As the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club thrives in the 21st century, it remains an institution atop the world of choral singing. Featuring a unique blend of musical excellence and theatrical showmanship, the Glee Club has won worldwide acclaim. Under Daniel Carsello’s leadership as the Club’s Director, the Penn Glee Club continues to delight audiences of all ages. Its world-renowned and tradition-rich history began modestly in 1862, when eight undergraduate men formed the Club, making the Penn Glee Club the oldest performing arts group at the University of Pennsylvania. Subsequently, the group added another eight men. The Club’s premier performance was in the chapel of Collegiate Hall at Ninth and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia for “an audience that was unusually select and large, the Hall filled to its utmost capacity.” At this concert, each man wore red and blue ribbons in his buttonhole, and thus the Glee Club became the first known Penn group to wear the University colors as part of its uniform.
The Glee Club quickly became an integral part of campus life, singing at football rallies, basketball games, alumni events, and chapel services. With the turn of the century, the Club continued to grow in popularity. Soon, much of the University’s musical demands depended upon the Glee Club. As a result, the reliance on such traditional collegiate songs such as “Gaudeamus Igitur” and “Integer Vitae” gave way to original pieces composed especially for the University and the Glee Club, which themselves became traditions: “The Red and Blue,” “Afterglow,” and “Fight On, Pennsylvania.”
In 1934, under Director Harl McDonald, the Penn Glee Club began performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Club’s partnership with this world-renowned symphony has produced many memorable performances including the acclaimed 1938 performance of the Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody” with Marian Anderson and the 1970 world premiere broadcast of then-Director Bruce “Monty” Montgomery’s “Herodotus Fragments.” The 1950s saw the first of many Glee Club appearances on national television with such celebrities as Ed McMahon and Carol Lawrence. The Club has been showcased on television specials, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and at professional sporting events. The Philadelphia Phillies had the Club sing its acclaimed rendition of the National Anthem at the 1993 National League Championship Series. In 1976, the Penn Glee Club first performed with the Boston Pops. The Club has also shared the stage with such superstars as Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, and Grace Kelly.
In 1956, Bruce Montgomery was appointed Director of the Penn Glee Club and brought the Club to new heights of musicianship and international acclaim. “Monty” was an American composer, author, performer, painter, conductor, and director. He is recognized internationally as one of America’s foremost authorities on the works of Gilbert & Sullivan and directed and performed all fourteen of the operettas, both in the United States and abroad. Directing the Club until his retirement in 2000, Monty was a mentor to thousands of students, and the Trustees of the University once described him as “irrepressible and delightful.” One month before his passing in 2008, the University dedicated the third theatre in the Annenberg Center as the “Bruce Montgomery Theatre.” A beloved director, Bruce Montgomery reimagined the idea of what a “glee club” is while maintaining the musical excellence of the group. This energetic man took the Glee Club on far-flung adventures and created countless memories, music, and traditions vividly remembered to this day.
Although the Penn Glee Club stepped out of the formal lines of choral performance in 1928, performing its first fully staged production, Hades, Inc., written by then-director H. Alexander Matthews, it wasn’t until 1970 that theatrical showmanship became standard fare. As a cappella music declined during the 1960s, Bruce Montgomery helped shape what has come to be known as the “Penn Glee Club Spring Show,” a fully-staged, Broadway-style production, highlighting fine choral singing, clever plots and dialogue, dancing, irrepressible humor, colorful sets and costumes, and a talented band. Equally important to the Club’s success are its technical members. While the Club’s fine choral singing continues as the foundation, the Band and Technical Staff have enhanced the overall product enormously.
The Penn Glee Club has toured internationally since 1959 and has traveled to nearly all 50 states in the United States and more than 40 nations and territories on five continents. Since its first performance at the White House for President Calvin Coolidge in 1926, the Club has sung for numerous heads of state and world leaders. One of the highlights of 1989 was the Club’s performance at the estate of Philadelphia entrepreneur Edward J. Piszek for Polish President Lech Walesa, who had recently traveled to the United States from behind the Iron Curtain. In 1990, the Club arrived in Budapest, Hungary, on the very day of the inauguration of President Arpad Goncz, Hungary’s first democratically elected president in 42 years. In 1999, several prominent Japanese executives sponsored a tour to Guam and Japan, the Club’s first tour of the Asian Pacific. Five years later, in 2004, the Club returned to Asia, this time touring China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. And in 2012, to commemorate its 150th anniversary year, the Club embarked on its first joint PGC-GCGC tour, cruising to Bermuda.
In 2000, Monty retired, but not before announcing his successor. Dr. C. Erik Nordgren, the Student Conductor of the group for the past eight years, was the perfect choice for such a transition. For fifteen years, he maintained the Club’s tradition of musical excellence and theatrical showmanship. In 2015, “Nord” stepped down from the podium to pursue his “real” career in chemistry and to spend more time with his growing family. The Penn Glee Club community is grateful for his devotion to the Club and wishes him well in all future endeavors.
In 2021, following several years of discussion and nearly a year of careful deliberation, the Penn Glee Club voted to merge with its sister group, the Penn Sirens, and to remove the gender restriction on singing membership. The Club now features an SATB choir, SSAA and TTBB chamber choirs, and two student-run a cappella groups, the Penn Pipers and Penn Sirens.
The modern Club is a reflection of its rich heritage and its contemporary character. Now in its 159th season, the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club remains, as former Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp once remarked, “one of the finest musical organizations in existence.” It proudly represents the University in its grand tradition and is equally proud to preserve its distinctive blend of choral excellence and theatrical showmanship, the hallmark of the Penn Glee Club.