Founded in 1874 by William Wallace Gilchrist, Mendelssohn Club has been a major force in choral music in Philadelphia and beyond, with notable historic performances including the 1916 U.S. premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with Leopold Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Other historical premieres include the first performance outside the Soviet Union of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, and the Philadelphia premieres of Brahms’ German Requiem, Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, Scriabin’s Symphony No. 1, and Bartók’s Cantata Profana.
William Wallace Gilchrist, Founder, 1874-1914
Mendelssohn Club was founded in 1874 by William Wallace Gilchrist (1846-1916), one of the leading musical figures in nineteenth century Philadelphia. Gilchrist studied privately with Hugh Clarke (who was later Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania) from 1865-68. During this time Gilchrist was active as a baritone soloist at Holy Trinity and St. Mark’s Churches, soloist with the Handel and Haydn Society in productions of Messiah, Moses in Egypt and Judas Maccabaeus, and participant in a series of light operettas presented by the Amateur Drawing Room. In 1874 he was appointed organist and choirmaster at St. Clement’s, and he drew the original Mendelssohn Club members from the choir there.
Mendelssohn Club began as an eight-voice male chorus, but soon increased in size and added women’s voices. The first subscription concert was held in December, 1879, and included piano and cello solos as well as choral works. Gilchrist was becoming increasing well-known as a composer and concerts began to feature his works as well. In 1882 his setting of Psalm 46 won first prize at the Cincinnati May Festival, where the judges included Camille Saint-Saens and Carl Reinecke.
The range of Gilchrist’s musical activities is quite impressive. In addition to Mendelssohn Club, he also conducted the Germantown Choral Society, the West Philadelphia Choral Society, the Harmonia, the Harrisburg Choral Society and the Tuesday Club of Wilmington. He was organist and choirmaster at St. Clement’s, Christ Church in Germantown and for many years at the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem. He was a founding member of the American Guild of Organists and of the Music Manuscript Society, which promoted new music in Philadelphia. He served as head of voice instruction at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. He founded and conducted the Symphony Society of Philadelphia from 1893-1899. In the latter year he resigned the podium, probably so that it could be offered to the distinguished German conductor Fritz Scheel, who happened to be in Philadelphia at the time. The Symphonic Society was one of several orchestras which were reorganized as The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1900, with Scheel as conductor.
Mendelssohn Club’s long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra began under Gilchrist’s tenure with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Scheel’s baton in 1903. For the next thirty years the Orchestra and the chorus appeared on each other’s subscription concert series. In 1908 Mendelssohn Club gave the Philadelphia premiere of the Brahms Requiem and in 1916 provided more than 300 singers for the American premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 under the baton of Leopold Stokowski.
Herbert J. Tily, 1914-1916
Despite Gilchrist’s many accomplishments, he suffered from depression and in 1913 took a leave of absence from Mendelssohn Club. He was never to return, dying of a heart attack in 1916. During the interim, Mendelssohn Club was conducted by Dr. Herbert Tily. Tily was also president of Strawbridge’s and conductor of the Strawbridge Company Chorus, a highly regarded ensemble which continued to exist well into the 1930’s and served as a sort of cultural counterpoint to the Wanamaker organ.
N. Lindsay Norden, 1916-1926
N. Lindsay Norden was named conductor in 1916 and served ten years. Norden was an accomplished organist, choral conductor, and composer. He was particularly interested in Russian choral and liturgical music, which he introduced to American audiences through his arrangements and translations. A highlight of his tenure was Mendelssohn Club’s 50th Anniversary concert with The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music, featuring Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise, Brahms’ Song of Destiny and Gilchrist’s cantata The Uplifted Gates.
Bruce A. Carey 1926-1934
Norden was succeeded by Bruce A. Carey, director of choral music at Girard College. During his eight years as music director, Mendelssohn Club was involved in a number of notable concerts. It performed Russian folk song settings under the direction of Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1928. In 1929 Mendelssohn Club and The Philadelphia Orchestra presented the American premiere of Boris Godunov in concert version, featuring baritone Nelson Eddy (who at that time was still primarily an opera singer and a principal with the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company.) The two organizations collaborated again in a 1932 performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder which was broadcast coast-to-coast, and in the American premiere of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, which was also broadcast coast-to-coast.
M. Sherwood Johnson, 1934-1936
Harl McDonald, 1936-1939
One of Mendelssohn Club’s most colorful music directors was certainly Dr. Harl McDonald, who served from 1936-1939. McDonald grew up on a cattle ranch in Colorado, was a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and then took up a career as a concert pianist before coming to Philadelphia, where he became head of choral music at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1939 he launched yet another career, becoming manager of The Philadelphia Orchestra, a post he held for a number of years. McDonald was a prolific composer as well, and his orchestral works were frequently performed by Stokowski and the Orchestra. A choral work, Lament for the Stolen (suggested by the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby) was premiered by Mendelssohn Club. During his brief tenure there were a number of significant concerts with The Philadelphia Orchestra, including a 1937 performance of Honegger’s King David under Fritz Reiner which featured a relatively unknown Risë Stevens, who was to become one of the great sopranos at the Met.
Harold W. Gilbert, 1939-1959
Harold W. Gilbert, headmaster at St. Peter’s Choir School, became music director in 1939. He expanded Mendelssohn Club’s repertoire heavily into oratorios, instituting annual performance of Messiah and a series of Elgar’s oratorios The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom. He continued the remarkable tradition of featuring young singers who would later enjoy substantial reputations, including Anna Moffo, Beverly Wolff, and Benita Valente.
William Smith, 1959-1960
Henry C. Smith III, 1960-1965
Robert Page, 1965-1978
Mendelssohn Club enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Robert Page, director of choral activities at Temple University, who assumed the music directorship in 1964. The chorus participated in the free world premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. The RCA recording of that performance won the Prix Mondiale de Montreux. Mendelssohn Club appeared with the Orchestra in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, the Verdi Requiem, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw and Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies with such conductors as Ormandy, Abbado, Mehta, Rostropovich and Rozhdestvenksy on the podium. Recordings with Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra included Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Holst’s The Planets, Mendelssohn’s Walpurgisnacht and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. The chorus celebrated its centennial season with the commission and premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam with Page conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Tamara Brooks, 1978-1988
Tamara Brooks, then director of the New School of Music, was appointed music director in 1978. During her tenure Mendelssohn Club appeared in a nationally broadcast performance of the Verdi Requiem with Ricardo Muti and The Philadelphia Orchestra as part of PBS’ Great Performances series. The chorus also presented the Philadelphia premiere of the full orchestral version of Britten’s War Requiem in 1985. Brooks and Mendelssohn Club enjoyed a close relationship with Philadelphia composer Vincent Persichetti, performing a number of his works including the Stabat Mater and the premieres of several of his unpublished Hymns and Responses. The chorus’s 1985 recording of his Winter Cantata was nominated for a Grammy award.
Alan Harler, 1988-Present