Monday, December 8, 2008

In memory of Fenno Heath, 1926-2008

Fenno Heath, legendary conductor of the Yale Glee Club from 1953-1992, passed away on December 6. His family has set up a website with many more wonderful stories and memories of him.

On hearing the sad news of Fenno’s passing, I just wanted to share a couple of thoughts, tell a couple of stories of Fenno, and hopefully honor him a little bit, as best as anyone can. For new Glee Clubbers: Fenno Heath was our conductor from the 1950s through the 1990s. If any one person could embody the Yale Glee Club, Fenno would be he. He made the courageous leap to bring women into the group; he brought the group on numerous tours abroad, including to China (I believe the group's first China tour ever); he arranged and even composed for the group extensively (hence the Fenno Heath Award for new Yale songs); and most importantly, he did it all with a spirit of genuine, hardy big-heartedness.

I can't claim to have any Glee Club memories from before 2005, but in my time in the Glee Club, we did get the lucky chance to sing under Fenno's baton twice. The first time was my sophomore year, when Fenno came to hear a rehearsal for the Commencement concert, and, at the end, conduct us in "'Neath the Elms." He had a special motion for asking more from the basses: he put his left hand down low, and mimed a very, very strong grip. Later, this motion was jokingly known in the bass and tenor sections as the "more guts, men!" motion; but in all seriousness, what Fenno showed us that day is that if you do something, you should take it seriously, and do it with fortitude, and courage – that fun, joy and togetherness are to be found not in spite of those qualities, but because of them.

The other time we sung under Fenno was my freshman year, at the 145th anniversary alumni reunion (these reunions come once every five years, and they're amazing; the 150th is in 2010-11). We had a concert with the pre-1969 men's alumni chorus, followed by the post-1969 mixed alumni chorus, and then the current Glee Club, in Woolsey Hall. At the very end, all the groups sang a set of songs together, with Fenno conducting: the current Glee Club on stage, and all the alumni in the first floor seats, filling nearly to the back of Woolsey.

Our first song was "We Meet Again Tonight, Friends" -- which, prior to 1969, had been called, "We Meet Again Tonight, Boys." It was Fenno who originally took a stand and changed the name of the song, knowing that making all different kinds of people (in this case, women in particular) at home in the Glee Club would be impossible if any traces of the old patriarchy remained. Just so, when Fenno conducted us my freshman year, he showed that same blend of courage and kindness. Before he raised his baton, he smiled, and said, "Now, remember ... friends." We all laughed, and he laughed too – and then we launched into singing; and we truly were friends, united by mirth, by song, and by the wisdom of Fenno Heath.

We all can continue to honor Fenno by infusing our singing -- and every action of our lives -- with these values. Every concert, and every small act we do, will be a chance to keep Fenno's good character alive, and to make him proud.

-Noah Lawrence SY '09