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February 09, 2016

Eastman faculty member helps celebrate glee club that changed his life

glee club singing on stage
Glee club members practice last fall.

As an award-winning scholar of 14th- through 16th-century sacred music, Michael Alan Anderson is accustomed to writing about topics for which there are no living witnesses. Nobody to call up or email to confirm when and why a particular musical convention came into favor, for instance.

What a relief, then, when Anderson was able to correspond regularly with people who participated in the Notre Dame Glee Club, the subject of his latest book.

“Having access to living subjects who can tell you what they remember is quite amazing,” says Anderson, associate professor of musicology at the Eastman School of Music. “What a fascinating way to do research, instead of having to sort through sources and fragments from several centuries ago, hoping that someone wrote something down that will answer your questions!”

The Singing Irish: The History of the Notre Dame Glee Club (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), which chronicles the history of one of the oldest choruses in the United States, came out last fall. “Although it has the appearance of a high-end coffee table book, I assure you it was quite a research project,” says Anderson, who sorted through more than 1,200 articles (many of which he found online) and talked to scores of Notre Dame Glee Club alumni to write the narrative.

chorus and Andy Williams on old tv studio set
The glee club appeared on The Andy Williams Show in 1966.

In fact, he set up an email list of willing Glee Club alumni whose participation in the group dated from the 1950s to the present. To help confirm when a relatively recent Glee Club tradition began, he would send out an email and almost instantly hear back from alumni who either could or could not remember participating in that tradition—thereby helping Anderson pin down exact dates, or at least narrower time frames, for events and customs.

So why did Anderson wander so far out of his normal orbit of research to take on this project? His participation in the Glee Club as a Notre Dame business major in the mid-1990s was an important turning point for him, Anderson says. Fond as he was of singing, “when I stepped into the choir room as a wide-eyed freshman and saw some of the music put in front of me, it changed my life. It was exposure to a new kind of music I was not ready for, a whole new world of sound,” Anderson says.

And no, he is not referring to the Notre Dame Victory March. “Some of the medieval and Renaissance music (Glee Club director Daniel Stowe) exposed me to is music I now write about.”

After graduating with a major in business and a second major in music, Anderson worked at an advertising agency in Chicago for five years, even as “the music part continued to burn inside me.” Finally, he took the plunge, enrolling in the University of Chicago’s graduate program in musicology.

When Anderson attended a Glee Club reunion in 2012, and the conversation turned to a good way to celebrate the club’s upcoming centennial, he decided to “give something back” by helping with the book.

Except, as Anderson discovered in his research, 2015 isn’t really the Notre Dame Glee Club’s centennial after all. “I found citations to the glee club on again and off again well before 1915,” Anderson says. In essence, that “debunked” the centennial angle but did not deter Anderson from finishing a long overdue history of one of America’s most celebrated choral groups.

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