A Brief History

The Beginning

On Sunday evening, December 20, 1931, under the auspices of the Sandy Bay Historical Society, a community concert of Old Christmas Carols was presented at the First Congregational Church in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Singers from four choral groups – the Community Carol Choir, the Finnish Choir, led by Miss Vieno Hendrickson, the High School French Club, and the Swedish Glee Club directed by Ernest A. Nelson – joined together under the baton of Miss Alice F. York, music director of the Rockport schools. The organist was Mr. Joseph K. Dustin. An estimated 700 people from Rockport, Lanesville, and Pigeon Cove crowded the church and listened to a beautiful and varied program of ancient carols. According to reviews published the following day in the Gloucester Daily Times, the concert was “a very pronounced success” and “entirely a local affair …no outside persons assisted.” Further, the hope was expressed “that such a carol concert may become a part of each Christmas season in Rockport.”

In his introductory remarks, the chairman of the Historical Society’s program committee, Dr. Frank K. Sanders, former dean of Yale Divinity School, explained the origin and development of carol music and noted that the evening’s program included carols from seven countries. Dr. Sanders conveyed the indebtedness of the Historical Society to all who had helped to make the occasion a successful one, stating that Mrs. Arthur Rogers, in particular, was “far and away responsible for its completeness and charm.”

Inspired by such a favorable response of the community, the Community Carol Choir formally reorganized on October 27, 1932, and changed its name to Rockport Community Chorus. A simple constitution was adopted and a purpose stated: To further the “development of community choral singing for the pleasure of the members and the community.” Dr. Sanders became the first president, and the following people were elected to serve with him on the governing board: David McD. Martin, Mrs. Helen W. Rogers, Mrs. Alice Norton, Miss Carolyn Standley, Miss Annie Heald, George Mills, Ernest Nelson, Galen Perrett, and Frank W. Tarr. The November 1932 meeting of the Sandy Bay Historical Society formally recognized the Rockport Community Chorus as a separate organization and voted “to extend their goodwill to the new organization and to loan the Chorus their valuable collection of Christmas carols.” It was also reported that “the Chorus had furnished a fine program of music for the Rockport George Washington Bi-centennial Celebration mass meeting on July 13, 1932.”

The Rockport Community Chorus soon became a well-known cultural entity in Rockport and throughout Cape Ann. It invited singers of all ages, talents, and means. In 1932, an article in the Gloucester Daily Times helped spread the word by stating that “local singers who have a reasonable knowledge of music and who are interested in joining should make their desires known …there are no fees for active members. So far, all expenses for music and other items have been met by voluntary contributions.” Despite a limited budget, concerts – and especially those at Christmas – were always elaborate community affairs. As many as 200 singers from several choruses often cooperated in producing these events. The Christmas programs included less-familiar carols as well as old favorites, and the audience was usually invited to sing along. A letter describing one listener’s feelings was received after the Christmas concert in 1939 by Alice M. Marr, then secretary of the executive committee. The letter raved: “Two eyes, two ears, one thinking machine, and one pumping heart seemed hardly enough for me to take it all in.”

Early Patrons and Performances

After the first five years, the Rockport Community Chorus had grown in size and concerts were no longer assisted by other choral groups. Instead, they often featured outstanding guest artists. Great encouragement and support was received from the talents and active patronage of a large number of Rockport summer residents who were often deeply involved in music or the arts. Dr. and Mrs. T. Tertius Noble, for example, lived on Old Garden Beach every summer. Dr. Noble, an internationally known composer and choirmaster who was organist of St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City, was frequently a guest organist at summer concerts in Rockport. The Chorus sang his compositions under his direction, including “Fierce Was the Wild Billow,” a favorite presented for the first time in 1935. Dr. Noble was made a life-time member of the Rockport Community Chorus in 1935.

In 1934, the first of many varied music festivals was brought to the North Shore by Mrs. William Arms Fisher, a summer resident of Rockport and President of the American Choral & Festival Alliance. In cooperation with Mayor George H. Newell of Gloucester, the Gloucester Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion, and the North Shore Arts Association, Mrs. Fisher arranged a musical fete on Labor Day weekend that was to be remembered for many years to come. For the occasion, Mayor Newell, a music lover himself, equipped Stage Fort Park in Gloucester with benches and seats for 2,000 people as well as with lighting, which the Gloucester Daily Times described as “arranged to add to the picture of melody.” Mrs. Fisher mobilized the Rockport Community Chorus, the Gloucester Festival Choir, the Bradford & Boxford Oratorio Society, the Portsmouth Male Glee Club, as well as choral societies from Lynn, Salem, Beverly, and Gloucester. They performed individually and then joined forces in a program of choral favorites, accompanied by an orchestra of 45. Various national groups, such as the 60-voice Portuguese Chorus of Boston, well known from radio appearances, and a 100-voice chorus under the direction of Countess Ronaska, performing with the American Legion Band, participated in the event. Choral numbers were interspersed with folk dancing by Italian, Ukranian, and Swedish dance groups.

Mrs. Fisher had great plans for Cape Ann: “Stage Fort Park may develop as a summer concert bowl, as it surpasses in natural adaptability all other outdoor stadiums in the United States and can be made a mecca . . . the great Festival of New England which will attract hundreds of musicians to the Cape . . . in the natural bowl against a drop curtain of majestic granite, where thousands will gather to hear Symphonies by the Sea.” — A grand vision for a grand place where talent abounds!

Another generous supporter of the Chorus was Laura Danziger Rosebault of New York City, a concert pianist and composer. At a July 1937 concert, Mrs. Rosebault played a group of piano solos from the works of Gluck, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Chopin. A 50-voice Rockport Community Chorus sang an original composition of Mrs. Rosebault, which she wrote to the ballad “For a Country Church” by Ruth Langland Holberg of Rockport. Mrs. Rosebault also set to music the poem “Three White Geese” by Miss Elsie Rehmann of Rockport.

In the sobering circumstances of the Second World War, the executive board of the Chorus decided to continue the concerts to help raise the spirit of the community, but the scope of the activities was necessarily curtailed. One memorable Christmas concert during this period featured a brass quartet from the American Legion Band playing from the belfry of the First Congregational Church for fifteen minutes before the start of the concert.

Music Directors and Accompanists

The Chorus has always had the good fortune of attracting people of superior talent and commitment to its ranks. Many members of the Chorus are professional musicians, music educators, and performers, even though the Chorus has always been and remains to this day a true community chorus, with open enrollment for anyone who is interested.

Miss Alice F. York, the first director, was a music teacher in the Rockport schools. For years to come, her former students remembered her for always requesting “the Kate Smith ending” for God Bless America. In 1933, Miss York passed the baton to Mr. Arthur B. Keene of Lynn, a well-known and admired musician throughout the state of Massachusetts, whose many musical commitments included the directorship of the People’s Choral Union, the Isabel Arnold Dame Music Club of Medford, the Middlesex Women’s Club Chorus of Lowell, the Garfield Morgan Male Chorus, the North Shore Festival Chorus, the Lynn Choral Society, and the Salem Oratorio Society. In December of 1952, the latter two organizations joined the Rockport Community Chorus for a unique concert presenting Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” in Lynn, Salem, and Rockport. A joint venture was repeated the following Christmas when the three groups together performed Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” All told, Mr. Keene led the chorus for more than 20 years, until he retired in 1954 due to ill health.

Mrs. Hannah Randall Grover, who was made a life-time member of the Chorus in 1935, faithfully accompanied the Chorus during the early years. Mrs. Grover was an organist who also played most of the stringed instruments and tuned pianos! In 1939, Mrs. Linda Ekman Liffler took over from Mrs. Grover. Mrs. Liffler was sometimes joined by Gertrude Marshall Speck in four-handed renditions. Mrs. Liffler, a former summer resident who moved to Rockport permanently in 1937, had contributed to previous Chorus concerts as guest pianist. She had also been training the children’s chorus.

Until 1950, accompanists of the Chorus were not paid for their services.

After Mr. Keene’s retirement in 1954, Mr. Edwin B. Stube, then a seminary student, served as director until Easter, 1957. At his final concert with the Chorus, he presented English, Finnish, and Swedish choral works, sung in the native languages, the Swedish selections being Mr. Stube’s original compositions. For these concerts, Mr. Stube relied heavily on the talents of chorus members Dorothy Soini and Robert Natti as soloists. While past patrons and directors, such as Dr. Noble and Mr. Keene, with their wide range of contacts in the musical world, had engaged from time to time the services of performers from outside the Chorus and the community, Mr. Stube relied more on local talents and encouraged members to meet the challenges presented by chosen programs of music. Mr. Stube was replaced in 1957 by Mr. John D. Murray, who conducted the Chorus for four years.

Sonja Dahlgren Pryor was engaged as Music Director in 1961 and this marked the beginning of the Chorus’ modern era. Under Ms. Pryor’s direction, the singers’ continued growth in competence and numbers allowed for a broadened repertoire, beginning with God’s Trombones by Johnson and Ringwald some 40 years ago, and continuing with challenging works such as Vivaldi’s Gloria, the modern Peaceable Kingdom by Randall Tompson, Schubert’s Mass in G, Mozart’s Missa Brevis in C Major, Haydn’s Creation, Orff’s Carmina Burana, Brahm’s Requiem, Verdi’s Requiem, and Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.

Ms. Pryor was joined in 1963 by accompanist Lois Steele Clapp, who served as the Chorus’ accompanist into the early 1980s. In 1983, Robert F. Littlefield, a prominent figure in the North Shore music world, became accompanist and serves as such to this day. Mr. Littlefield, who holds a Bachelor and a Master of Arts degree in Music from the New England Conservatory of Music, also serves as Music Director and organist at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, and accompanies the Cantemus Chamber Chorus, the Unitarian Church Choir, as well as three choruses from the Briscoe School in Beverly. Mr. Littlefield frequently surprises auditioning soloists with his musical genius by playing strictly from memory the piano accompaniment to arias they have chosen for their audition.

Community Spirit, Past and Present

From the very start, the community and the Chorus have always supported each other. Singers have freely joined, departed when necessary, and then joined again. A unique characteristic of the Chorus is the members’ comaraderie. If somebody is ill and needs assistance, Chorus members have been known to organize an almost around-the-clock support system that includes cooking, baby-sitting, cleaning, even paying bills that are past-due. The social life of the group seems to enhance rather than detract from the serious work involved in preparing for challenging concerts. Back in the 1930’s, singers enjoyed a long succession of teas and benefits at the Blacksmith Shop, given by the Collins family, as well as dinners and social hours provided by members before and after rehearsals or concerts. The latter tradition continues to this day.

The community has always responded generously to the Chorus, and the Chorus has reciprocated. Throughout its history, the Chorus has given many concerts dedicated to benefit other organizations, such as The Rockport Lodge, the St. Joachim’s Church Building Fund, Trinity Congregational Church in Gloucester, the Motif No.1 Day Celebration, Rockport Board of Trade events, the Rockport Red Cross Chapter, and the Gloucester PTA, to name only a few. A recent survey showed that members were giving some 210 hours/month of volunteer time to over 18 organizations on the North Shore.

For many years, the Chorus presented two concerts each year and organized innumerable community sing-alongs as well as “Old Folks Concerts” to raise money for the organization. In 1953, for example, Signe Burnham supervised the “Gay 90’s” costuming of several Old Folks evenings and staged a fund raiser entitled “Ye Olde Synging Skule.” The program was presented in “ye High Skule Hall, and ye loud-voiced syngers were under the direction of ye synging master Reuben Hezikiah Orne.”

While the Chorus looks back each year with reverence to the first Christmas concert of 1931, carols have long been replaced with larger seasonal works such as Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah. Conducting the Messiah is a special treat to Ms. Pryor who ranks Handel’s work among her favorites. Some say that at no other time is the affection and respect which flows between Ms. Pryor and the Chorus more evident. As a former singer and music educator, James Davison, once put it: “She is the magic!” Many would agree, yet Ms. Pryor never rests on her laurels, but readily passes any praise on to the Chorus. Following a Messiah concert at La Salette Shrine in Ipswich, Ms. Pryor was interviewed by the Gloucester Daily Times, but seemed reluctant to talk about herself: “I am more concerned that you get a good plug in for the Chorus,” she said enthusiastically. “We require no auditions – everybody is most welcome.” — This is community spirit at its best!


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