“Musical Amateurs” was started in 1935 by Professor Roy Dickinson Welch, chairman of the Princeton University Music Department. Patterned after Henry Drinker’s Sunday night singing parties in Philadelphia, an informal group of about twenty musicians met in the living room of Mrs. MacKenty Bryan’s house on Sunday afternoon, to sing works from the choral literature for their own pleasure. Professor Welch conducted, and had the assistance of a piano accompanist. The group gradually grew too large for a living room, and after World War II moved the meetings to the old Miss Fine’s School building (present site of Monument Hall), with Mrs. Bryan as its manager. She served a magnificent supper at intermission time.
The popularity and subsequent growth of the organization led to the use of the “new” gymnasium of the school, built around 1955, where there was enough room to house the current membership of that time – 175 or so, and experiment with having orchestral accompaniment. Certain traditions evolved, such as singing either Handel’s Messiah or the Bach Christmas Oratorio in December – and the Bach Mass in B-minor in May. The sessions were generally conducted by J. Merrill Knapp or Elliot Forbes, who were both members of the University’s Music Department, with an occasional guest conductor being introduced. Eventually Mrs. Bryan’s glorious suppers had to be reduced to “refreshments” because of rising food costs and the tremendous labor involved.
Mrs. Bryan retired in 1963, the organization was incorporated, and a set of bylaws was written. Mrs. Grace Ramus took over and almost single-handedly guided and ran the Society for the next twenty years. In 1968 the Musical Amateurs moved its Sunday afternoon sessions to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Princeton. Over the years the repertoire has expanded to include 20th Century works such as the Bernstein Chichester Psalms, and performing a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta in February has become an annual event. Each session is conducted by one of the many prominent conductors from the Central New Jersey area who lend their talents to this remarkable organization.
The activities of the Princeton Society of Musical Amateurs (PSMA) are supported in part by the J.Merrill Knapp Endowment Fund.
The stated purpose of PSMA is as follows: “Members of the community gather for the common and joyful enterprise of making music, to sing through (for their own pleasure) the great works in choral literature, with chorus, orchestra, and soloists as the works require”. The meetings are not in any sense performances, but rather informal readings in which any musically interested person may participate. There are no preliminary rehearsals and no auditions are required to sing in the chorus. The orchestra members play by invitation.
The Princeton Society of Musical Amateurs is a 501(c)(3) organization and is entirely run by volunteers. Paid positions are prohibited by our bylaws. In addition to the Officers, Board members, and Committee heads, many members help with “chair duty” (setting up and taking down the chairs, distributing scores, and assembling music stands) and “refreshments duty” (preparing and setting out refreshments and cleaning up the lounge and kitchen after the meeting). At one recent session, by a show of hands, about two-thirds of the attendees had assisted in some way at least once.