Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

Have Harmony, Will Travel
Montpelier Winter 1999

Glee Club

Today JMU's music department has 19 organizations for music students - with seven vocal ensembles. But in the school's beginning, the musical organization on campus was the Glee Club. Established in 1909, the club seemed to have lighthearted socializing in mind rather than serious singing. In 1915, Edna Trout Shaeffer took over and dignity gained an upper hand. She was serious about the higher purpose of music and musical excellence.

The Glee Club soon reflected her sense of purpose and pride - and grew from 14 members that initial year to nearly 100 women by 1919. In fact, by 1922 Shaeffer established a Choral Club to reduce the size and improve the quality of the Glee Club. By then the club was applauded widely beyond campus and local civic clubs and churches.

Travel started with an overnight jaunt to Lexington in 1919 to raise dollars for the Jackson Memorial Hospital. Soon other Virginia communities extended invitations. Shaeffer's group sang across the Commonwealth - Marion, Christiansburg, Galax, Roanoke, Culpeper, Richmond, Norfolk-in 30 towns total. Singing followed by social events heightened enjoyment, especially before all-male audiences at Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Washington & Lee, and Randolph Macon. The women even trilled with the Harvard Glee Club at Madison, and mourned the Yale Glee Club's cancellation of a joint appearance when World War II curtailed travel.

Through the decades, radio broadcasts from Maryland to Florida thrilled performers along with listeners. W. R. Bishop of Richmond's WRVA had heard the group in 1931 and quickly engaged them for his station. They continued to perform there into the 1940s and added the John Marshall Hotel to their list of concert venues.

But certainly the trip to New York in 1939 to perform for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the World's Fair created a new high. Arduous hours of practice under Shaeffer's strict rules paid off. Women auditioned to be in the Glee Club and basked in its glorious reputation. As Wendell Sanderson, Director of Music for Richmond Schools wrote, "There are college glee clubs and college glee clubs. Yours is a very splendid organization."

But the Glee Club was only one outlet for Shaeffer's productivity. She infused the music curriculum at the Normal School, then Harrisonburg Teacher's College, and then Madison with new studies and a higher quality of music. Each year she added depth from Pipe Organ Instruction to Theory and Harmony. She instituted Music for Elementary Teachers, Music for Advanced Grades (7-12), directed major advances in public school music education. And the additions proved popular. Enrollment bolstered her courage to finally ask President Samuel Duke for six pianos.

He complied - but bought the lowest-priced ones he could find. Even the college's first baby grand was a bargain deal. It had been used in town for a church conference and the dealers preferred to sell it rather than haul it away. Her finest purchase, however, came in helping to choose the exceptional Mohler organ in Wilson Hall. One of the finest in the state, it was made in Hagerstown, Md., for $12,000.

Glee Club

Shaeffer organized local music clubs and engaged visiting artists for the Lyceum Series. She planned the annual music festivals at the Massanetta Springs Bible Conferences, played the organ and directed the choir at her church, and combined the first chorus of junior and senior high school children in the state. That 600-member chorus sang for the Virginia Education Association in Richmond to dramatize the need for a state music supervisor. Shortly afterward, Luther Richmond was named to that post.

Each assignment raised a whirlwind of energy. One year's activity demonstrates. In World War I, the National Council for Defense urged community singing to bolster morale and appointed Shaeffer Director of Singing in Rockingham County. She formed a Liberty Chorus, held daily music programs at the college, had the Glee Club learn folk songs of the six Allied nations, organized a contest for the best class song, and supported National Song Week in February 1919.

And between those duties, she assumed charge of one floor of Jackson Hall during the devastating flu epidemic that fall when classes were suspended for four weeks and the entire nation seemed on hold.

This remarkable lady of song ended her career in 1956, four decades after it began. Travel that year was especially fitting. After hearing Madison's Glee Club perform at a national convention in Miami, the Air Force invited them to perform at three Air Bases. They flew to Iceland, Bermuda, and Azores, the first women's college ever so recognized.

Her legacy lives on. The Edna T. Shaeffer Humanist Award, an endowment established in 1992 by the estate of Evelyn M. Pugh ('36), now honors Shaeffer's memory by providing $3,500 each year for professors to pursue research in the arts and humanities. In addition, Latimer-Shaeffer Theatre in Duke Hall is also named for her.

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