The History of the Study of Music at Centenary
By Jennifer Gipson '02
“The students make their own music… There is
in this the useful and beautiful. It struck us, and we believe everybody
as, ‘a thing that ought to be.’”
“Although we are not going to dwell on the laurels of past glory, it is well to mention what we have done in the past.” So begins the 1924 Yoncopin report on “Musical Activities” at Centenary. In 2002, as Centenary reflects on the 150 years that have passed since the formal introduction of music courses, it is, indeed, “well to mention” the role of musical activities in the College’s rich history.
The present-day Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport traces its roots to two earlier institutions: a public school, the College of Louisiana, founded in Jackson, Louisiana, in 1825, and Centenary College, established in 1839 by the Methodist Episcopal Church South in Clinton, Mississippi. In 1845, the two colleges merged to form Centenary College of Louisiana in Jackson. The College continued to operate on the Jackson campus, interrupted only by the Civil War, until its move to Shreveport in 1908.
“On motion it was resolved that the faculty be requested
to induce the students to form a musical band to be under its direction
which shall be composed exclusively of performers from among themselves.”
Prior to the first music classes of 1852, music for enjoyment, worship, or ceremony undoubtedly graced the campuses of Centenary College of Louisiana and its predecessors. For example, in 1838, the faculty of the College of Louisiana heard the case of two students who drew knives and fought savagely after a dispute that involved one student disturbing his downstairs neighbor with his “fiddleing” practice during study hours.1 In 1850, the Board of Trustees laid the foundation for a formal music program at Centenary when they resolved that “the faculty be requested to induce the students to form a musical band….”2
In 1852, Centenary welcomed its first music professor, A.E. Blackmar, hailed as “a gentleman of high moral worth, and a musician of universal genius.”3 The Trustees resolved that he would receive no salary, depending solely on the music tuition charges that the faculty would approve.4 Professor Blackmar quickly won the favor of many members of the Centenary community at the multi-day commencement exercises of 1852. Performances of Blackmar’s instrumental and vocal ensembles offered a welcomed change of pace to hot and tired audience members who endured a barrage of speeches in both English and Latin (including honorary degree recipient Charles Gayarré’s one-hour impromptu address).5
The solemn charm of the occasion was not even broken by the “music.” Usually at Commencements the first note of the scraping bow quite dissipates the moral and the intellectual. Four or five red faces and greasy fiddles—looking like a tattered remnant of the Old Guard—have, time out of mind, constituted the sauce of these literary feasts. On this occasion the exercises were relieved alternately by a choir of ladies and students, an orchestra, and a brass band, both composed exclusively of College students, under the conduct of Mr. A.E. Blackmar. The orchestra consisted of nine violins, four flutes, and a clarinet; the brass band of twelve horns, a piccolo and drum. I noticed that several of the graduating class were performers. The music was of admirable time and expression, though the students have been practicing only since February last. Two years ago the Trustees voted that such a band, if possible, be formed, and money appropriated to purchase instruments. This year they have constituted a choir of vocal and instrumental music, and have elected Mr. A.E. Blackmar Professor.6
Shortly after this fulsome praise appeared in the New Orleans Christian Advocate, the paper ran an advertisement detailing the expenses for Centenary’s next session. Instruction in music was, and would long remain, optional study that could be elected at extra cost.
Expenses: September 1852
At the 1853 commencement, Centenary’s new music department again garnered great acclaim. Any description that leaves out the music that regaled the Commencement, would be unfair and imperfect. The college, at its own expense, ordered, two years ago, the purchase of instruments for a full brass band, and elected a competent gentleman, Mr. Blackmar—well designated in the catalogue as professor—to superintend and instruct in this department. That, from such young and raw material he can and has trained such an orchestra and brass band, is astonishing. The students make their own music, and it not only enlivens and adorns their public exhibitions, but it is to them personally no mean accomplishment and development. There is in this the useful and beautiful. It struck us, and we believe everybody as, “a thing that ought to be.”7
Though Professor Blackmar resigned officially in 1855,8 Centenary’s musical offerings continued. An 1855 program shows that Professors Kroll and Hebestreet led the 1855 College Brass Band in a “Grand Concert” followed by a fireworks display. However, fireworks of another kind—sparked by sectional and political tensions—soon swept across the nation. The 18619 resignation of W.J. Crerar, Professor of Vocal and Instrumental Music since 1858,10 was of little consequence. The first shots of the Civil War rang out at Fort Sumpter in April of 1861, and the Minutes of the Board of Trustees from October 7, 1861 succinctly described the College’s situation: Students have all gone to war. College suspended and God help the right!
Hearts of the South; though peace no more
The onset of the Civil War halted the College’s operations but not its musical influence. After his departure from the College, Professor Blackmar founded a music publishing company, and, in 1861 printed an arrangement of a poem written by a Centenary student from South Carolina. The excessively maudlin song, “I Cannot, Cannot Say Farewell,” expresses the student’s doleful lament upon leaving the Jackson campus. Professor Blackmar, a New York native,12 rallied behind the South, and took advantage of the wartime market for nationalistic Confederate songs. Blackmar composed a musical arrangement to “God and Our Rights,” a poem by 1861 Centenary graduate William M. Johnson dedicated “To the Friends of Southern Independence.”13 Centenary’s first music professor also published several editions of the still-famous “Bonnie Blue Flag,” prophetically advertising it as a “popular song destined to become a national air of the South.”14
The fervor of Southern patriotism soon abated, leaving in its wake the horror of war and its aftermath. Classes met again in 1866, but the College languished in a state of “financial embarrassments.”15 Lack of documentation from this time period makes it difficult to determine when and to what extent formal instruction in music resumed in the postwar years. By 1889-90, the College offered vocal—but not instrumental—study.16 In the absence of College ensembles, the 1892 Board of Trustees allocated $25 to hire musicians for commencement.17 During its last two decades on the Jackson campus, the College employed other voice instructors and, by the 1895-96 announcements mentions a “Course of Instruction in Vocal Music,” which any student could elect at extra cost. At the turn of the century, Centenary faced declining enrollment and shaky finances. A proposed move to Shreveport offered a glimmer of hope for the struggling College’s future. Classes met for the last time on the Jackson campus in 1907.18
“Provision will be made for the instruction in music
Centenary opened on its present-day campus in 1908. However even a cursory glance at early Shreveport catalogues shows that little besides physical location parallels the College we know today.
…Students will not be permitted to leave the College ground day or night, without permission. We believe that the moral influences in Shreveport and vicinity, are as good as in any other city of the country. There are no saloons in Shreveport. It is a prohibition city.19
The 1909-10 announcements declared, “The purpose of our school is to develop a fine type of manhood,”20 but reserved music offerings for the “young ladies.” However, the next year’s catalogue extended the invitation to male students as well. Mrs. Rebekah Ellison Johnston, the accomplished wife of the Dean, will be prepared to give instruction in music to such young ladies who may wish to receive it. She will also give instrumental or vocal training to young men who may desire to avail themselves of such an opportunity…21
It seems that some male students did “avail themselves of such an opportunity” for the catalogue of 1910-11 mentions a Glee Club under Mrs. Johnston’s direction. By the early 1920s, the College even employed a director of brass band and orchestra.22 Furthermore, the Centenary Quartette would fast become a favorite of the community, and, in 1925, the Shreveport Journal proclaimed it “the best amateur number to appear on any local stage.”23
Press reports from all over the state were very favorable,
In the 1920s, under the presidency of Dr. George S. Sexton, the College erected many new structures, including a wood-frame building on the South corner of campus (near the present-day site of Smith Building) that would soon become home to the Department of Music. Finally, in 1923, “…Music, as a Department, was taken up in earnest and a very talented young lady, Miss Catherine McComb, undertook the task of putting over a real program for the year…”24 Miss McComb, the Director of Music, led a Glee Club for male students as well as a choral ensemble for women. While Centenary was still a few years away from awarding an actual degree in music, the departmental offerings served as electives and, by 1924, could be counted toward a Certificate in Music. 25
Looking back on the Music Department’s early years in Shreveport, the 1935 Yoncopin proclaimed, “The value of group playing in securing facility, development of sound musicianship and keen sense of rhythm, have long been recognized by Centenary College.”26 Indeed, ensembles abounded, and among the best known was the Centenary Band whose morale-boosting music won the hearts of the football team and fans.
At every game the band was there and sounded off, filing the air with
music and making each heart light. Those were the great old days, when
the spirited playing of the band announced that Centenary had made another
touchdown. The band soon became an auxiliary to the team, for on several
trips the band went along to show the foreigners we were all behind the
Though the triumphant days of a Centenary’s football team and marching band are now a thing of the past, any Centenary student dedicated to the study of music has shared one common experience: a unique appreciation of the oft-dreaded concept of “practice.” Indeed, many a music student has gained insight into (and perhaps a certain doubt of) the school’s motto Labor Omnia Vincit (Work Conquers All). The practice requirements in the 1928-29 catalogue are a reminder of a more regimented—and supervised—practice system.
“It was brought out at this time that it would be necessary
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Centenary’s music department evolved from a conglomeration of ensembles and optional private instruction to a formal degree-granting program with an academic mission. The College first awarded Bachelor of Music degrees in 1931,31 the same year that faculty minutes document a move to seek accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). Course offerings expanded greatly and, in 1936, the Centenary School of Music was granted membership in the NASM.32
However, this heightened emphasis on music as an academic discipline did not preclude the development of popular music ensembles, most notably Kollege Kapers. This wildly popular variety show, begun in 1933, featured comedians, dancers, vocalists, instrumentalists, comedy skits, magicians, and ensembles. Mr. B.P. Causey—who conducted Centenary’s band from 1941-1981, leaving only for military service during World War II—fondly remembers his time as the director of Kapers. “We had a lot of fun. We traveled all over. It was a big deal, and more people wanted us to come than we could accommodate.” In spite of its early successes, Kollege Kapers faded out by the late 1940s.
On the other hand, the Band’s popularity did not waiver. In 1938, they traveled widely in the southern U.S. and even enjoyed a “historic” trip to California. Furthermore, “The year  started off with many innovations, six to be exact, for much to the disgust of the male members of the band, a half dozen girls were added to increase the quantity if not the quality of music produced.”33 1939 brought even more change when the band was placed under the direction of the School of Music and longtime-conductor Dr. S.D. (“Doc”) Morehead, Professor of Economics and History, stepped down. The 1939 Yoncopin laments that the Band “…turned orthodox in a big way, deserting swing for symphony and becoming a bona fide college band (whatever that is) instead of a group of knocked-out musicians.”34 Soon the female band members were allowed to actually march with the rest of the band. “When I first got there [in 1941], the girls didn’t march with the band,” recollects Mr. Causey. “And I said, ‘No, that’s a lot of baloney—They do.” Without regard for instrumentation, the women, wearing white skirts, marched in front of the Band. Marching in formation was more difficult: “It got to be a problem always to get it to look right.” The years immediately after World War II saw the Centenary Band at its pinnacle as the G.I. Bill attracted an influx of students, including experienced musicians who had played in military bands during the war. Mrs. Causey remembers them fondly as an “interesting and dedicated” group. “Probably as large a band as they ever had there, we had it after the war.” As the football program deteriorated, the Band marched only for local parades and eventually became a seated ensemble.
However, the decline of football and marching band coincided with the rise of Centenary’s best-known ensemble, the Centenary College Choir. When Ralph Squires assumed leadership of the Centenary School of Music in 1941, he asked A.C. “Cheesy” Voran, then employed in student affairs, to start a touring choir—now known as the Centenary College Choir. According to Dr. Will Andress, Director since 1974 and proud Centenary Choir alum, the first Centenary College Choir (1941-42) was among the nation’s first university choirs to don modern attire instead of choir robes (dubbed “bath robes” by a Shreveport Lion’s Club Centenary Choir supporter).35 Audiences delighted in the group’s varied repertoire and innovative approach. Traveling, practicing, and socializing together fostered an enduring bond among Centenary Choir members. “The choir is a working group of friendly persons, and musicianship alone is not sufficient to complete satisfactory requirement for entrance into the organization. There must be a community of spirit and group unity,” the 1942 Yoncopin maintains.36 The Centenary Choir amassed an amazing travel log even in its first two decades: entertaining soldiers during World War II; visiting military bases in Korea and Japan in 1956; singing for Easter sunrise services in Okinawa in 1957; and performing at Radio City Music Hall four times a day for nine weeks in 1961.
The first three decades of Centenary’s School of Music gave rise to other lasting musical traditions. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Mr. Squires—whom Mr. Causey remembers as a truly “outstanding pianist”—helped to develop Centenary’s piano department. Since 1950, the College has hosted the Shreveport Symphony Nena Wideman Piano Competition, founded by former Centenary piano professor Nena Wideman. The Wideman Competition is among the oldest small piano competitions in the United States.37 The organ “the king of instruments” was not without representation on Centenary’s campus. In 1956, an Æolian-Skinner organ was installed in the Chapel and a dedication recital given by Professor William Teague in 1957.38 Also in 1957, Mr. Causey founded the Centenary summer band whose outdoor performances attracted concertgoers from Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas to the Centenary amphitheater for thirty years. Furthermore, Opera Workshop, introduced in 1963,39 continues to offer Centenary vocalists the opportunity to gain valuable musical experience.
Gradually, with an increase in its quality and popularity, the music program outgrew its 1920s wooden frame building.
If there is one name most closely associated with music study at Centenary it is that of the School of Music’s generous benefactor, Mrs. Gladys Hurley. In 1964, Centenary’s School of Music moved into new facilities, given by Mrs. Hurley in memory of her late husband, Shreveport oilman Ed E. Hurley. Here, Centenary’s music program, as we know it today, began to take shape. The music library expanded, originally occupying a modern-day downstairs classroom.40 The new recital hall offered an excellent venue for public performances.
However, Mrs. Hurley—whom Professor Emeritus of Music Ronald Dean remembers as a “very unassuming delightful little Arkansas lady”—gave much more than a building whose practice rooms and classrooms have become a second home for many music students. Through its educational mission and tradition of community enrichment, the Hurley School of Music has become a staple of the cultural life well beyond Centenary’s campus.
In 1973, the School of Music, under the direction of Dr. Frank Carroll, launched the Friends of Music Series.41 These concerts, featuring a variety of professional musicians, continue to enhance the regional musical scene. In the same year, Dr. Carroll contributed an article to Centenary, a magazine for alumni/ae, examining the goals and achievement of the thriving music department in the context of the College’s educational mission.
"The School of Music enjoys a rather special place in the scheme of things at Centenary. While firmly committed to the liberal arts ideal and happy to be a part of this venture, as a department offering a professional degree in music we are also able to encourage that degree of specialization necessary for the development and training of fine musical talents… In addition to the course offerings that make such an arrangement possible and productive, we have developed a spirit, a student body and a faculty that is dedicated to achieving significant musical and artistic success within the framework of a liberal arts institution."42
The music program’s mission remained the same, but on August 18, 1975, the Board of Trustees renamed it the Gladys F. Hurley School of Music in honor of its preeminent supporter.43 The Hurley School of Music continued to field numerous vocal and instrumental ensembles. After the decline of Kollege Kapers, jazz ensembles like the pep band and Dixieland Band had led sporadic existences. In the fall of 1976, Jazz ensemble finally emerged as a distinct course and has continued as such ever since.44 Centenary had previously hosted instrumental ensembles with student and community members, but Hurley Chamber Orchestra became a for-credit course in 197745 under the direction of Dr. Carroll. Opera Workshop performed a broad spectrum of literature, including “The Old Woman and the Pig,” an opera written by Dr. Carroll. These experiences have proved valuable for former “OpShop” students such as Karl Dent, Twyla Robinson, Timothy Jones, Margaret Williams Jones, and Martile Rowland who have gone on to operatic success. The vocal ensemble Camerata, founded in 1983, succeeded other choral chamber groups that had developed over the years.46 Camerata’s annual Christmas program attracted community interest, and the group also began to perform at Renaissance festivals. 47
With professors like Nena Wideman and Constance Knox Caroll, the piano department carried on its tradition of excellence on the foundation laid by former Director of the School of Music Ralph Squires. In the 1960s and 70s, Centenary had a student chapter of the local American Guild of Organists chapter. In 1971, Schantz installed the current organ console. The organ is now about double the size the 1956 instrument with additions by Schantz, Moller and Dan Garland.48
In 1990, the Hurley Music Library, adjacent to the School of Music, was dedicated. It is the only music library in the ArkLaTex region, and it houses several special collections: the Wayne Sanders Broadway Sheet Music Collection, the David Redwine Opera Recordings Collection, the Robert Murray Opera Score Collection, the Virginia Carlton Collection of West African Musical Instruments, and the Lewis Bettinger Soundtracks Collection.
In 2000, festivities for Centenary’s one hundred and seventy fifth anniversary highlighted plans for the College’s expansion, including the renovation of the Hurley Music Building and construction of a new Arts Complex, which was begun the following year. After thirteen years of silence, the Centenary Summer Band series also made a comeback in 2000.
In that same year, the School of Music, in concert with the Nena Wideman Piano Competition’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, launched a fundraising campaign that netted a new Steinway Concert Grand. The ribbon cutting for the stunning piano kicked off a memorable and aptly named “Monster Concert.” This daring feat of collaborative musicianship combined the talents of eight former Wideman Competition winners, accompanists, and judges, playing eight Steinway grands on the stage of the Hurley School of Music.
Based on their record of choral excellence, Camerata, directed by Dr. Julia Thorn, received a prestigious invitation to perform at the 2003 conference of MENC: The National Association for Music Education in Savannah, Georgia. Camerata also sang as part of the Educational Concert Series in Morrow, Georgia on the stage of Spivey Hall, a much-coveted performance venue. Barbara Harlow, President of Santa Barbara Music Publishers also recognized the group’s “outstanding quality… very sensitive interpretation, and beautiful sound” and asked them to record a demonstration CD of new music. She maintains that, with this professional recording project slated for the fall of 2002, Camerata “will join an elite group of choirs from around the world.”
For the Centenary Choir, 2001 brought a landmark fifth consecutive White House Christmas performance. Tradition and group loyalty remain defining features of the Centenary Choir that now claims about 800 alumni/ae. The group has sung about in about thirty-two countries on five continents. In reality, the Centenary Choir has not only fulfilled its nickname “America’s Singing Ambassadors” but also made a mark as “Centenary’s singing publicity.” “It [the choir] is a really good recruiting arm for the College—the fact that it goes into churches and high schools whereas athletics go into college campuses. And we’re written up on the front of the paper and they’re written up on the sports page… and that’s another part of our reason for being….” comments Dr. Andress. “We have been fortunate over the years to be able to go and to do so much.”49 The Centenary Choir’s future promises even more globe-trotting as they plan their 2003 "Two-Continent Tour,” during which they will venture to South America, their sixth and last continent—although Dr. Andress still laments that he “can’t figure out how to sing to the penguins.”
In the spring 2002, the Centenary community watched the construction on the new Arts Complex progress as a gaping mud pit was transformed into the foundation for the new music facilities. The drone of bulldozers became a staple of the aural environment at Hurley, but music continued in spite of—and even because of—the construction. One afternoon, as percussion ensemble director Chandler Teague directed from a ledge overhead, music students turned the work site into an experiment in percussive sonorities, “playing” everything from accommodating steel beams to stray buckets. For some time to come, construction work will be a tangible reminder of the School Music’s progress. The new choral building and instrumental rehearsal hall, dedicated in November 2002, are only the first phase of the Arts Complex that will eventually occupy the entire northeast corner of Centenary’s campus.
2002 marks a pivotal year in life of music program. With the expansion of music facilities, enhanced course offerings, and an impressive lineup of performances, it is a time for the Hurley School of Music to project its multifaceted mission into the future. At the same time, the celebration of music’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary at Centenary is a reminder of the wise counsel of the 1924 Yoncopin feature on the music department:
“…It is well to mention what we have done in the past.”
From “red-faced” musicians with “greasy fiddles” to practice supervisors or a music department “taken up in earnest,” the rich history of Centenary’s music program merits mention—and a place in our collective memory. When the Trustees of antebellum Centenary encouraged the faculty to “induce students to form a musical band,” they initiated a tradition of music study that is now at the forefront of academic and cultural life at Centenary College of Louisiana. Throughout one hundred and fifty years of immense social and political change, the drive to cultivate the musical arts at Centenary has endured, flourished, and, ultimately, promises to be a formative force in the College’s future.
i Faculty Minutes, Centenary College of Louisiana, January 1838.
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