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A Brief History of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia

[printable version]

“The history of the Sinfonia is an interesting one. For a better understanding of it the reader must go back to the pre-Sinfonia era, and realize fully that it was an organization rising out of natural causes and conditions. It came to be because there was a need for just such a club. It was not the idea of one or two men, but of many men, and, rather than being forced into being, it created itself. It was needed; there was a place for it; it was born.”
- Ralph Howard Pendleton, 1901.


Sinfonia’s genesis was, in the words of Supreme President Percy Jewett Burrell (Alpha), “not really a beginning after all, but indeed the product of a personality—Father Mills.” Likewise, the Fraternity’s earliest history stated:

Much might be written concerning the necessity, the cause, the objects, the reception of this infant organization. It believes that a reason for its existence has been emphatically demonstrated, that it has also arisen from natural causes, and is likewise the product of a personality, that personality being the founder of the movement, Ossian E. Mills.


Ossian Everett Mills, for many years a trustee and bursar of the New England Conservatory in Boston, was profoundly interested in the social and moral welfare of young men. He recognized that a large proportion of them intended to put their musical knowledge into the church either as organists or singers, and felt that this class of people, as much as any, needed to have “the Love of God in their hearts.” So in 1886, he began inviting a group of male students at the Conservatory to meet with him weekly for informal prayer meetings.

Thirteen years later, Mills was still leading those meetings, and in the autumn of 1898 he encouraged the “Old Boys” of the Conservatory to invite the “New Boys” to a “get-acquainted” reception. A discussion about forming a music club took place among some of the men who attended that reception, and there being considerable interest in the idea, a meeting was planned for the evening of October 6 to explore the possibilities further. At that meeting the club was born, and Frank Leslie Stone was elected its President.

On October 25, the club’s thirteen active members and one honorary, Ossian Mills, accepted a governing document that has remained the Fraternity’s philosophy of existence to the present day. In part it read:

The Object of this Fraternity shall be for the development of the best and truest fraternal spirit; the mutual welfare and brotherhood of musical students; the advancement of music in America and a loyalty to the Alma Mater.


At that time the club also accepted the name “Sinfonia,” which had been recommended to Mills and Stone by George W. Chadwick, the “Dean of American Composers.” As the newly-elected Conservatory Director, Chadwick was very much interested in the new club, and he suggested that they name it after a club of young men into which he had been initiated during his student days at the Royal Conservatory in Leipzig, called the Symphonia Club.

The fledgling society was a success from its very beginning. Under the leadership of Frank Leslie Stone, the Sinfonians carried on a busy schedule of social events, recitals, concerts, and shows; sponsored a men’s glee club; entertained visiting artists; renovated the chapter rooms; and held regular fortnightly meetings, one of the main features of which was the initiation of new members. The first recorded initiation took place on November 28, 1898.

Through Mills and the brothers who participated in prayer meetings under his leadership, contemplation of and devotion to high ideals characterized Sinfonia even before its official beginnings. Mills was convinced that, while there was some benefit derived from their social times together, at least part of their evenings should be devoted “to exercises that would minister directly to our higher natures,” and he wrote of Sinfonia, “If we can in any way inspire the boys to have high ideals and to strive to live up to them, we shall do well.” “Father Mills” personified the spirit of thoughtfulness and sacrifice for others at the expense of his own time, effort and strength through his Song and Flower Mission, which took the healing power of music to the sick and suffering patients in Boston’s hospitals for over thirty years. Because Mills made the initial move to get the students together, inspired them to form a club, counseled them in keeping the group interested and in having an efficient organization, secured a room in the conservatory for them to meet, and collected funds to help them furnish their room, he was honored with the title of Founder.

By October 1899 the club numbered about fifty men and continued to add members at frequent intervals. Sinfonia’s outstanding success gave rise to thoughts of national expansion, especially to Ralph Howard Pendleton, the first man to suggest the idea. It seemed that if the Sinfonia Club was fulfilling a need at the New England Conservatory, then surely men at other conservatories in the country could benefit from a similar organization. Large Greek-letter fraternities flourished on college campuses, but there was no society for men in music. Why not establish a “secret and national male student’s musical fraternity” at conservatories and music schools coast to coast? The men of Boston’s Sinfonia, however, were by no means of one mind on the question of expansion; at a meeting on October 1, 1900 to discuss the issue, arguments pro and con were vigorous, and tempers grew hot. In the end, a majority agreed to spend $25.00 from the club’s treasury (which then totaled $34.00) to send men to New York, Philadelphia and Washington to present the idea of Sinfonia firsthand to male students of the leading conservatories. The expedition attracted notice far outside the student world, and was mentioned in leading newspapers and magazines.

So it was that Pendleton and Henry Hall found themselves in Philadelphia and in conference with men of the Broad Street Conservatory on October 6, 1900, two years to the day after Sinfonia’s birth in Boston. The men from Philadelphia requested and received admission to Sinfonia as its Beta Chapter, confirmed by telegram to the waiting brothers at the New England Conservatory. The minutes of Beta Chapter said of that first visit:

The gentlemen from afar expounded to us at home, how they had a society or club connected with their institution which was entirely American in its design, its unwritten motto was ‘gather to the Art for Americans, and American Art for the World.’ They told how their society had grown from thirteen fellows to a large and strong influence in their student labor, and were in hopes we would form a similar branch in our conservatory – and thereby help spread the growth, so that in a short time it would have chapters all over our country, and cause one of the most influential Fraternities ever born.


On November 26, 1900, a group of twelve men at the American Institute of Applied Art in New York City became Gamma Chapter. Delta, at Ithaca Conservatory, followed in the last weeks of January 1901. To organize the now national Fraternity, a Convention of its four chapters was called in Boston during April 16-20, 1901. The assembly saw the sights and attended concerts in Boston, adopted a Constitution and symbols, elected Ossian Mills Supreme President, and set about the business that has continued ever since. By 1902, Beta had progressed sufficiently to host the second National Convention. The Philadelphia Press on April 20, 1902 gave the assembly a noteworthy account:

Nearly forty musical geniuses from different parts of the country will assemble in this city tomorrow to discuss in a calm, harmonious way, topics pertaining to their art.

This will be the second convention of the Sinfonia Fraternity of America, the first organization which has ever tried to promote and foster a general feeling of fellowship among makers of melody since the practicability of producing musical sounds was discovered in the dead past.

For three days these musical geniuses, who hail from Boston, Chicago, Ithaca, and New York and other parts of the Union are to enjoy one another’s society. In that time they will talk of various phases of modern music, discuss the compositions of the old masters, transact business of the fraternity, hold a banquet and visit the various points of interest in Philadelphia, and they propose doing it in a manner which musicians of old times would have believed impossible. In the musical discussions particularly, it is said, the spirit of antagonism proverbially rampant among artists of the profession will be absent. Tradition, in this respect, has been overcome by the Sinfonia.


At the dawn of the twentieth century the foremost masters were Europeans, and even American audiences and conservatories would recognize a musician only if he had a background of European instruction. No matter what a man’s ability, he could not expect to advance without the proper European pedigree. This intensified the competition among talented American musicians for the few positions available to them. The field of music was notorious for petty hostilities among musicians, and there was “an unhealthy rivalry and a definite distrust” between schools of music. By promoting true brotherhood, harmony and mutual support among musicians, Sinfonia’s founders overturned the dominant condition of hostility, and revolutionized music in America.

The delegates who were gathered at those first Conventions stood on the threshold of the twentieth century—a time that was to see some of the most rapid and dramatic changes in the history of the world. America was beginning to assert itself in the arena of world affairs, to cast off the role of culturally backward colonies and be counted among the ranking nations of the globe. That American musicians should want to be part of this movement stands to reason. If America was willing to assert itself on a level of equality with the rest of the world, could not American musicians do the same? Sinfonia’s founders realized the organization’s potential to be a primary force in that movement by raising American music and American musicians to a point of equality with their European counterparts. Their patriotism was a driving force behind the creation of a national Sinfonia, which quickly became the rallying point for American musicians to support one another and the cause of American music. George Williams (Delta), General Manager of the Ithaca Conservatory and Sinfonia’s third Supreme President, observed:

The bond of Sinfonia Brotherhood now extends throughout the length and breadth of our country. Never before have such cordial relations and mutual interest existed among the leading musical schools of learning. Never before has a like number of musicians and students of music been banded together by such bonds of real brotherhood. Such an influence must make itself felt beyond the borders of our fraternal quarters to the accomplishment of our further purpose, ‘The advancement of music in America.’


The bond of Sinfonia brotherhood was shared among the composers, conductors and supporters of a uniquely American classical idiom: George Chadwick, Arthur Foote and Horatio Parker of “The Boston Six” (the Second New England School of composers); Arthur Whiting, Wallace Goodrich, F. S. Converse and Henry Hadley (who all studied under Chadwick); Henry Lee Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony; and Theodore Thomas, founder and first conductor of the Chicago Symphony and conductor of the New York Philharmonic. These men knew each other as brothers, and they worked together with joy and enthusiasm as the new American music made its way on the programs of the greatest Symphonies in America as well as those of Europe.

Believing that great art brings out the noblest instincts in man and creates a better democracy, those early Sinfonians wanted the new music of the nation to represent the highest standards in musical art. In the post-Enlightenment age, artists had gained new freedoms to create the music of their own inspiration. Amid the opportunities and influences of a growing music industry, they called for quality and sincerity in music. Their encounter with democracy was marked most of all by a refusal to give in to it—if giving in required any compromise of artistic responsibility and professional craftsmanship.

For early Sinfonians, brotherhood and their lives and livelihoods as musicians were inseparable. They valued their fraternal bonds and considered brotherhood to be “the keynote of our organization.” Therefore “the development of fraternal spirit” was called the Fraternity’s “chief purpose” and listed first in the Object. They took immense pride in the fact that Sinfonia was the first society to advance music by promoting brotherhood and mutual support, and warned, “Let us not lose this individuality and thus become only one of thousands of similar organizations, when at present we are at the head of a field truly our own.”

This concept of Fraternity was not limited to sociability or friendship among musicians, but encompassed the Enlightenment ideal that early Sinfonians described as “the universal brotherhood of man.” They hoped that, through the character and work of individual Sinfonians, the spirit of charity and fraternity would pervade society with music and bring about the final harmony of all mankind. They wrote that Sinfonia was “a movement for the betterment of mankind,” and that the Fraternity’s purpose was to bring the musician to the “full realization that service to music is not enough, but that service to mankind should be the essential thing of his life.” They believed that musicians had a particular power – and obligation – to aid and bless society.

The rapid rate of expansion that followed grew out of this atmosphere. By its twenty-fifth year, the Fraternity had grown to twenty-five chapters. It doubled in the five years that followed. It was in this period that Sinfonia experienced its “Golden Age,” when labors of influential and selfless leaders such as Ossian Mills, Percy Jewett Burrell, Peter W. Dykema and Thomas E. Dewey brought forth a national Sinfonia that earned the great respect of students and educators alike, and truly became a force in American music.

Sinfonia grew and flourished in the early teens under the leadership of Burrell, a man imbued with the spirit of Ossian Mills and determined to nurture the seeds that Mills had carefully planted in Sinfonia. Supreme President from 1907-1914, Burrell gave selflessly of his time and effort to build Sinfonia into a proud and strong Fraternity with an earnest commitment to the values embodied in the Object and a demand for quality that gained Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia the respect of its peers.

Sinfonia continued to flourish in the 1920s under the dynamic leadership of Peter Dykema (Phi), a man of great energies and foresight whose effect on American music education is felt to this day. The Fraternity stressed quality in its programs, which was reflected in a series of exemplary publications written by a young first year law student at the University of Michigan, Thomas Dewey (Epsilon), who at the time was equally well known for a “fine baritone voice.” As National Historian, Dewey insisted on quality, often returning articles to their authors with instructions to improve them. His efforts resulted in a feeling of pride throughout the Fraternity that helped to power Sinfonia’s rapid growth. Dewey later transformed those same standards and values into an outstanding political career that carried him to the Governorship of New York and just short of the Presidency of the United States in 1948.

After America’s victory in World War II, the idea that American music was inferior became a thing of the past. The insecurity among American musicians that had given Sinfonia so much urgency before the wars vanished. The draft in wartime had made it virtually impossible to maintain anything other than a shell of the organization, since many schools could claim fewer than ten male students enrolled. Then, with the introduction of the GI bill, came a massive influx of men into the nation’s music programs after the war. The increased numbers gave the appearance of health, but that perception brought complacency toward the values that had seemed so urgent before the wars. The Fraternity’s leaders questioned “what interest could fraternity membership have for these men” who were older and more mature than the usual college student. At this time, the primary emphasis on developing brotherhood and ideals among musicians was laid aside to promote the Fraternity’s professional value to its members.

The size problems suddenly vanished, but rather than a natural, orderly expansion, the Fraternity experienced a membership boom for which it was not well prepared. Maintaining the same type of quality and continuity in the Fraternity’s programs became very difficult. The difficulties and expenses of communicating with the entire membership and keeping records updated posed large problems. To save money, publications were streamlined, and the Fraternity no longer produced the type of publication that had been the standard of the pre-war era. As the writings and commentaries that made up the bulk of the Fraternity’s history were no longer published on a regular basis, knowledge of Sinfonia’s early years became limited and somewhat vague, and the heritage of excellence that was common knowledge to the early brothers was lost. Along with that loss and the intense commitment the writings had helped to foster went the national prestige that the Fraternity had once enjoyed. This was not a drastic process, but rather a decline that progressed slowly over the ensuing years. Eventually, the question of quality had been replaced by the more vital question of survival itself.

When the scorn of established institutions that characterized the 1960s hit Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the Fraternity was hard pressed to preserve the vestiges of its past that remained. Brotherhood, ideals, symbols and Ritual – all the hallmarks of a fraternal society that had once been central – were diminished. The early years were misrepresented as “the old closed-door days” when “whispered rites and mysterious signals” were separate from “the work-a-day world of music.” In an attempt to distinguish Phi Mu Alpha from other fraternities and attract membership, its leaders began an active campaign to characterize Sinfonia as “the professional fraternity for men in music,” a designation that became a source of pride and distinction for several generations of Sinfonians.

In 1970, the Fraternity’s statement of purpose was rewritten to “place increased emphasis upon professionalism.” The founders had called the development of fraternal spirit our “chief purpose,” but the new purposes turned this inside-out, stating that the “primary purpose” was to promote music, and that fraternal spirit and mutual support were “further purposes.” The national office proclaimed: “the ‘old frat’ is gone.” However, only two years later, the U.S. Education Amendments were adopted, including Title IX, which requires “professional” fraternities to admit both genders. Sinfonia’s leaders struggled with whether to keep the new “professional” designation, or return to the original social status. Ultimately, after initiating just fewer than 250 females, the latter course was chosen. In 1983 the Fraternity received a much sought-after exemption from Title IX, citing that it had been legally classified as a social fraternity since 1904. The 1985 National Assembly affirmed this, voting to limit initiation and chapter membership to men only, and to remove from the Constitution the statement that “Phi Mu Alpha is a fraternity representing the music profession.” Sinfonia’s interlude as a “professional fraternity” was officially over.

As the Fraternity approached its centennial anniversary, increased historical research and widespread education created a heightened awareness that the Fraternity had been declared “social” in the early 1980s, but was still using the “professional” designation. Thus began an ongoing and active effort to teach Sinfonia’s classification and mission accurately. In 1998 the Fraternity stopped teaching that Sinfonia was “professional,” and the 2003 National Assembly restored the original Object, once again recognizing that “the development of the best and truest fraternal spirit” among musicians is the highest purpose and very essence of Sinfonia.

In 1910 President George Williams wrote that the “ideals so clearly and wisely presented to us by Father Mills at the organization of Sinfonia are the foundation-stones on which our fraternity has been built, and all of our present greatness is due to the fact that these foundation-stones were laid soundly and well…” With retrospective self-examination, Sinfonia has entered its second century with a renewed commitment to its Object and the timeless ideals that provide such a strong foundation for the health of the organization. The values that made Sinfonia great in its early days are abiding and have proved just as useful now as they were one hundred years ago. What made Sinfonia so prominent in its “Golden Age” and has contributed to renewed success? There are three overriding forces: intense commitment to the Object and ideals of the Fraternity; personal support of a vital and well-organized national organization in addition to strong chapters; and a sincere attempt to live the vows taken at initiation. The future course of Sinfonia depends upon the individual work of Sinfonians today. In the words of Supreme President Peter Dykema, “What Sinfonia does for music depends not so much upon rules and regulations as upon the quality of our being; not upon our organization but upon our men. It is you and you and you who determine what we shall become.” Why should Sinfonia not fulfill its promise to advance music in America and bring about the final harmony of mankind? The only limitation to Sinfonia’s attainment of this mission is each brother’s personal commitment and effort.



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