Hail Sinfonia

Ossian E. Mills     Phi Mu Alpha began with an invitation to a "get-acquainted" reception, extended by the "Old Boys" to the "New Boys" of Boston's New England Conservatory early in the fall term of 1898.  A spontaneous discussion about forming a men's music club took place among some of the men who attended the reception and, there being considerable interest in the idea, a meeting was planned for the evening of October 6 to further explore the possibilities.
    A similar desire for fellowship among musicians had earlier led Ossian E. Mills, then bursar of the Conservatory to invite a group of male students to meet informally with him once a week.  It is safe to suppose that some of these men were present at the gathering on October 6 and that through them, Mills influenced the adoption of high ideals of brotherhood by Phi Mu Alpha even before its official beginnings.
    The minutes of the first meeting on October 6, 1898 describe the appointment of a "committee on rules and regulations," which was to prepare a set of bylaws for the new organization.  On October 25, the club's 13 active and one honorary member (Ossian Mills) accepted from a committee a governing document which has remained the Fraternity's philosophy of existence to the present day.  In part it read:

"The object of this Fraternity shall be for the development of the best and truest fraternal spirit; the mutual welfare and brotherhood of musical students; the advancement o music in America and a loyalty to the Alma Mater..."

The club also accepted the suggestion of the newly-elected director of the conservatory (and the Fraternity's second honorary member), George W. Chadwick, that the group adopt the name of an organization of which he had been a member during his student days in Leipzig.  SINFONIA was born.
    The fledgling society was a success from its very beginning.  The first recorded initiation of new members took place on November 28, 1898, barely a month after Sinfonia's founding.  Under the leadership of its first president, Frank Leslie Stone, the Fraternity carried on a busy schedule of social events, presented recitals, concerts and shows, sponsored a men's glee club, entertained visiting artists, renovated the chapter rooms set aside for their use by the Conservatory, and held regular fortnightly meetings, one of the main features of which was the initiation of new members.
    By October o 1899 the club numbered about fifty men and continued to add members at frequent intervals.  Sinfonia's outstanding success gave rise to thoughts of expansion in the minds of Founder Mills, President Percy Jewett Burrell, and Treasurer Ralph Howard Pendleton.  To them it seemed that if their club was fulfilling a need among men at the New England Conservatory, then surely men in other conservatories in the country could find benefit and pleasure in similar organizations in their school.  Large Greek-letter fraternities flourished on college campuses, but there was no social-professional brotherhood for men in music.  Why not establish a national Sinfonia for men studying music in conservatories and music schools coast to coast?  The men of Boston's Sinfonia, however, were by no means of one mind on the question of expansion; at a meeting on October 1, 1900 to discuss the issue, arguments pro and con were vigorous and tempers grew hot.  But, in the end, a majority agreed to spend $25.00 from the club's treasury (which then totaled $34.00!) to send men to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington in order to present the idea of Sinfonia firsthand to male students of the leading conservatories.  The expedition attracted notice far outside the student world; mention appeared in leading newspapers, and magazines.
    So it was that Pendleton and Hendy Hall found themselves in Philadelphia and in conference with men of the old Broad Street Conservatory on October 6, 1900, two years to the day after Sinfonia's birth in Boston.  The Philadelphia students requested and received admission to Sinfonia as its Beta Chapter.
    On November 26, 1900, a group of twelve at the American Institute of Applied Arts in New York City became Gamma Chapter; Delta, at Ithaca Conservatory, followed in the last weeks of January, 1901.  To govern the affairs of the now national Fraternity, a convention of its four chapters was called in Boston on April 16-20, 1901.  The assembly saw the sights and attended concerts in Boston, elected Ossian Mills National President, and set about the business of fraternity government which has continued ever since.  By 1902, Beta had progressed sufficiently to host the second National Convention.  The Philadelphia Press on April 20, 1902, gave the assembly a particularly noteworthy account:

    "Nearly forty musical geniuses from different parts of the country will assemble in this city tomorrow to discuss in a calm, harmonious way, topics pertaining to their art.
    This will be the second convention of the Sinfonia Fraternity of America, the first organization which has ever tried to promote and foster a general feeling of fellowship among makers of melody since the practicability of producing musical sounds was discovered in the dead past.
    For three days these musical geniuses, who hail from Boston, Chicago, Ithaca, and New York and other parts of the Union are to enjoy one another's society.  In that time they will talk of various phases of modern music, discuss the compositions of the old masters, transact business of the fraternity, hold a banquet and visit the various points of interest in Philadelphia, and they propose doing it in a matter which musicians of old times would have believed impossible.  In the musical discussions particularly, it is said, the spirit of antagonism proverbially rampant among artists of the profession will be absent.  Tradition, in this respect, has been overcome by the Sinfonia."

    The club which resulted from the efforts of those young men under the leadership of Brother Mills grew into the largest professional music fraternity in the United States.  Although our brothers had high hopes for the future of their fledgling Fraternity, never in their wildest dreams did they foresee the extent to which Phi Mu Alpha would eventually grow.  The National Fraternity which formed around four chapters in April of 1901 in Boston grew to over three hundred strong in the early sixties and today boasts of over 200 active chapters.
    What has really happened since 1898?  How did the Fraternity grow to its present size?  What were the values and traditions of our founders, and how have they evolved into what we now know as Sinfonia?
    The delegates, gathered at the first convention in Boston in 1901, stood on the threshold of the twentieth century - a time which was to see the most rapid and dramatic changes in the history of the world.  Those men attempted to project into this century an idea which would revolutionize American music - an idea which emphasized the harmony and welfare of music students over the dominant condition of competitiveness which our founders saw.  They hoped to raise American music and American musicians to a point of equality with their European counterparts.  They envisioned a brotherhood which they hoped would go forth from the conservatories to pervade society itself and bring us ever closer to the final harmony of all mankind.  They sought not only to build better musicians, but better men and a better country.
    Those must have truly been exciting times.  Already the last quarter of the nineteenth century had brought about major changes in American lifestyles, and it was difficult to keep up with the profess of technological and social advancements from day to day.  America was beginning to assert itself in the arena of world affairs, trying furiously to cast off the role of the culturally "backward" colonies and be counted among the ranking nations of the glove.  That American musicians should want to be part of this movement as well stands to reason.
    In those days, even American audiences and conservatories would recognize a musician only if he had a background of European instruction. The foremost masters were Europeans.  No matter what a man's ability, he could realistically expect no advancement without the proper European "pedigree."  One can easily imagine the effect this type of atmosphere could have on a young musician eager to make his start in the world.  This served to intensify the competition among talented American musicians for the few positions available to them and to foster in them a deep insecurity and an unavoidable sense of inferiority to the Europeans, regardless of their own abilities.  The unfairness of the situation gnawed at them.  To be disregarded by their countrymen for the same reasons was almost unbearable.  If America was willing to assert itself on a level of equality with the rest of the world, could not American musicians do the same?  This was one of the driving forces behind the creation of a National Sinfonia.
    Our founders saw in Sinfonia a rallying point, a mutually supportive atmosphere for American musicians, a means to end the destructive competition which only served to hold them back.  They foresaw a time when American musicians would compete, not against one another, but against the European stigma which kept them from a place of equality.  Our founders felt that when American musicians began to be mutually supportive, each urging the other to the heights of his art, then and only then could American music take its rightful place alongside the European tradition.  The founders of our Fraternity took great pride in being a primary force in that movement.
    The rapid rate of growth which followed grew out of this atmosphere, as the young musicians of the country's conservatories eagerly sought to overcome their perceived inferiority.  By its twenty-fifth year, the Fraternity had grown to twenty five chapters.  It doubled in the five years that followed.  It was in this period that Sinfonia experienced its "Golden Age," when labors of influential and selfless leaders such as Ossian Mills, Percy Jewett Burrell, Peter Dykema and Thomas E. Dewey brought forth a National Sinfonia which earned the respect of students and educators alike and truly became a force in American music.
    Sinfonia managed to grow and flourish in the early teens under the leadership of Burrell, a man imbued with the spirit of Ossian Mills and determined to nurture the seeds which Mills had carefully planted in Sinfonia.  National president from 1907-1914, Brother Burrell gave selflessly of his time and effort to build Sinfonia into a proud and strong fraternity with an earnest commitment to the values embodied in the purposes of Sinfonia and a demand for quality which gained Phi Mu Alpha the respect of its peers.
    Sinfonia continued to flourish in the 1920's under the dynamic leadership of Wisconsin's Peter W. Dykema, later of COlumbia University, a man of great energies and foresight whose effect on American music education is felt to this day.  The Fraternity once again stressed quality in its programs, a quality which was reflected in a series of exemplary publications written by a young first year law student at the University of Michigan, Thomas E. Dewey, who at the time was equally well known for what Casey Lutton termed a "fine baritone voice."
    Dewey insisted on quality as national historian, often returning articles to their authors with instructions to improve them.  His efforts resulted in a feeling of pride throughout the Fraternity which helped to power Sinfonia's rapid growth.  Dewey later transformed those same standards and values into an outstanding political career which carried him to the governorship of New York and just short of the Presidency of the United States in 1948.
    After American's victory in World War II, the idea of our inferiority became a thing of the past.  The insecurity which had given Sinfonia its urgency before the wars had vanished.  The draft in wartime had made it virtually impossible to maintain anything other than a shell of Sinfonia, since many schools could claim fewer than ten male students enrolled.  With the introduction of the GI bill came a massive influx of men into the nation's music programs after the war.  The size problems suddenly vanished, and now chapters boomed almost faster than anyone could keep track.  Due to this rapid change in the membership, maintaining the same type of quality and continuity in our programs became very difficult.  Rather than a natural, orderly expansion, Sinfonia was now faced with a membership boom for which the Fraternity was not well prepared.
    The increased numbers brought about the appearance of health, but along with that perception came a complacency toward the values of the Fraternity which had seemed to urgent before the wars.  The values which had been so intently championed by the idealists of the early years seemed somewhat hollow and perhaps a little naive to the men who ere fresh from the experiences of war.  They wanted to enjoy life, to make up for lost time.  The Fraternity became larger through a desire for fellowship and renewing old acquaintances, but the intense commitment to its values which had been prevalent in the early days seemed to subside in favor of more social and professional interest.
    Extremely rapid expansion coupled with the difficulties and expenses of communicating with the entire membership and keeping records updated posed some rather large problems.  To save money, publications were streamlined.  It was impossible to putout the type of yearbook which had been the standard of the pre-war era.  The heritage of excellence which was common knowledge to our early brothers was lost in the rush of expansion, and hence our knowledge of Sinfonia's early years is now limited and somewhat vague.  The writings and commentaries which made up the bulk of our history were no longer published on a regular basis, and as a result their message became less and less familiar to our members.  Along with that loss, and the intense commitment which the writings had helped to foster, went the national prestige which the Fraternity had enjoyed in the '20s and '30s.  This was not a drastic process, but rather a slow decline which has progressed slowly over the ensuing years.  When the scorn of established institutions which characterized the '60s hit Phi Mu Alpha, we were hard pressed to preserve the vestiges of national prominence which remained.  The question of quality had been replaced by the more vital question of survival itself.  The financial woes of the '70s only served to make matters worse, and the financial predicament carried through to the '80s.  Sinfonia has now stabilized its financial situation and with a retrospective self-examination, we are looking toward the future with confidence.
    A rebirth of Sinfonia is at hand with a new commitment to the original values held by our founders and early leaders.  The early brothers left a truly great legacy of wisdom and inspiration through the publications of the time.  Current publications are re-establishing the tradition of printing the messages and ideas of our revered forefathers.  The values which made Sinfonia great then are abiding and can be just as useful now as they were nearly 100 years ago.  What made Sinfonia so prominent in its "Golden Age"?  There were three overriding forces: intense commitment to the values of the Fraternity; a belief in the need for a vital and quality-organized national organization in addition to strong individual chapters; and a serious attempt to live the vows taken at initiation.  As our early brothers expressed so well in 1928, at the memorial service for Ossian Mills:

"To all of us humans the future is a closed book, except that we know it as a continuation of the present, just as the present flows out of the past.  We, therefore, can speak of the Sinfonia of the future only in terms of what has been."

    All of us know the past.  But what of our future?  The future course of Sinfonia rests on the actions we take now, in the present.  The success which Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia will enjoy in the future depends upon a firm foundation laid in the present.  Why should we not fulfill the promise of Sinfonia, and lead the way in music in America, and fraternity in music?  All that stands in our path toward accomplishing those goals is our own commitment and effort.



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