Although a certain “Chorale Ensemble” occasionally performed at Memorial Church under the mentorship of Harold Schmidt, the Stanford Chamber Chorale effloresced into an internationally recognized ensemble under the directorship of Professor William Ramsey. When Ramsey arrived at the Music Department in August of 1975, he immediately began coaching and directing the Chamber Chorale, the Symphonic Chorus, and the Memorial Church Choir, groups that had been previously shaped and directed by Warren Dwight Allen and Harold Schmidt. (Herbert Nanney continued to direct the University Singers). In the early years of his tenure, Ramsey also offered courses in Choral Literature and Conducting, and advised two DMA candidates during the 1975-1976 academic year.
As Ramsey explains, at that time each choral group had its own aims, audience, and repertoire: “The Chamber Chorale specialized in literature for a small choral ensemble. Because there was a strong early music emphasis in the Department and an Early Music Singers ensemble, the Chamber Chorale did not specialize in early music. Each organization had its own goals: the Symphonic Chorus primarily focused upon Masterworks of Choral literature and often collaborated with various symphonic ensembles. The Memorial Church Choir provided choral music for the Memorial Church services, plus offered extra public performances from time-to-time. I started the Service of Lessons and Carols at MemChu which often involved the MemChu Choir as well as the Chamber Chorale (one choir in the organ loft and the other on the steps at the front of the Church. Virtually all performances were given in MemChu until the [Loma Prieta] earthquake closed the church for repair and renovation.”
Under Ramsey’s directorship, the Chamber Chorale gained international exposure. For instance, in the mid-1980s, Ramsey and Professor Emeritus of History Mark Mancall (then Director of Oversees Studies) organized a tour of the Holy Land and western Europe. When performing in Israel, the Chamber Chorale’s Christmas Eve concert in Bethlehem (1985), was televised.
The Chorale went on to sing at the Vatican, Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame, Santa Maria della Fiori (Florence), and San Marco (Venice), Aachen Cathedral (Germany), and numerous venues in Vienna. As Ramsey remarks, “perhaps the highlight of the tour was the performance we did with the Berlin Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and the St. Hedwig Choir. We also were invited to perform for the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University of Heidelberg.”
During this international tour, which, to Ramsey’s knowledge is the first in the Chamber Chorale’s history, one anecdote is particularly memorable: “We had an evening performance at San Stae in Venice on New Year’s Day. We had our ‘warm-up’ and many of us were ill, the church was freezing and there was no one there – at all! I told the Chorale that we had to go ahead and do the performance even if there were only a few people attending, but we would make the program as short as possible. We left the ‘backstage’ are and walked into the performance area and the facility was packed. Every seat was filled and the ‘overflow’ audience was standing 3-deep all around the church. Yes, it was still cold, and yes, many of us were still not it top vocal form, but the performance was exceptional and one of the most enthusiastic audiences on the tour.”
Bio: Dr. William Ramsey – Professor Emeritus of Music, Stanford University, who was the Director of Graduate Studies in Choral Music and Director of Choral Activities, 1975-1993.
Featured image: Prof. Ramsey and Chorale singers gather around the Johann Strauss statue, Vienna, 1986