“Harvard should exert control over the music played at academic ceremonies,” recommended John Sullivan Dwight, A.B. 1832, for 20 years president and resident librarian of the Harvard Musical Association. In 1859 he observed ironically in his minutes: “The Brigade Band played very well on Wednesday at Commencement… but…as the loud martial strains rang out across the plain…one who heard it in the distance must have had difficulty in conceiving of a train of meek and gowned professors keeping step behind such whooping and defiant blasts.”
The question of whether there are any “meek” professors in 2000 is moot: our “gowned” professors, however, today find themselves happily enveloped in harmonious strains. “Music is essential in the Commencement Exercises,” stresses University Marshal Richard M. Hunt, who is in charge of the proceedings. “We have six different set pieces of music punctuating the morning exercises.”
In fact, even before the official exercises are called to order, music has begun to curl through the day, thanks to the various bagpipes, Dixieland bands, flutes, drums, and harmonicas that accompany the House contingents on their way to Memorial Church for the early morning senior-class chapel service. While the rowdy singing of hymns echoes inside the church, outside—on the Tercentenary Theatre side of University Hall—the Harvard University Band warms its instruments and the Commencement choristers their voices.
After opening with the popular march Our Director, with its attention-getting trumpet fanfare, the band plays almost an hour of Harvard songs as members of the audience take their seats. “As the president’s party approaches the John Harvard statue, a student runner alerts me to start drum flourishes,” says band director Thomas G. Everett, who will be celebrating his twenty-eighth Commencement this June. “And when the president enters Tercentenary Theatre”—a band scout alerts Everett and the brass ensemble waiting on the Widener steps by waving a white handkerchief—“we play Walter Piston’s Commencement Fanfare,” which the former Naumburg professor of music, a member of the class of ’24 and an honorary-degree recipient in 1952, wrote for this occasion.
Of the morning’s six musical set pieces, the first is Harvard’s equivalent of “Hail to the Chief”—the anthem “Domine, salvum fac” (“O Lord, make safe [our president]”), performed by the choir and band immediately after the opening prayer. The anthem’s official Harvard history dates to the 1863 inauguration of President Thomas Hill, for which John Knowles Paine, A.M. 1869, later the University’s first professor of music, composed a setting for chorus and full orchestra (see page 42). On Commencement day, however, when the choral and instrumental group is smaller, the version used is an 1853 setting by Charles Gounod. Introduced in 1886 for the University’s 250th anniversary, Gounod’s arrangement has been part of the morning exercises since 1947.
A second anthem, the “Alleluia” composed by Randall Thompson ’20 for Serge Koussevitsky in 1940, is sung a cappella by the Commencement Choir at the conclusion of the three student commencement “parts”: the Latin salutatory and the senior and graduate English addresses. The text is simply the repetition of the word “Alleluia”—but what repetition! What setting! Under the baton of Jameson N. Marvin, director of choral activities at the College and senior lecturer on music, who is marking his twenty-second Commencement, this praise piece lifts and rises from the choir in front of University Hall, soars, and hovers above the thousands of guests gathered in the Tercentenary Theatre before tapering away to a whisper.
In the interval between the conferral of degrees upon candidates from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and University Extension and candidates from the professional schools, a paraphrase of Psalm 78 (“Give ear, ye children, to my law”) is performed by the choir and the band. Set to the tune “St. Martin’s” and published in 1755 by William Tans’ur—a composer and editor who greatly influenced the development of New England psalmody—this piece has been sung at Harvard Commencements at least since 1806. It has not been without controversy, however, for in a letter to Harvard president Charles William Eliot, John Knowles Paine opined, “St. Martin’s is not the kind of melody for a large mass of voices, but I suppose the Alumni crave it.” They did. In his 18-volume diary, the Reverend Dr. John Pierce, A.B. 1793, for many years minister of the First Congregational Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, meticulously recorded his annual delight in setting the pitch for the psalm on his old tuning fork during the formal dinner that once brought each Commencement day to a close. In his last such entry, in 1848, he wrote, “I set the tune for the thirty-sixth time. I prefaced my setting the psalm with the remark that as time had not yet beaten me, I should beat time once more. It was remarked that St. Martin’s never went better….”
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “O, clap your hands” is usually sung just before the president confers degrees upon candidates from Harvard College, but this part of the program is flexible, reports Jameson Marvin. This year the “Centennial Hymn” of John Knowles Paine will appear instead, chosen by University organist and choirmaster Murray Forbes Somerville and offered as a Commencement gift from the student vocal groups, the band, and other friends of music. “The text and integrity of the original will be maintained,” promises Thomas Everett, and composer Gunther Schuller has been commissioned to write a second verse in which he will reharmonize Payne’s work, modernizing some chord treatments to make it richer, more contemporary, and representative of another century of growth.
When degrees have been conferred upon candidates from Harvard College to much jubilation, and honorary degrees awarded to much applause, it is time for the entire assembly to sing the “Harvard Hymn.” The creation of professor of Latin James Bradstreet Greenough, A.B. 1856, and the energetic Paine, the Latin text includes not-so-subtle references to the desirability of a university with “eruditi professores” and generous “donatores.”
Those who expect to sing “Fair Harvard,” the University’s alma mater—written by the Reverend Samuel Gilman, A.B. 1811, for the College’s bicentennial in 1836—and the ultimate academic song, “Gaudeamus igitur” (“Let us rejoice, therefore, [while we are young]”) will have to wait for that opportunity until the afternoon alumni exercises.
Instead, after the benediction has been pronounced and the meeting adjourned, the dignitaries slowly process toward Widener Library—“Pace is important in processions,” notes Thomas Everett—to the noble strains of Harold Bennett’s Military Escort. The minute the platform has cleared, the band strikes up spirited Harvard songs, the 5,000-pound College bell high in the Memorial Church steeple is rung, and the crowd breaks up while the bells of Cambridge peal in joyous tintinnabulation in a glorious town-and-gown ritual that brings the formal part of Commencement to a grand crescendo of a close.