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1964 Whiffenpoofs sing in Millbrook NY

The Millbrook Independent

May 28, 2014

The Yale'64 Whiffenpoofs sang last Sunday afternoon, May 25, at the Merritt Bookstore. The Whiffenpoofs are the oldest a cappella singing group in America. These Whiffenpoofs weren't the everyday college Whiffs that make the rounds of summer parties enchanting teenaged girls and making old men feel young again. These Whiffs were from the Yale class of 1964, for its fiftieth reunion this weekend. They hadn't forgotten the lyrics, many of which were by Cole Porter, Yale's most famous composer. Nor did they stumble over the part-singing, the close harmony, or the jaunty rhythms, all of which sounded fresh and cheery.

One Whiffenpoof had a book launching in Millbrook — others had arrived to support the event. Song without Words, a memoir by Gerald Shea, recounts his partial deafness, which he only discovered at the age of 33, when he was administered a hearing test and heard only 5 of 20 tones. The title alludes to "Songs without Words," Mendelssohn's lyrical piano pieces, fragments of which Shea often plays.

At the age of six, Shea suffered from scarlet fever. As a result he gradually developed constant buzzing in his ears and eventually could no longer hear consonants. Yet this did not affect his ability to speak consonants, because he had learned them earlier. He attended Phillips Academy at Andover, where he studied under Dudley Fitts who, Shea said, was the teacher who had had the greatest influence on him. This was the second time within a week that I had heard that same remark from another former student of Fitts, who published translations of Greek dramatists. I recall once teaching Aristophanes' Lysistrata and examining all the available translations, then deciding that Fitts had conjured the most incisive, economical, and humorous translation. Influenced by Oliver Sacks, Shea, who lives in Paris, writes with elegance, finesse, and humor.

Later that day the Whiffenpoofs brought their charm and joi de vivre to the Mashomack Club. Whiffenpoofs are Yale seniors chosen by the year's previous Whiffenpoofs , selected from the choral groups.Their numbers vary from 10 to
14. In 1964 there were 13 Whiffenpoofs. Their eight-part harmony signature song is an ode to Mory 's and to Louie, a beloved, legendary bartender at Mory's Temple Bar (still extant at Yale), yet this ode also reflects the influence of Cotton Mather's sense of damnation. Every summer Whiffenpoof s go on a three-month international tour at impressive venues.

Victor Herbert invented the word "whiffenpoof " for an imaginary fish in his opera Little Nemo (1908), based upon a popular cartoon by Winsor McCay; both works served as the basis for the recent Disney cartoon concoction. With a seasoning of gravitas, the Whiffenpoofs continue in the musical tradition of Cole Porter and Victor Herbert, whose fascinating biography by Neil Gould may also be purchased at Merritt Books.

Listen to the 1964 Whiffenpoofs here. And read more about Gerry Shea's Song without Words here.