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UWEC's Rich Musical History Continues

| Dr. Gretchen Peters

Music is a defining element for the city of Eau Claire’s identity.  Numerous and diverse music ensembles, concert series, festivals, and venues, including the highly anticipated Confluence Project, are a source of pride and help create a strong sense of community.  University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s centennial year provides an appropriate occasion on which to recognize the long and important history of its music program and its contributions to the area.  Reflecting on the history of the music program, what struck me most was the dedication of so many individuals, some of whom I have known and admired for almost forty years.  These individuals have shaped the nature of this institution, and today my colleagues and I continue to build upon the programs and traditions that often date back nearly one hundred years.  The impact and breadth of their visions have gone well beyond the immediate benefit to their students and have contributed to the well-being of the broader community, sometimes decades later. 

In the early years of the Eau Claire State Normal School, music was part of the curriculum for students pursuing a career in education, and the school quickly became known for its high quality of music making.  The music curriculum was delivered by a single music faculty,  Grace Giberson, who taught music education to future teachers at the primary and grammar grade levels, as well as organized the music ensembles, which included the glee club for women, the glee club for men, a male quartet, a mixed gender choir, an orchestra, and a mandolin club. She arranged a variety of performances and concerts, including musicals and a series of concerts in neighboring towns, and the high quality of her work was quickly recognized.  The President of La Crosse Normal School, after hearing the Choral Club and Male Quartet at the state oratorical contest in Platteville in 1921, wrote, “They are not only the finest of their kind here, but the best I have ever heard.”  From her arrival in the fall of 1923 until her resignation for health reasons twenty-five years later, Clara Mae Ward further established Eau Claire as a prominent music program in the Midwest, and she became known as “one of Wisconsin’s foremost music directors.”  She taught an array of education courses, as well as organized all of the ensembles, including five vocal ensembles, the orchestra and the band.  The premier music ensemble was the A Cappella Choir, which performed regularly throughout the state, as well as in Illinois and Minnesota, and over weekly radio broadcasts on WEAU.  A highlight for Ward’s A Capella Choir was a tour out east in 1939 “after weeks of penny saving, concerts, presentations of celebrities, and hard work in general.”  The itinerary included a concert at the World’s Fair in New York City and another at the White House for President and Eleanor Roosevelt.  As noted in Eleanor Roosevelt’s regular newspaper column, entitled My Day, “A few friends came down to listen with me, and then we all had tea after a most enjoyable hour of music.”  So for the first thirty years, as for many “normal schools” dedicated to teacher training, female faculty were central to the music curriculum and conductors of most of the ensembles.  

The expansion of the music program began in the mid-part of the century.  In 1944, Robert Gantner was hired to direct instrumental ensembles, in 1947 Caldwell Johnson was hired to conduct the choirs upon Ward’s resignation, and in 1953 Charlotte Hubert was hired to teach music education, marking a significant shift in gender roles among faculty in the music program that continues until this day. The course offerings were expanded in the 1940’s to include music history, music theory, and music appreciation, and in the early 1950’s the university was awarded the right to grant music degrees, prompting further growth.  The next wave of expansion was tied to the completion of the Fine Arts Center and to the support of Chancellor Leonard Haas who believed a strong music program was instrumental for a vital university community.  In 1969 there were just under twenty faculty and eleven offerings, and by 1972 there were over thirty faculty and approximately eighty offerings.  Faculty, who were specialists in their field, were hired to teach all of the applied areas, music history, music theory, and composition.  In 1993, the Theatre Arts program, which had been housed with the Communications program was combined with Music, and Dance would follow in the next few years, allowing for multi-disciplinary initiatives in the performing arts.  Today, with over two hundred and fifty music majors and minors, and ensembles with over one thousand members, it is one of the largest undergraduate music programs in the upper Midwest. 

The student ensembles, which have all received recognition for their high level of performance, have a long tradition in the music program. The choral area, with its seven ensembles and over 400 members, has had a successful and popular history since the formation of the university. The formation of the all-male and all-female choirs in the 1960’s, for example, have precedence in the male and female glee clubs in the first years of the university. The first band was organized in 1922 to play at games and student mass meetings. In 1939 with over fifty members and two drum majors, it assumed the function of a marching band and performed in the homecoming parade and at football games. Today the university has three concert bands and a separate marching band. The Blugold Marching Band is one of the most active bands in the upper Midwest, and with over 300 members it is one of the largest Division 3 college marching bands in the country. The “Normal Orchestra” was formed in 1924 with nineteen members. The personnel for this ensemble fluctuated the most, particularly with the rise in popularity of patriotic band literature during war times. When Robert Gantner reorganized the orchestra on his arrival in the 1940’s, membership drew heavily from both the university and the community. Today, there is both a symphony orchestra and a chamber orchestra. The highly respected jazz program dates to the 1950’s, when jazz combos with college students were popular on campus, such as the “Rhythm-aires” and the Blue Gold Combo. The Eau Claire College Dance Band, a fifteen-piece student-directed jazz band was formed in 1960, and reflecting a national trend, a faculty director took over in 1965. A jazz festival with competitions between high school and college jazz bands was established in 1968, and the university continues to host the Eau Claire Jazz Festival.

Throughout its history, the music faculty, students and alumni have contributed time and skills to the community that go well beyond the hundreds of concerts that take place on campus each year.  They have served as founders, conductors, and members of numerous community ensembles, including the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra, Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra, the Mastersingers, Eau Claire Municipal Band, Chippewa Valley Youth Orchestra, as well as many others.  The music program’s effect is also felt in numerous area church choirs, theatrical productions, concert series, and festivals, such as the Eaux Claires Festival this past summer which highlighted the work of many alumni and current students on and off stage.  An invaluable component of the music program has been music therapy which has provided thousands of hours of service to individuals in our community in hospitals, community mental health agencies, rehabilitation centers, day care facilities, nursing homes, and prisons.  As the music program grew out of a teacher training program, it is no surprise that the majority of music students continue to seek careers as music educators, and a large number of them teach in the surrounding school districts and private studios in the city, directly contributing to the vitality of the music scene in this region. 

The music program has a history of offering unique educational opportunities at an undergraduate level. Just as Clara Mae Ward traveled extensively with the A Capella Choir, within the last five years students have traveled to Italy with the Concert Choir, to Ireland with Women’s Concert Chorale, to the Mediterranean with the BluGold Marching Band, and to South Africa as part of the composition studio, to name just a few. In the tradition of Clara Mae Ward’s elaborate musical productions, a musical or opera is fully staged every year, and students have additional operatic opportunities every semester. (Last year a student even had the opportunity to conduct a full production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro!) Experience with historically informed performances is among the rare opportunities for UW-EC students. For many years, courses were offered on the subject, and Les Favorites, a faculty Baroque ensemble performed regularly. Today, students have a rare opportunity to perform in a chamber orchestra that focusses on the Baroque repertoire and issues of performance practice. They can also participate in a contemporary music ensemble alongside faculty members. A variety of academic degrees are also available to students, including music theory, music history and composition, and recently added degrees in piano pedagogy and piano collaboration. While the faculty has been conscious of upholding the long traditions of the music program, it has also recently written a new mission statement which identifies new paths as well. While it continues to reinforce the importance of creative and high quality performances and contributions to the community, it also encourages greater emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and collaboration- values that will make Eau Claire an even stronger community in which to live.