A National Library of Men's Choral Music

As all-male colleges went coed in the 1970s, they left something important behind: their music. The Washington Men's Camerata is working to preserve this historic resource.

When schools made their male glee clubs coed, the sheet music they had been using often ended up forgotten in damp, dusty basements. Hating to see a historic resource wasted, the Washington Men’s Camerata has collected more than 142,000 scores of men’s music to be cataloged, preserved, and loaned to the narrow niche of men’s choruses that still sing at such universities as Harvard, Cornell, the University of Virginia, and in groups around the world.

Now the chorus plans to digitize the music, scanning and putting its public domain works online to make the music easily available for worldwide use. It has already partnered with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Library of Congress, and a number of colleges and universities, and is seeking support from arts agencies and online services to put the printed music on the Web, breaking new ground in attempts to make paper scores unnecessary.

“It is such a small genre that it is not profitable or practical for music stores and publishers to keep repertoire like this available,” says Brad Spencer, a founder of the Camerata 29 years ago. “Works of a lot of great composers are dying. This is a way of making sure the music that is left is preserved.”

Managing the huge collection is music director Frank Albinder, who was a member of the internationally acclaimed vocal ensemble Chanticleer before joining the Washington Men’s Camerata in 1999. He also directs the Virginia Glee Club at the University of Virginia and and is president of Intercollegiate Men’s Choruses.

“The men in the Camerata have made a big effort to keep the art of men’s choral singing alive while helping to encourage its spread,” Albinder says. Though “Glee,” “The Voice” and “American Idol” have stirred up interest in singing, he says, this interest has not filtered down to all types of choruses.

So the Camerata established the National Library of Men's Choral Music in 1999 with the intention of turning the music collection into an international focal point of men’s choral music. The chorus first collected works from Georgetown and Yale, which had abandoned their all-male choruses. Soon, Temple, Pomona, the U.S. Army Chorus, Davidson, Princeton, Colgate, the Loring Club, and many other institutions made contributions to the library.

The collection contains many hidden treasures, including original works and arrangements for men's chorus by Charles Ives, Marshall Bartholomew, Fenno Heath, and other American composers—some of which were written especially for male choruses at Yale University and may never have been performed elsewhere. Called the Demetrius Project after the first chief librarian of the Royal Library at Alexandria, Egypt, the library has the original copy and first draft of Darius Milhaud’s Psalm 121 and other precious documents. The chorus has received seven grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to aid with maintaining the collection.

The historic scores are stored in an unlikely location, a room with 30 or so filing cabinets filled with music at the Joe’s Movement Emporium building in Mount Rainier, Maryland.  Chorus members catalog the works, then store and file them. Men’s choruses across the country can search for works on the site’s database, then contact Albinder to borrow enough copies for a full chorus. Says Spencer, “We have just about everything—except new works—that is performed in the United States.”

Though some of the pieces are arrangements of works written for mixed choruses, many songs are specifically male in nature and voicing: sea songs, war songs, drinking songs, work songs, and tales of lost love. Unlike mixed choruses, men’s choruses need four parts for men’s voices: first tenor, second tenor, baritone, and bass. The Washington Men’s Camerata used music from the library as the inspiration for some of its recordings, including “Brothers Sing On” and “When I Was a Young Man.”

Next up, the Camerata wants to put the works online for choruses everywhere to share. The chorus has already initiated a partnership with the Library of Congress and is looking to work with companies like Google, Amazon, Apple and others to get the collection scanned and made available to Web-accessible devices. The Harvard Glee Club Foundation and the Cornell Glee Club have expressed interest.

About half of the works are in the public domain, and copyright agreements will be attempted with the others. Choruses wouldn’t necessarily have to print out the copies to make such a deal work, Spencer says.

To illustrate, he takes out an iPad, which looks a lot like a chorus folder and can hold a lot more music. Eventually, expect music to be read electronically off of similar devices, even in the dark, he says. Software is already available to make notations electronically instead of in pencil.

Says Spencer, “Eventually, you will go to a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic and there will be no lights on the music stand and they will be using electronic folders. It will happen in both the choral and instrumental worlds.”

To search for men’s music in the Camerata’s collection, please visit the collection online

Michael Doan is a retired journalist who wrote for The Associated Press, U.S. News & World Report, and the Kiplinger Editors. He took up singing in retirement and is a member of the Washington Men's Camerata and the Capitol Hill Chorale.