In Memoriam: Louis J. Curran, Professor Emeritus of Music and Glee Club Director

January 08, 2014

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When he officially retired in 2004, Louis J. Curran, professor emeritus of music and longtime director of WPI's Men's Glee Club, was honored at the annual Faculty Convocation. As the WPI alumni magazine Transformations reported at the time, he declined to make formal remarks, but instead let his music speak for itself.

Stepping aside while historical photos of the Glee Club were displayed and recordings of the Institute's oldest student organization played, he looked back to his start at WPI. "This is what I inherited in 1966," he noted over a recording of the 13 Glee Club members and 12 musicians who constituted the student music program that year.

Over the course of nearly four decades, Curran, who passed away on Dec. 30, 2013, at the age of 79, built the Glee Club into a vibrant, popular, and highly respected musical ensemble that delighted audiences around the world and left a lasting impression on generations of WPI students.

"Louis was completely dedicated to WPI, to the Glee Club, and to all music at WPI," said Douglas Weeks, teaching professor in the Department of Humanities and Arts and administrator of music. "He always demanded the best from his students and held them to the highest standards."

"Louis was a teacher, a mentor, and a dear friend who I will miss, and who made an impact on every life he touched," said Thomas L. Collins III '01, assistant director of hosting services at WPI and chairman of the Glee Club Alumni Association.

Curran received a bachelor of music degree, with a focus on music and organ, in 1956 from Yale University, where he was the H. B. Jepson Scholar and where he became the youngest organist at a U.S. cathedral. He completed graduate work at the New England Conservatory in Boston and at Yale, and in 1963 he received a master of music degree from the University of Tulsa. From 1963 to 1965 he continued his graduate studies in musicology at Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar.

He was an associate professor of music at Northeast Missouri State College for one year before accepting the post as assistant professor of music and music director at WPI. He was given the task of organizing the school's music groups into a formal music program, and he later recalled that Lawrence "Cookie" Price, then WPI's provost, advised him that it would be a challenging assignment.

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Curran accepted the challenge with gusto, and over the years the program he helped establish would become a large, diverse, multifaceted music performance enterprise that would be a source of pride to the university and a significant draw for student who wanted to continue to grow as musicians as they pursued studies in science and engineering.

Through his leadership, the men's choral organization quickly grew in size and stature. In 1985, the American Choral Director's Association, Eastern Division, ranked the Glee Club second among 120 professional, semi-professional, community, college, and conservatory choruses. It was just one of numerous honors the group brought home over the years.

Early on in his tenure, Curran also set out to extend the reach of WPI's musical ensembles far beyond the boundaries of campus. He took student choristers and musicians out into the greater Worcester community and to other college campuses for concerts. Under his baton, the Glee Club sang with the Detroit Symphony in Worcester Memorial Auditorium and performed J. S. Bach's Magnificat as the first choral group to perform in the newly restored Mechanics Hall in 1977. After a 2000 concert with the Concord, Mass., Orchestra, the Boston Globe noted that "the Glee Club from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Louis Curran) pumped out sound of ringing quality in comprehensible German."

Curran would also soon organize the first of numerous national and international tours for the Glee Club, which has been the most traveled of all of WPI's student ensembles over the years. Curran took the group on his first major tour, to Washington, D.C., in 1968 (the same weekend that the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated).

In 1988, the WPI Journal summarized the group's excursions to that point. "The club has been to Canada, to the West Coast twice, to Europe four times, and up and down the East Coast too many times to count. It has also performed on radio and TV made recordings, and performed with many top colleges." Since then, the ensemble, which now numbers about 80 singers, has performed throughout Europe, including in venues in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Spain.

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The tours generated glowing reviews as well as a host of memorable moments, as Curran recalled for the WPI Journal in 2000. "'On a tour to Rome,' he says, 'the Pope called us forward after a general audience. In Los Angeles, the women of Wheelock and the members of our club burst into Saints Bound for Heaven in the airport's rotunda, causing all movement to stop. And in Paris, the applause of some 2,000 people almost drowned out the great organ in Notre Dame Cathedral after we performed the music for High Mass and ended with Fenno Heath's eight-part song In That Great Gitten' Up Mornin'.'"

Glee Club alumni have remained fiercely loyal to Curran over the years and have gathered for several significant events to honor him and the organization he long shepherded. In April 1987, for example, to observe the 20th anniversary of Curran's arrival at WPI, a performance of the Mozart Requiem was organized in Worcester's Trinity Lutheran Church with members of the Glee Club, the Women's Chorale, choruses from Wellesley College and Wheaton College, and WPI alumni. Curran took the baton for the final part of the concert, bringing the audience of 350 to its feet. The Worcester Telegram called the concert "a stunning tribute to Curran."

In April 2004, as his retirement approached, a weekend of concerts and gatherings was organized to honor his legacy. Again, the Requiem was performed, this time under the direction of John Delorey, who had joined WPI a few years before as director of choral music, and with a chorus that included ensembles from WPI and nine other colleges, accompanied by a 40-piece orchestra. Transformations reported that "Curran received a standing ovation from the capacity audience and evoked tears on stage when he stepped up to the podium one last time to conduct several perennial favorites from the Glee Club's repertory."

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Over the years, Curran served as organist, guest organist, and choirmaster at a number of institutions, including Amherst College, The Choate School, the Cathedral Church of St. Mary in Fall River, Mass., 7th Army Headquarters Chapel in Stuttgart, Germany, and Notre Dame Church and the Central Congregational Church in Worcester. He was a member of the Royal School of Church Music, the American Choral Directors Association, the American Guild of Organists, the American Musicology Society, and the College Music Society. He served on the national board of the Inter-Collegiate Musical Council from 1977 to 1980, during which time WPI hosted the organization's national meeting and national convention. He was one of three founders of the Worcester Intercollegiate Chorale, in 1977, and served as its first conductor.

In a 2000 memo, Curran sent a note of thanks to the Glee Club's many alumni. "I shall always remember you and I thank you for your efforts which placed me in Who's Who in America and the WPI Glee Club in a high standing, squeezed in between Harvard, Amherst, and Cornell. That's a lot of pressure!"

Details on services and memorial contributions are pending.