Lights illuminate the stage as 14 spruced up Yale seniors donning traditional white tie and tails march across it. Their polished shoes form a neat semi-circle while white-gloves match at their sides. Without an instrument in sight, they fill the room with graceful harmony and continue a 110-year legacy.
The Whiffenpoofs were founded in 1909. According to a press release announcing the anniversary weekend’s events, the ensemble was “the first close-harmony collegiate singing group of its kind.” On Oct. 11, many former members will return to Yale’s campus to perform in “The Perfect Concert” alongside their present-day counterparts Whim ‘n Rhythm in Battell Chapel. The concert, free to all Yale students and hosted by Dean of Music Robert Blocker, will kick off the group’s 110th anniversary weekend.
Barry McMurtrey ’88, a Whiffenpoof from 1987–1988, coordinated the upcoming event. McMurtrey said that “The Perfect Concert” is named as such because the alumni hope it will bring generations of Whiffenpoofs together in perfect harmony.
“We hope it is a perfect confluence of what is amazing about new Yale and what is touching and nostalgic about old Yale,” McMurtrey said. “I want you to know how thrilled some of these older gentlemen are at the chance to sing again for the Yale student community.”
The Whiffenpoof alumni attending the concert range from ages 25 to 95. The oldest performer is 95-year-old Kemerer Edwards ’49, a living legend on Yale’s campus who has been taking undergraduate courses since he retired in 1997. Edwards received a Yale medal for lifetime service to the University in 2015. He will be singing and competing this weekend for the championship trophy of the Silver Dollar Quartet, a competition amongst Whiffenpoof alumni.
At the concert, the Whiffs of 2020 are especially excited to sing “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” said Alexander DiMeglio ’21, current music director of the Whiffenpoofs. The piece was arranged by Fenno Heath, former conductor of the Glee Club. DiMeglio added that he hopes that the concert will strengthen the relationship between the often-traveling Whiffenpoofs and their current Yale peers.
“We want to put on more joint concerts with Whim ‘n Rhythm and collaborate more with Yale’s other artistic groups,” DiMeglio said. “If this concert has any takeaway for students, I would love it to be that the Whiffenpoofs tradition began as a quartet of seniors singing for their classmates at Mory’s and that that is still who we are at our core today.”
According to the press release, the Whiffs were founded at Mory’s, a private club adjacent to campus. In 1909, a quartet of seniors in the Yale Glee Club began a lasting tradition of singing for Mory’s club patrons on Monday evenings. The Whiffs of 2020 will enjoy dinner and cups at Mory’s this weekend with their predecessors.
Another Whiffenpoof tradition is singing the “Whiffenpoof Song,” which was adapted in the early 20th century from a Rudyard Kipling poem. It has since become a well-known piece in American popular culture and has been covered by Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Elvis, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. The Whiffenpoofs still close every set by singing the arrangement.
“We are so lucky to be part of the tradition that produced it,” DiMeglio said. “To speak, celebrate and sing with generation upon generation of our predecessors is sure to be a moving experience.”
The weekend will also feature a forum in Sudler Hall about how Yale alumni have used their singing group experience in their careers. The forum will take place at 10 a.m. on Oct. 12 and will include philosophy professor Jeff Brenzel ’75, child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett ’65, NPR musician and songwriter Jonathan Coulton ’93 and tech entrepreneur Joseph Dennis ’88. McMurtrey hopes that it will address the misconception that collegiate singers can only use their skills if they go into music, theatre or show business.
“Singing in a group teaches many other skills as well and these are useful in all sorts of vocations and life experiences,” McMurtrey said. “I hope [Yale students can] get a sense of how the time they dedicate to this odd extra-curricular/social club pursuit is worth it.”
Whim ‘n Rhythm, who will also be performing at “The Perfect Concert,” is the University’s other all-senior a cappella group. According to the group’s website, it was established by women in 1981 “as an answer to the decades-old tradition of The Whiffenpoofs” — an all-male group at the time. In 2018, both groups announced that they would consider accepting singers of all genders, altering a century-old tradition.
This isn’t the only way that the groups have changed over the years. There have also been dramatic changes in repertoire. While the Whiffenpoofs initially performed songs from the old Yale Songbook or barbershop tradition, they now routinely arrange renditions of pop songs like “Havana” by Camilla Cabello and “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. McMurtrey believes that organizations like the Whiffs change with the campus zeitgeist.
“How the Whiffs change is spelled out in the lyrics of our founding song: each class are poor little lambs off on a spree who after that one special year must ‘pass and be forgotten with the rest,’” McMurtrey said. “I hope the current Whiffs appreciate more fully the amazing tradition of which they are a part and appreciate the love that so many years of alumni have for it. I hope the alumni leave feeling satisfied with good times spent with old friends, content with having sung the ‘old songs’ once again and positive about the talent and the fantastic character of the rising generation of Yalies.”
“The Perfect Concert,” free for all Yale students and $15 for the general public, will take place at Battell Chapel on Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. The panel will take place in Sudler Hall at 10 a.m. on Oct. 12.
Natalie Kainz | firstname.lastname@example.org