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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 25, 2010
A century of song: Women raise their voices in harmony for the holidays and ring in the season
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
Sweet notes linger in the air as two kind women sing a Czech Christmas carol.
“Sleep, baby, sleep…God’s holy one,” they sing.
“It’s very soft, a lullaby, Mary singing to Jesus,” says Bernie LaGoy.
She and Ann Tetrault sing with the Thursday Musical Club and are preparing for the annual Christmas concert.
Both recall the satisfaction of singing lullabies to their own children.
LaGoy says, “When you see them begin to close their eyes “
“It’s very comforting,” her friend finishes the sentence for her.
Tetrault recalls how she loved to sing to her only grandchild, Kendyl, who is now “15 going on 30.”
“I would hold her and rock her, and sing to her,” she says a bit wistfully and then, brightening, adds, “I have a little girl at the church I sing to now.”
Tetrault pulls from her purse a picture of her blonde and beautiful granddaughter.
LaGoy pulls from her purse a picture of four Taiwanese children, splendid in traditional attire. She is a literacy volunteer and is teaching the children’s mother English.
One of the club’s traditions is that members can dedicate the songs to someone.
“I grabbed the Spanish one,” LaGoy said of the carol, “A La Nanita Nana,” a lively tune.
It is being dedicated to the oldest of LaGoy’s 10 grandchildren, Matthew, because he is studying Spanish.
The women preparing for their concert are part of a living, breathing and singing tradition that goes back nearly a century.
The Thursday Musical Club was founded in 1913 by the wives of General Electric executives. They lived in the mansions that still stand today in the General Electric Realty Corporation Plot near Ellis Hospital.
“These were society ladies,” said Tetrault. “It seems odd in Schenectady.”
But Schenectady was a burgeoning industrial city then. General Electric, which sprung from Thomas Edison’s company, was one of the original dozen companies on the newly formed Dow Jones Industrial Average at the turn of the century. And GE’s founding of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to further the use of international radio was just six years off.
The ladies of the club took turns on Thursdays holding rehearsals in their luxurious homes; hence, the club’s name.
This was an era when the Ziegfeld Follies were playing in New York, and the premier of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused riots in Paris.
Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States, and Americans were humming songs like “Danny Boy” and “You Made Me Love You.”
The musical club has performed two concerts each year for nine decades and, although styles have changed, the heart of the club female camaraderie through raising voices together has remained the same.
Club members, who now come from throughout the Capital Region, practice on Wednesday mornings. “The lunch bunch” goes out to eat and socialize after rehearsal.
“The women are so caring and loving,” said Tetrault. “Our joy comes in making music together.”
Membership has declined in recent years to 35 today. The club had about 50 members when Tetrault joined a quarter of a century ago, she said. “We do have two young people who do work,” she said. “We’d like to get more members and encourage younger women to join.”
She leafs through a hefty three-ring binder as she recounts the club’s history. She has listed all 10 of the choir’s directors; most all of them were men. The current director, since 2003, is Julie Panke, who was trained at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Wisconsin and at the University at Buffalo.
There have been a dozen accompanists in the club’s history. Currently, Elinore Farnum accompanies the chorus on both piano and organ.
While the club’s very first concert was given in the ballroom of the Old Mohawk Golf Club on Troy Road, then considered a long two miles from town at Trolley Stop 5, concerts in recent years have been held in a number of venues. This year’s Christmas concert will be given at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady’s historic Stockade.
“A real warm fuzzy”
Long-time friends and club members Ann Tetrault and Bernie LaGoy exemplify the spirit of the singers. Both have a French Canadian heritage, both attend Our Lady of Fatima Church, and both worked as teachers.
Music is important to them.
LaGoy is the youngest of 12 children and remembers singing in church growing up and then as part of a high school group.
“My mother, God bless her, sang in French,” she said.
“I’ve always loved to sing,” said Tetrault. She didn’t sing a lot as a child, though. “I had such a high lyric soprano, I couldn’t sing with anyone. My mother and sister were altos. I thought I was a freak. My father always encouraged me to sing.”
Tetrault was the first person in her family to go to college and worked her way through Siena, majoring in English because she loved to write.
When her children had grown, Tetrault looked for a choir to sing with and is glad she found the Thursday Musical Club.
“It’s a very loving, embracing group,” said Tetrault. “There isn’t a single one I wouldn’t hug.”
“When we get overwhelmed with all we’re doing,” confided LaGoy, “we say, ‘I don’t want to quit the club. I can’t.’”
Last week, the pair eagerly described the selections for the upcoming concert, occasionally breaking out into song to illustrate their points.
“We open with the “Hallelujah” chorus from the Messiah,” said Tetreault.
“You wake everybody up with that,” said LaGoy.
At the center of the concert is a series of carols from around the world Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, and Sweden.
The Swedish song, “Tryggve Eeg-Olofsson” about Advent will be sung in Swedish; the others have been translated into English.
The opening line of the Swedish carol is, “Langtan lor min sjal ibland bort till fjarran Osterland,” which translates as, “My soul in longing takes its flight to the Bible’s world of light.”
“It’s very stimulating,” said Tetrault of singing in another language. “You start to think in terms of the original words and singers.”
“It’s about the preparation for Christmas,” said LaGoy.
The Swedish song is translated in the program, and the words of the other songs are included, too, so that people can sing along. “Ernie would say, ‘Fake it,’” said Tetrault, with a chuckle, referring to her husband, the well-known, retired local television newsman.
The women will also sing Beryl Price’s suite of five carols, “Shepherds and Angels.”
“They are familiar and yet unfamiliar,” said Tetrault. “They have mystery. You’re singing about angels in the realm of glory and she transitions into something else.”
Over the years, the winter concerts have included Jewish songs and African songs as well.
“We do everything from classical to pop,” said LaGoy. “We always end with “Adeste Fideles.”
The women remember with particular fondness the Christmas concert in 2001, just months after the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11. The concert was held at the Union College chapel that year, and the crowd stood and joined in the singing of “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
“Everybody stood,” recalled LaGoy, “and it made this booming sound.”
“The word there was joyful,” said Tetrault. “They just loved getting up and being part of this. It becomes a real warm fuzzy.”
The tradition of handbells for the Thursday Musical Club is a half-century old, but the history of the bells they ring goes back many, many centuries.
“Bells have been used for all sorts of community service, going way back,” says Judy Brackett Moore, who has directed the Thursday Belles for four years. Bells, she points out, have sounded the hour, raised the alarm for fire, and drawn worshippers to church.
England has a history, dating back to the 17th Century, of change ringing, that is, ringing a set of bells in a church tower in a series of mathematical patterns called “changes.”
“The communities did not appreciate the practicing, clanging out over the town,” said Moore, so handbells were developed to practice more quietly.
Handbells became particularly popular in England during World War II when church bells were to be rung only to signify an invasion.
Margaret Shurcliff brought handbells to the United States in 1902, according to Overtones, the official journal of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers. The general manager of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry presented her with 10 handbells after she completed two change ringing peals in one day; each lasted two-and-a-half hours.
According to the Thursday Musical Club, member Helen Henshaw introduced handbells to the northeastern United States in 1960 when she returned from Europe with a set of Whitechapel bells. Club members have been using them ever since.
“Helen Henshaw was a formidable lady, a mover and shaker,” said Moore. “She heard handbells in Europe. And the rest is history. When Helen Henshaw made up her mind to do something, it got done and done in fine style.”
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London is the oldest manufacturing company in Great Britain. A continuous line of master founders goes back to the early 1400s.
Churches around the world have bells cast by Whitechapel, including many of those named in the children’s song, “Oranges and Lemons.” Whitechapel also cast, in 1752, the bell that became known as the Liberty Bell. It cracked when it was locally recast before its use in the proclamation of American independence from Britain. For America’s bicentennial, Whitechapel cast a replacement.
The Thursday Belles ring just under five octaves of hand bells. “We own 60 bells, from little-bitty bells to the big ones we use a bell platform for,” said Moore.
Thirteen women ring the bells; each is responsible for what, on a piano, would be two white keys and all the accidentals. The bell choir acts as one instrument with each ringer responsible for her particular notes, sounding her assigned bells whenever the score calls for it.
“Each woman has her own score,” said Moore. “It looks just like a piano score. You have to find your note within it. There’s a big blob of black ink on the page; there could be 25 notes ringing at any one time. It’s mind-boggling.”
Moore went on, “If someone is absent, there’s no one to play that part. It’s not like a choir where you can sing louder to make up for an absence.”
The Belles are experienced, not just with their own notes, but in working together. “A lot of these women have been ringing together for 30 years,” said Moore. The newest member has been with the group for three months.
According to Tetrault, Moore has taken the Thursday Belles to a new level. “Judy’s a professional,” she said.
Tetrault said most of the singers used to ring bells, too. Now just a few do both. The Thursday Belles will perform as guest artists at the Dec. 13 concert.
Moore has been directing bell choirs for 25 years. She started because her daughter was in a high-school bell choir and the director left. She had a degree in music education and was told, “If you don’t come, the bells fold,” Moore recalled. She took on the task and has since gotten “lots and lot of training” as a member of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers.
“The main purpose of the Thursday Belles is outreach,” Moore said. The Belles perform at retirement facilities, schools, and libraries “wherever we’re asked,” said Moore.
The group rehearses on Wednesday afternoons and welcomes new members.
“We are a performance choir,” said Moore. “We take great pride in what we do.”
Moore enthusiastically discussed the songs that the Thursday Belles will perform on Dec. 3. The selections will range from the Medieval “In Dulci Jubilo,” more commonly known as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” to Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas song,” which begins, “Chestnuts roasting on the open fire….”
“In Dulci Jubilo,” Moore said, incorporates “Greensleeves” and the Thursday Belles will perform it with Choirchimes. “They have a more mellow sound and add rich texture,” she said. “It’s almost as though someone has begun to play the organ with it.”
“The Shepherd’s Song,” Moore said, is based on the biblical story and follows it so closely that it is one of the few hymns that Puritans were allowed to sing at Christmas.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” will be “rung by merry gentlewomen,” said Moore with a light laugh. The only difference she sees in directing an all-female handbell choir is that the sizes of the largest bells pose a problem for the women. Dan Brudos, the husband of one of the Belles, Anita Brudos, constructed a special platform to ease the way.
“‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ almost stands us on our heads and makes us juggle the bells,’ said Moore. “It’s a barn-burner type piece.”
One of Moore’s favorite features of the program over the years is the sing-alongs. “It starts with traditional carols. The Belles perform in the middle. And its followed by more light-hearted tunes,” Moore said of the concert program.
She went on, “‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is always outrageous. We assign the numbers in a random selection…For example, rows two through eight have the third day of Christmas, so those rows stand up and sing their parts….People bring red, blinking noses and antlers for ‘Rudolph,’ and for ‘Jingle Bells,’ they shake their key chains.
“One gentlemen in his nineties has been to every one,” she concluded. “People look forward to the carol sing all year long.”
The Thursday Club’s Christmas Concert will be held on Friday, Dec. 3, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, at 8 North Church Street in the historic Stockade.
General admission is $12 with a two-dollar discount for seniors and students.