Originally founded in 1901, the Grinnell Oratorio Society was, in the early decades of the 20th Century, one of Iowa's most auspicious musical institutions. Edward Scheve (1865-1924), a composer of symphonies, concertos, oratorios, and chamber music, established the choir as an outgrowth of the music conservatory that was then part of Grinnell College.
In 2010, the Grinnell Community Chorus was renamed the Grinnell Oratorio Society as a way to draw attention to this proud history.
The choir rehearses Monday nights, and it draws together students, faculty, and staff of the College, people from the town of Grinnell, and nearby cities such as Newton and Malcolm. This fall, we’ll be performing Mozart’s Requiem. This is the piece about which renowned composer Eric Whitacre wrote: “When I went to college at the University of Nevada back in Las Vegas, I got tricked into singing in choir. The first thing we did was the Mozart Requiem. That was the piece that changed my life overnight.” Don’t miss this opportunity to share the experience of making meaningful music together with your fellow students, faculty, and community members. Please note that first-year students are welcome to participate despite the conflict with their required Monday night class. We will have several make-up rehearsals specifically for the first-year students.
We had a memorable and rewarding season last year, starting with our fall performance of Craig Hella Johnson’s Considering Matthew Shepard. This was such a powerful event; we had numerous people who reported to us that it was the most significant choral concert they have ever attended. One audience member even was moved to write several beautiful poems in tribute to the concert. “Considering Matthew Shepard” has quickly become one of the country’s most treasured choral works since its premiere in 2016. The work centers on the shocking story of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who in 1998 was beaten and left for dead for being gay. At that time, Johnson was profoundly affected by the news of Shepard’s death, as were so many were others worldwide. Yet his artistic response took many years to develop, as he contemplated and processed this deeply troubling story. Eighteen years later, Johnson finished composing what Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, called, “By far the most intricate, beautiful and unyielding artistic response to this notorious anti-gay hate crime.” Here is a recording of the final movement from our concert. In the spring of 2019, we performed Mozart’s Grand Mass in C Minor together with the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra in Herrick Chapel. The Mass in C Minor, like the Requiem, includes some of Mozart’s finest music.
In the fall of 2017, we performed Joseph Haydn’s Mass in a Time of Trouble (Also known as the “Lord Nelson” Mass). The concert also included Caroline Shaw’s recent work, To the Hands. Caroline Shaw is the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music — and the only woman to ever receive that award. Her piece focuses on the issues of refugee resettlement and homelessness. Rather than charging a fee for the performance materials, Shaw provides them for free with the strict stipulation that the ensemble must make funding efforts to contribute toward the resolution of these problems. The musical work uses phrases from the poem inscribed in the Statue of Liberty and holds them up to the listener as a provocative challenge. The choir was accompanied by a professional orchestra and soprano soloist Michelle Monroe, alto soloist Lisa Neher, and bass soloist Nicholas Miguel, and tenor soloist Jeffrey Brich.
In past years, the Oratorio Society has performed many of the masterpieces from the choral literature, such as Beethoven's Mass in C Major, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, Handel’s Messiah, Bach's Magnificat, Orff’s Carmina Burana, Verdi's Requiem, Brahms’s German Requiem, Duruflé’s Requiem, and Britten's monumental War Requiem.
In addition to performing these monumental works, the choir also has expanded its activity beyond the confines of classical music. In the spring of 2012, for example, the Oratorio Society participated in thrilling performances of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts in collaboration with the Grinnell Jazz Ensemble—and a professional tap dancer. In the 2012-13 season, we presented The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, by Carol Barnett, in collaboration with an outstanding bluegrass string band from Minneapolis, Monroe Crossing.
The Oratorio Society is a valuable resource for our community — and the more involvement we have, the greater the impact will be. Unlike most choruses of this type, there are no dues charged for the Oratorio Society; the College supports the ensemble as a service to the community.
Recording of the Oratorio Society singing “Let Our Mouths Be Filled,” by Sergei Rachmaninov