In the early years of Williams College, music was mostly played or sung at religious exercises. An early choral society, the Handelian Society, was established in 1834, but little is known about it today. Records of other organized musical activities until the 1850s are sparse, with the occasional visiting band from Boston or Albany gracing the campus.
The modern-day singing tradition at Williams traces its roots to 1854 with the establishment of the Amateur’s Philharmonia, a chorus. The Mendelssohn Society revived the Philharmonia four years later as student interest in secular singing swelled. At the helm of the Mendelssohn Society was Washington Gladden, class of 1859, who often lamented the lack of secular music on campus. “At Williams in my sophomore year, two or three old Latin songs were occasionally sung, and there was a meager collection of nonsense songs,” he wrote in his memoirs. In his senior year, Gladden compiled the first edition of Songs of Williams, which “featured an array of the Mendelssohn Society’s repertoire, including Gladden’s own ‘The Mountains,’” the oldest student-composed college song in the United States. The following decade witnessed an outburst of class quartets and informal singing and instrumental groups. At the same time, fraternities and secret societies had gained immense traction on campus (the first, Kappa Alpha, arriving at Williams in 1833). For the next one hundred years, their houses served as additional centers of music, as their members often would sing together informally before dinner, to welcome guests, and in inter-fraternity competitions.
The most notable of these new ensembles was the Williams Glee Club, founded in 1869. The Glee Club is the longest-running musical ensemble in Williams history, performing until 1967 with only a one-year hiatus during World War II. The Glee Club became the center of student musical interest and frequently toured around the United States and internationally. The rising prominence of music on campus attracted the attention of the college administration, and in 1905 Williams appointed its first director of music, Sumner Salter, a noted organist, choirmaster, and composer. Salter’s responsibilities included directing the Chapel Choir, which provided music at religious services, and overseeing the Glee Club, though the Glee Club’s director remained one of its student members.
In 1923, Salter was succeeded by Charles Louis “Tommy” Safford, class of 1892, who continued to promote and encourage music at Williams. Most significantly, in response to student demand, Safford began the first academic course in music in 1927. In 1939, Safford was succeeded by composer and choral director Robert Barrow, who greatly expanded the music faculty and eventually helped to establish the music major.
Barrow additionally transformed the music scene by introducing a cappella to the College, harnessing student interest in singing contemporary numbers and songs from musical comedies. In 1940, Barrow held auditions to expand the College’s Glee Club Quartet, which had performed lighter repertoire during breaks in Glee Club concerts, into a more prominent eight-person group. The group, the Williams Octet, is among the oldest few a cappella groups in the nation and was led in its early years by C. L. Safford ’41, Warren Hunke ’42, and George Lawrence ’43. Clad in coat and tails, they sang original arrangements on campus as well as at sister colleges in the state.
During the Second World War, the V-12 Navy College Training Program took root at Williams and commissioned 1,076 naval officers who attended Williams on a fast-tracked two-year timetable. During this time, morning military exercises (including songs) continued the musical tradition until the program ended in 1945. Meanwhile, the Octet flourished until the mid-1950s, when interest gave way to jazz groups, most notably Phinney’s Favorite Five, which evolved into the Williams Reunion Jazz Band, still active today. Two other a cappella groups, however, formed in the immediate aftermath of the Octet’s demise. In the fall of 1955, nine first-years, led by Kem Bawden ’59, Brad Smith ’59, and Jack Hyland ’59, started the Ephlats. The group only lasted two years, though its vacancy was quickly filled by the Overweight Eight, another group of nine led by David Paresky ’60. The Overweight Eight eventually disappeared when its members graduated, however not before another group of enterprising Ephs (led by John Conner ’63 and Richard Mitchell ’63) re-started the Ephlats. Today the Ephlats is the longest-running a cappella group at Williams.
Over the next two decades, Williams arguably underwent its greatest change in more than a century, greatly affecting the music scene on campus. The abolition of fraternities effectively ended informal singing around the houses, and song became the preserve of athletic teams and organized musical groups. In 1967, the Music Department merged the Glee Club and Chapel Choir into a new Choral Society. The admission of women to the college a few years later additionally affected the choir by ending the long-running tradition of joint concerts with choral groups from women’s colleges. At the same time, the Choral Society also began including community members in its ranks. The Chamber Singers, a group of students chosen from the Choral Society, performed Renaissance-era a cappella music. With the admission of women, singing became a coed activity almost immediately, with the Ephlats accepting their first cohort of female singers. By this time, however, the Ephlats ceased to be an a cappella group, having incorporated guitars and percussion into its arrangements.
Contemporary a cappella returned to campus in 1975 by way of Octet alumni reunion concerts, instigated by Henry “Heinie” Greer ’22 and organized by Warren Hunke ’42, one of the early Octet members. The first such reunion returned seventeen voices, and their third reunion in 1977 inspired sophomores Mike Battey ’80 and Stephen “Chico” Colella ’80 to establish a new Williams Octet (with conspicuously more than eight members), which continues to this day. A year later, Ephoria was founded by Kristan Dale Zimmerman ’81 and Kyle Doherty Hodgkins ’81 as an all-female counterpart to the re-established Octet, performing frequently at the Log (and sometimes with the Octet itself). In the 1980’s and 1990’s Williams saw the establishment of further contemporary a cappella groups, including the Springstreeters (all-male, established in 1980 by Malcolm Kirk ’83), the Accidentals (all-female, 1988 by Lisa Kaestner ’91, Louise Price ’91, Caitlin Osborne ’91, and Brienne Colby ’91), and Good Question (coed, founded in 1995 by Erica Kates ’98 and Bryan Frederick ’98). The Elizabethans, a group specializing in Renaissance sacred and secular a cappella music, was founded in 1994 by Kirsten Rose ’94, David Markus ’94, and Kate Marquis ’96 and ceased performing in 2014. During these decades students also formed singing groups that performed music outside the traditional pop genres. The first of these was Essence, a coed gospel and R&B group active between 1974 and 1991. In 1986, the Gospel Choir, which continues to this day, was established to perform music from African-American religious traditions. In 1999, Plat’num, an all-black R&B a cappella group was founded, performing until 2001, when it disbanded after its members graduated.
Coinciding with the enormous surge in popularity of a cappella singing in the 1990s, the Choral Society ceased to have a permanent director. This led to a decline in student participation and interest and the ensemble’s eventual disbandment in 1998, thereby leaving the Chamber Choir as the only Music Department-sponsored choral group on campus. However, the appointment of Brad Wells as permanent director of choral ensembles led to a resurgence, and in 2000 the Concert Choir, an all-student group, was formed to fill the void left by the Choral Society.
Today, Williams continues its rich tradition in singing, primarily through its choral and a cappella groups and the odd game-time performances on the athletic pitches. If anything, the tradition seems to be growing. The six a cappella groups that have been around for decades (Accidentals, Ephoria, Ephlats, Good Question, Octet, and Springstreeters) have recently been supplemented by the founding of three additional groups: the Aristocows, which perform Disney songs; Far Ephs Movement, performing Asian popular music; and Purple Rain, a hip-hop and R&B a cappella group.