Glee (music)

A glee is an English type of part song spanning the late baroque, classical and early romantic periods. It is usually scored for at least three voices, and generally intended to be sung unaccompanied. Glees often consist of a number of short, musically contrasted movements and their texts can be convivial, fraternal, idyllic, tender, philosophical or even (occasionally) dramatic. Their respectable and artistic character contrasts with the bawdiness of many catches of the late 17th century, which were thought inappropriate in female company. Although most glees were originally written to be sung in gentlemen's singing clubs, they often included soprano parts—which were sung by boys (church choristers) in earlier years, and later by ladies who were often present, although only as guests. Glees as described above fall into a different musical category from traditional college songs or fight songs.


The standard glee is a three- or four-voice a cappella song, although many examples also exist with from five to eight voices, and some early glees have basso continuo accompaniment. It is generally to be sung by solo voices. Glees often consist of several short movements.[1] The use of the countertenor voice, often on the upper part, is a particular characteristic of the form (the most famous exponent was William Knyvett), serving to distinguish it from German male voice music, in which the top part is taken by a tenor.


The first song to be described as a glee was Turn, Amaryllis, to thy Swain by Thomas Brewer. Glees were occasionally produced during the remainder of the 17th century and increasingly so in the first half of the 18th century by such composers as John Travers and William Hayes. The heyday of the glee was in the years between 1750 and 1850. Perhaps inspired by a revival of the English madrigal (and other early music) by the Academy of Vocal (later Ancient) Music (founded 1726), English composers, unlike their continental contemporaries, began again to compose a cappella music. At first the predominant stylistic influence was Italianate, but later glee composers juxtaposed sections in the French Overture style and style galant with affetuoso 3/4 movements and sections of robust Handelian fugal writing. Glees were also often introduced into stage productions. As the 19th century progressed, and musical tastes changed, the glee as a musical form began to be replaced by the romantic Part song. By the mid-20th century, the glee had become a musical curiosity, seldom performed. However, professional singing groups have, since then, performed and recorded glees with some success.

Glee clubsEdit

The first of the great Georgian clubs to popularize the glee was the Noblemen and Gentlemen's Catch Club of London, founded in 1761. Glee singing societies became popular in the 18th century and remained so, well into the 19th century. Glee clubs were at their most active during the second half of the 18th century, encouraging the production of new glees by awarding prizes to their composers. For example, in 1763 the Catch Club was offering four prizes annually - two for glees (one serious, one cheerful), one for a catch and one for a canon. From around 1850, as larger choral societies supplanted the earlier clubs, the term glee club was increasingly used in the U.S.A. to describe collegiate ensembles performing 'glees' and other light music in informal circumstances. As these glee clubs began more to resemble standard choirs during the 20th century, the tradition of singing glees in a social context faded.


A notable, if not entirely typical, example of a glee is Glorious Apollo, a composition by Samuel Webbe Sr., written in 1787 as a theme song for the newly founded London Glee Club. Webbe's glee took root with the Harvard Glee Club, the oldest such group in America, which still sings this song. Webbe wrote the text as well as the music, and in it he faithfully traced the London Glee Club's history; for the first couple of years, the meetings circulated among members' homes. This is reflected in the second line, which notes that the club was "wand'ring to find a temple for his praise." It finally found its "temple" when the club's meetings moved to the Newcastle Coffee House. Webbe's references to the gods of the Greek pantheon were part and parcel of the Georgian gentlemen's singing clubs' identification with the learning and leisure activities of the classical world. Webbe structured the poem so that the first two couplets of each verse were sung by solo voices, with all the members joining in at the refrain, "Thus then combining...".

Glorious Apollo
Glorious Apollo from on high beheld us,
Wand'ring to find a temple for his praise.
Sent Polyhymnia hither to shield us,
While we ourselves such a structure might raise.
Thus then combining, hands and hearts joining,
Sing we in harmony Apollo's praise.
Here ev'ry gen'rous sentiment awaking,
Music inspiring unity and joy.
Each social pleasure giving and partaking,
Glee and good humour our hours employ.
Thus then combining, hands and hearts joining,
Long may continue our unity and joy.

Another of Webbe's glees is Discord!, whose first movement is based on a passage from Iliad (Book 4) and whose second is based on a verse which, it is thought, he composed himself.

Discord! Dire sister of the slaughtering power,
Small at her birth, but rising every hour,
While scarce the skies her horrid head can bound,
She stalks on earth, and shakes the world around.
But lovely Peace in angel form
Descending quells the rising storm.
Soft ease and sweet content shall reign
And Discord never rise again.

Notable composersEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Glees and Gleemen by T Ratcliffe; Werners Magazine, volume XXII, page 112; New York, 1898.


  • A Concise History of Music by H. G. Bonavia Hunt. George Bell and Sons: London, 1878
  • Musical Groundwork by Frederick J. Crowest. Frederick Warne and Company: London, 1890
  • Sketches of (the English) Glee Composers by David Baptie. William Reeves: London, 1896

Further readingEdit