive stand by admitting females to the chorus the following year.
“When the history of music at Yale is recorded, a special chapter will be devoted to the legacy of Fenno Heath,” said School of Music Dean Robert Blocker. “As director of the Yale Glee Club, he explored new musical frontiers — from international tours to football concerts, from his own compositions for the Glee Club to his performances of major works in the literature.”
Heath also assisted with the organization of the first all-female a cappella group on campus, The New Blue, and arranged music for several other male and female singing groups.
Glee Club alumnus Ed Dickens ’74 said that he “greatly appreciated Heath’s catholic taste in music” and that he seemed just as happy working with the Glee Club as he was conducting the Whiffenpoof alumni group.
“He loved modern music, classical music, jazz and all of the Yale songs,” said Dickens. “All music was good to Fenno and he appreciated everything, which was a wonderful gift to us as singers.”
During his years as director of Glee Club, Heath was known for his high standards and strict discipline. He commanded respect from his singers.
A Glee Club singer from Heath’s first year as director, Fred Pittman ’55, said that he found the Glee Club under Heath to be one of the most disciplined organizations on campus, though Heath had an amazing way of never forcefully demanding it.
“It was all unspoken, and at times it wasn’t 100 percent pleasant because he had an ability to look out at you when you weren’t behaving exactly right,” he said. “It hit you someplace in your soul to make you stop doing what you had been doing.”
Don Edwards ’64, another former Glee Club member, came back to Yale for the 125th anniversary to sing in the Glee Club concert and found that even after so many years Fenno still expected the same level of excellence from the aging group of men before him.
“When we started to sing, he immediately shut us off and I realized that Fenno wasn’t going to let us get away with a performance that was not up to his standards, even in this setting,” said Edwards. “We remembered that this was important and though Fenno always expects a lot, he makes our performances great.”
Heath was an active composer on and off campus for many years, but retired as the director of Glee Club in 1992, passing the directorship off to David Connell MUS ’91. Post-retirement, the Glee Club appointed Heath their “conductor emeritus.”
Even during his retirement, Blocker said, no one in the music community considered him to be retired.
“He was a University citizen, a faculty member who loved this institution and relished its values,” said Blocker. “As president of the Friends of Music, his concern for students and their well-being was, for me, a memorable quality he brought to us in his retirement.”
Heath’s legacy on campus is not only due to his musical accomplishments, but also because of the many friendships he forged with members of the Yale music community.
In the weeks before Heath’s death, his daughter Ogilvy wrote, his family felt that they were not his only children, but “that he was a father figure and mentor for thousands of Yale Glee Club alumni.” They created a blog for people to post remembrances and tributes, pictures and sound bites.
“Pretty soon, we were inundated with letters and the blog became a ‘virtual vigil’, ‘virtual wake’ and ‘virtual Yale Glee Club, University Glee Club, and Whiffenpoof Reunion,” Ogilvy wrote.
Current Glee Club member Noah Lawrence ’09 said he hopes to share Heath’s legacy with underclassmen who never had the opportunity to sing with him.
“I want to pass stories of him down to them, not just as a member of the Glee Club, but as a senior in college in general, and as a friend,” he said. “The stories of Fenno are not just stories of music because they are stories of life, stories that can guide you in the quest to form your character and create your life.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the date of Fenno Heath’s death.