Who were the 12 women who started Harmony Club?
Some were singers, some played instruments, some were music teachers and church musicians, a couple were composers, a couple playwrights, a couple were dramatic readers. One was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, one was active in politics.
Charter members Lillian Benedict, Elizabeth Britton, and Edith Ryan each left us their recollections of the birth of Harmony Club:
“Hannah Thomas had a dream and that dream kept recurring…She believed with all her heart and soul that this valley of ours needed a Women’s Music Study Club.”
“Twelve intimate friends, having a love for music, met each month to enjoy and exchange ideas…. Thus in the fall of 1925 these twelve women met at the Burlingham Tea Room on Chestnut Street and outlined a plan for organizing a club.
The club was to be called The Harmony Club of Binghamton, NY. The object of the club was the study and enjoyment by its members of music…embracing the study, constructive criticism and performance of vocal, instrumental, and choral music, including biographical sketches of various composers under consideration.”
"[Hannah] made it very clear that the main purpose of such a club would be the study of music. Surely we should perform, but the study of music came first. All agreed with her, and before we knew it, a new club was born.” Hannah was elected the first President.
The charter members of the club were:
Hannah W. Thomas (Mrs. William B.)
Frances B. Alexander (Mrs. Arthur W.)
Lillian M Benedict
Jane ("Jennie") I. McClatchey (Mrs. Andrew J.)
Edith M. Pierce (Mrs. Frank W.)
Marie M. Rosenthal (Mrs. Charles R.)
Edith M. Ryan (Mrs. Merle V.)
Emma Willard Toal (Mrs. William)
Alma Louise Waite (Mrs. Leslie J.)
Alice Elizabeth Wales (Mrs. B. Roger)
Currently, the Harmony Club of Binghamton numbers approximately 75 members. We come from a wide variety of backgrounds, some professional performers and/or educators, some amateurs, all loving musical expression. Many of our members perform or previously performed in other orchestras, small ensembles, bands, choruses and churches in the area. Others are not performers, but enjoy listening to music performed by friends.
Charter member Lillian Benedict remembered: “In the early years it was customary to have lunch at the [Burlingham] Tea Room [on Chestnut Street], and since for the first few years women did not drive cars, to walk or take the trolley to a member’s home for a meeting. The dues for many years were 50 cents and a 5 cent fine if we were late.”
Because meetings were held at first in member homes, membership was limited to 50. Prospective new members had to wait for a vacancy and audition before the membership, which then voted on the candidate.
Most members lived on trolley or bus routes, but one notable home outside downtown Binghamton was that of Laura MacClary, 5th President of Harmony Club, who lived with her husband, County Judge Thomas A. MacClary, in a historic home built in 1799, known as Washingtonian Hall on River Road in Endwell.
June meetings were reserved for relaxation and fun. Some years a luncheon was held at the Binghamton Country Club or the Kalurah Country Club (which later became the IBM Homestead, site of what is now Traditions at the Glen). Even more popular for June meetings were picnics at summer cottages owned by some of the members. Hannah Thomas had a cottage on Oteyokwa Lake in Hallstead PA. Lois Randall had a camp in Silver Lake PA. These June cottage meetings continued into the early 1950’s.
Over the years, meetings began to be held in public locations, such as Weeks & Dickinson Music Store, McLean and Haskins Music Store, Fowler’s Department Store Tea Room, and the Roberson Museum (50s and 60s). Other meetings took place at clubs like the Masonic Temple (now First Assembly of God Church) and the Monday Afternoon Club (meeting in what is now known as the Phelps Mansion).
With so many of Harmony Club’s members serving as church musicians, it was only a matter of time before churches became meeting venues as well, especially First Congregational, Tabernacle Methodist, and West Presbyterian. In the early 50’s many meetings were held in the Parish House of Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church.
Today, most meetings are held in area churches and are open to the public.
Harmony Club was founded as a music study group for women. But what about the men?
Although men were not admitted to membership for over 60 years, Club meetings occasionally included men as performers or speakers. The earliest Club activity involving men was perhaps the annual concert of Oct 12, 1926, sponsored by the VFW and performed in “the high school auditorium.” Harmony Club was assisted by tenor Robert Truesdell and bass Paul Sprout (a founder of the Binghamton Oratorio Society ca. 1932).
The first man to be a guest performer at a regular Club meeting was high school orchestra conductor Donald Wilber, who played bassoon at the meeting of Oct 3, 1928. Men were guests 3 times the following year, the most notable being the October 1929 meeting at which Norwich-born singer, composer, and lecturer John Prindle Scott was guest speaker. Scott, who wrote over 70 art songs and sacred anthems, maintained a summer home in McDonough.
In 1952 and 1953 the Harmony Club collaborated with the Oratorio Society, directed by Fritz Wallenberg, to give the first performance in Binghamton of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. In February 1954 the subject of Harmony Club’s meeting was a costumed play written by 2 Club members. All the characters in the fictional story at the Vienna home of Johann Strauss, including Johann and Eduard Strauss and Johannes Brahms, were played by women. Pianist Fritz Wallenberg and trumpeter Bruce Benson, however, performed in a 6-piece orchestra.
In October 1987, Harmony Club amended its Constitution to remove the wording limiting membership to women. But the issue of admitting men to membership remained controversial. In May 1992 the Board of Directors, noting that the Constitution no longer barred men, unanimously approved opening membership to men, with the subject to be discussed at a general meeting of the membership. But the membership declined to act on the question, postponing a vote till Fall.
In November 1992, with some changes in Board membership, an objection was raised to admitting men to membership, although it was suggested men could be invited to perform as guests “and see how it goes for another year,” with the membership being polled as to their opinions. At the general meeting that month, “much discussion ensued and men will be encouraged to come to meetings.”
Finally in November 1993, the Board voted – by secret ballot! – to admit men to membership. It wasn’t until 1994, however, that the first man was listed in the membership - baritone Robert Dopf. The second man to join the Club was Raymond Besemer, in 2001.
Today men comprise approximately 10% of the membership.
High School Awards Program
On March 1, 1939 at First Congregational Church, Harmony Club conducted a contest for Binghamton Central and Binghamton North High School music students. 14 students participated in the vocal and instrumental competition. Two prizes of $5 each (equivalent of $85 in 2016) were awarded. Harmony Club member “Did” Feeck served as one of the three judges. Thus began the tradition of Harmony Club awards to high school students “for outstanding vocal and instrumental achievement.”
Details of the program changed several times over the years and our records are incomplete. Beginning in May 1942, one vocal and one instrumental award were granted to the graduating class of each of the 2 Binghamton city high schools and judging was performed by the “musical supervisors of the schools.” By 1945 the awards were granted semi-annually at the January and June graduations and continued semi-annually until at least 1970. By 1950 and for at least 26 years it was said the awards were made not by competition but upon “recommendation by their music teachers and other [music] faculty.”
With the passing of Hannah Thomas, the awards became known in 1949 as the Hannah W. Thomas Harmony Club Awards. By 1984 one or more of the awards carried Hannah’s name, others bore other memorial names, the rest called simply Harmony Club Awards.
By 1975 the awards were opened to students in other area high schools. At some subsequent point, the awards became competitive again, with judging by an audition panel of Harmony Club members.
Currently, several awards are granted each year to high school seniors for “excellence in [vocal or instrumental] performance before an audition committee. Criteria for selection include musical and technical maturity, ability to communicate with an audience, and general stage presence and poise.” These awards are not scholarships and students need not be planning a career in music. Award winners and accompanists are requested to perform at the June Awards meeting, to which family, teachers, and guests are welcome.
Charter Member Lillian Benedict, addressing the 25th anniversary of the Club in 1950, said “How interesting it would be to trace the careers of these young people.” Indeed! We know of several who have or have had prominent music careers either locally or nationally. Compiling a complete list of award winners is a work in progress (about 375 names so far), and we would appreciate help in identifying them, especially those from many years ago.