+ by Leah Weiss + photography by Alison Harbaugh
“One—Hello. Two—Goodbye. Three—We’re gonna miss you.”
With those words and a smile, Eric Stoltzfus introduced three songs to a packed house in the McDowell Building’s Great Hall at St. John’s College last December. A group of students, faculty, and staff had sung two madrigals—“Bonjour Mon Coeur” (Hello, My Heart) by Orlando di Lasso and “Adieu Délice de Mon Coeur” (Goodbye, Delight of My Heart) by Jacob Clemens non Papa—and was to launch into the American folk song “Shenandoah.” During the student-run concert, called Collegium, nearly 40 pieces were performed by 28 groups or individuals. The line between audience and performers blurred as people got up to sing and then sat back down to listen. In the balcony, an overflow of students, standing three deep around the railing, leaned in to listen intently and then clapped and cheered in enthusiastic support. Stoltzfus’ playful opening captured not only the songs’ essences, but also the spirit of how music is learned and celebrated at St. John’s.
The small liberal arts school, founded in 1696, sits on 36 acres across from the U.S. Naval Academy near downtown Annapolis. St. John’s is well known for its academic program in which all students take the same series of classes, studying the Great Books of Western Civilization and learning through conversation. Lesser known is the school’s rich musical legacy. Where else can 450 students burst into lush four-part harmony at the drop of a note? What other school can boast such alumni as Francis Scott Key, who penned the lyrics to the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Ahmet Ertegun, founder of the legendary Atlantic Records, and Jac Holzman, who started two major recording labels and launched the careers of luminaries such as Judy Collins, The Doors, Queen, and The Stooges?
“For the most part, students come here thinking the same way that everybody does, that music is a special gift or aptitude for the few, and that many can listen from the distance,” says Stoltzfus, St. John’s Music Librarian and a part-time tutor. “So for students to have the idea that music is a part of them, that’s something that needs to be nurtured.”
The music program, which is central to the college’s curriculum, was developed by Austrian music theorist Victor Zuckerkandl. He posited that by understanding music more deeply, we would understand ourselves better. “It’s not music appreciation. And it’s not music theory of the sort you’d have in a conservatory, although there are some similarities,” says Tutor Emeritus Elliot Zuckerman.
“The first year, everybody sings,” says Tutor Peter Kalkavage. In freshman chorus, which is mandatory, students sing and experience pieces that will be helpful for a theoretical study during their sophomore year. The group learns Gregorian chants, hymns by Johann Sebastian Bach, a motet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and sixteenth-century Renaissance polyphonic works (having multiple lines of independent melody). By year’s end, the students have a basic knowledge of music, shared repertoire, and the powerful experience of singing in a large ensemble.
Twice a year, the freshman chorus performs in the Great Hall. These and other performances on campus are well attended. A sing-along always follows, typically with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus,” Ludvig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus”—not your standard college fare. “We relish it as if it were the most popular, recent music imaginable,” chuckles Kalkavage.
Sophomore year music tutorial is much like a laboratory. “But in place of experiments, we sing,” says Kalkavage. The class spends time examining how altering a single note, chord, or rhythm can change the mood of a piece. “I’ll have students trying to waltz to a march, or march to a waltz . . . to hear how that just doesn’t work.” They spend a month discussing melody. Using a string mounted on a board and a meter stick, they apply mathematics to discover how to divide the string to get different musical intervals. “Students are allowed to re-experience the Pythagorean experiment of discovering that the octave will always result from an exact bisection of the string,” Kalkavage beams.
“Zuckerkandl thought of music tutorial as a way of learning to read or listen carefully to music in such a way that it would be equivalent to reading a book,” says Zuckerman. After delving into harmony, chords, and cadence, the pinnacle of sophomore year is a study of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” Students investigate such intricacies as the multiple dance rhythms that Bach used and how the music mirrors the words or adds meaning to them. “It’s a very complicated work and the analysis is hard. The students invariably love it,” says Kalkavage. Music seminars continue during junior and senior years with the study of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”
“It’s often the case that students without any music training are the most open to the way we study it and have the best questions,” says Kalkavage. “Why is music the way it is? Why do those intervals have this quality and others don’t? What do we make of how dissonance is used in music? What is rhythm? What is musical time? How is that different from time measured by seconds on a clock? What is music’s effect on us? Is it something we should rejoice in always? Should we be a little suspicious of it because of its enormous power? Does it shape us?”
Many college- and student-sponsored music groups, some of which are open to the college community, meet on a weekly basis. For years, students have gathered on Wednesday afternoons for five minutes in a resonant stairwell to sing “Sicut Cervus,” and it is not unusual to hear it sung spontaneously on campus.
The St. John’s education helps students to be inquisitive and take risks. “They are not afraid that they do not know,” says Kalkavage. “This turns out to be not only a beautiful and deepening experience, but also a useful one. Students go on to do all sorts of things.”
Indeed they do.
Jac Holzman, who grew up on New York’s Upper East Side, did not intend to go to St. John’s. His sights were on Reed College in Oregon, but his father insisted his wayward son stay closer to home. In 1948, Holzman landed on campus the day he turned 17, with no idea of the college’s curriculum. “I hadn’t read the catalog,” he says. “I was thrown off at the deep end. The idea of reading a book for each seminar just threw me. It took me a long time to be able to catch up on the reading assignments, but I did.”
He arrived at St. John’s with a keen interest in the technology of radio and recording. His grandmother was a correspondent for CBS news, and he had often sat with her in the studio when she was on the air and got to see the state-of-the-art disc recording equipment of the time.
The music on campus piqued Holzman’s interest: “Windows open, everybody playing what they wanted,” he says. “As a result, I formed a great attraction to Baroque music, which you could hear coming out of the dorms, and which later lead to the creation of Nonesuch Records 16 years later, in 1964.”
“Listening to what my friends played got me interested in folk music,” says Holzman. Bob Sachs, who lived down the hall, had a good collection of folk music records that he invited Holzman to sample. In the late 1940s, it included a broad group of singers and artists such as Josh White, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Huddie William Ledbetter (Lead Belly). “I began to get that feeling for a music I had never heard in my somewhat posh Madison Avenue life,” he chuckles.
That year, Holzman stumbled across an article in a Life magazine lying on a table. It pictured Peter Goldmark, Chief Scientist of CBS and Columbia Records, standing next to a seven-foot tall stack of standard 78 rpm shellac albums. Goldmark was holding the equivalent music, contained on long-playing records (LPs), comfortably under his right arm. “And that’s when it clicked. I knew I wanted to make records.”
It was a time of great technological change that opened up the field of recording. Recording companies had pressed in plants nearby because the shellac 78s were breakable and had to be immediately replaced. The new vinyl LP was sturdier: “You had to attack it with a claw hammer to break it,” says Holzman. “And the beautiful thing of the technology was that the old pressing plants were not obsoleted.” They could press an LP in one-fifth the time it took for shellac records. With the radio’s FM band opening up, he saw another opportunity.
When Woody Guthrie performed on campus in 1950, Holzman wanted to record him but felt out of his league. He approached Georgiana Bannister and John Gruen after their recital of lieder (German songs), and they agreed to be recorded. After Holzman opted to send the tapes out for mastering and was dissatisfied with the results, he took charge of the task. He subsequently produced ninety percent of his first two hundred records.
New Songs by John Gruen, released during Holzman’s junior year in March 1951, heralded the birth of Elektra Records. “I sold nothing, but I had learned a lot,” he says. He named the company after the Greek mythological figure Electra. “I turned two Ms on their sides to make the distinctive early Elektra ‘E‘ A tobacco shop on Maryland Avenue provided the mailing address.
How Holzman passed his enabling exams at the end of the year eluded him, as much of his time was spent in an electronics lab on campus, exploring all manner of gear. Dean Jacob Klein informed him that the school didn’t think he was ready for senior year and suggested he take a year off.
Holzman moved to New York, set up a small record shop, and started recording folk singers in their homes. Elektra’s second release, of Appalachian singer Jean Ritchie, sold roughly a thousand copies, providing funds to make the next record. He worked in this hand-to-mouth manner for years, keeping his ears open, recording what he wanted, and carving out a niche for himself in folk and world music. Theodore Bikel became a label mainstay, and when three of his records became hits, Holzman paid off all debts.
“I was interested in the odd and the kind of material that people would not normally record,” says Holzman. He created a Morse code course for ham radio operators and a massive sound effects library that sold over nine hundred thousand 12-inch LPs.
Elektra became more successful when it diversified into electric music, starting with The Paul Butterfield Band and Love’s eponymous debut album, released in 1966. Holzman recalls a moment that year when, as a member of the St. John’s Board of Visitors & Governors, he was driving to Annapolis: “I was passing through Baltimore, and I had the radio tuned to the local pop music station, and for the first time I heard a record of mine on pop radio.” It was Love’s “My Little Red Book.” “I pulled over to the side of the road and just cried. I did not know that was ever going to happen.”
Elektra became a standout label, producing an impressive catalog: The Doors, The Stooges, Bread, The Incredible String Band, Queen, Carly Simon . . . the list goes on. After leaving Elektra in 1973, Holzman’s career continued to flourish with Warner Communications (he was instrumental in getting the company into the emerging cable business), Panavision, and others. He was awarded the NARAS Trustee Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, receiving the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement.
“St. John’s is all over everything I do to this day. And I take the ethics aspects of the program much to heart.” His gratitude is evident in his close relationship with the college and his gift of the Fine Arts Building on its Santa Fe campus. “St. John’s informed what I did in many ways that I did not realize at the time. I learned to ask a lot of questions; I was not satisfied with a weak-kneed answer. I set standards for myself. I wanted to run the company very ethically, and that’s tough to do in the music business. But we succeeded at Elektra, we did very well by running it honestly.”
Holzman evokes Kalkavage’s theme about the timelessness of music. “My concern is less on people buying music and more directed to people being able to hear the music, to bring its vitality and language into their lives.” █