Alma Maters & Varsity Verse
If you could make a cocktail from the lyrics to American university Alma Mater songs, you’d shake one part praise hymn with one part lofty love poem–and one part Mother’s Day Card. Elevated and everyday, varsity verse sounds from freshman convocation to football chorus, from inauguration to graduation. Wherever a university may be, its Alma Mater song likely has glorious walls or halls bathed in more light than a Thomas Kinkade painting. Its sons and daughters are valiant, and its great name is ever victorious. However generic or dislocated, varsity verse binds generations of college graduates with a timeless past and a beckoning future.
On this Fall Commencement weekend here at UF, I’m thinking about my three Alma Maters and the dynamics of varsity verse. The University of Tennessee’s Alma Mater grounds its opening line in “a hallowed hill,” a fitting site for a campus in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. My second Alma Mater song, from the University of Illinois, bears no trace of the surrounding prairie in “Hail to the Orange. Hail to the Blue.” Here at UF, the Alma Mater locates our campus in the vibrant subtropics:
Where palm and pine are blowing,
Where southern seas are flowing.
Perpetually grounded in a state of flux, UF’s Alma Mater is especially fitting for commencements and other ceremonies that mark new beginnings. Composer Mitchell Stecker, a UF graduate student in Musicology, captures this dynamic in his new carillon composition “A Florida Suite,” commissioned for UF’s recent Presidential Inauguration.
Stecker’s four-part composition is not a setting of UF’s Alma Mater. Rather, the Alma Mater becomes a starting point for generating musical motifs from key phrases: Thy glorious name we praise (I); thy noble Gothic walls (III); A joyous song (IV); and the subtropical lines quoted above (II). Stecker thinks of his composition as “impressions” on these phrases. He weaves in allusions to the Alma Mater melody and other UF campus music (including Budd Udell’s “Florida Chime” and the “F-L-O-R-I-D-A” from “We Are the Boys”). Unmooring the Alma Mater, “A Florida Suite” reinvents its varsity verse into new soundscapes that are in turn regal, evocative, and boisterously joyful. Stecker has designed a carillon suite that carries traces of our campus life and landscape while remaining transportable–one could perform it anywhere. What sounding of our Alma Mater could be a better sendoff for our new graduates? -MB