As we in the 2009 Yale Glee Club prepare for our international tour to Argentina and Brazil, it is fitting to look back on the group’s first visit to South America, in 1941, which was a seminal tour in many ways. Marshall Bartholomew, the Glee Club’s director from 1921-1953, left a vivid and detailed report, which brings the events of 68 years ago to life.
Barty spent the summer of 1940 visiting South America, touring cities and universities and assessing the prospects for a South American tour. He found a great deal of enthusiasm – “an ardent wish … of the universities to organize singing among their students and to establish a singing tradition” – but few university choral groups.
The 1941 tour, therefore, had at its core a mission of outreach. The Glee Club was the first university choir to tour in South America, and its members represented not just themselves, nor even Yale, but American music, and their country. In visits to, and collaborations with, local universities, they served as ambassadors of choral singing and goodwill.
In those days before jet planes, the group spent 36 out of 53 days on board ship. From New York, they traveled to Rio de Janeiro for three days, then to Montevideo and Buenos Aires. After 8 days in Argentina, they crossed the Andes into Chile, visiting Santiago and Valparaiso. From there they sang in Lima and Pamana City before passing though the Panama Canal and returning to New York.
The Glee Club kept up a brutal schedule, with 27 concerts in 21 days ashore. Their repertoire contained 63 pieces, all sung from memory, and perfected during twice-daily rehearsals for 11 consecutive days on board ship.
Rio was a logistical nightmare, because an intransigent shipping line refused to allow them to stay over and catch the next ship to Montevideo. Instead, they had to cram five concerts into three days. Moreover, the SS Brazil arrived late into port, and the Glee Club rushed to the concert hall by special car transport, arriving half an hour late to a packed theater. To reach São Paulo, they had to charter a special sleeping car and a 2 AM return train. This was not luxury travel: “sanitary conditions in the kitchen were sufficient to rob finicky passengers of their appetite.”
However, the reception of audiences and students in Brazil was phenomenal. When the Glee Club sang the Brazilian national anthem in Portuguese, they created what Bartholomew laconically called “a moment of considerable emotion.” According to the Diario de Noticias, the ovation lasted for ten minutes. Of their visit to São Paulo, Barty wrote that he had “seldom witnessed a more boisterous and sincere demonstration of enthusiasm and friendship anywhere.”