Helen Kemp Shares Life Songs with Westminster Alumni

Helen Hubbert Kemp reflected on a life committed to service and to song at the Westminster Choir College Alumni Chapel Service.
Saturday, June 4, 2011

Helen Hubbert Kemp delivered the homily at the Westminster Choir College Alumni Chapel Service in May.  Here is a transcript of her inspiring words.

LIFE SONGS

Helen Hubbert Kemp ‘41
Westminster Choir College Alumni Chapel Service Homily
May 13, 2011

The Psalmist had it right. He gave us good advice…“Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with SINGING!”

All of us DID just that this morning… in the singing of the beautiful hymn: “When the morning stars together --- their Creator’s glory sang…..”

My memory flashed back to my first day as a student on this campus... 74 years ago.  It was dinnertime, and all the students gathered in the foyer of the dining room, which was below this chapel. We waited until the appointed time, then all entered, standing around carefully set tables of four. We stood until the evening hymn was sung. I was in heavenly awe when “Day is Dying in the West” was sung in beautiful four-part harmony…a cappella. I experienced for the first time the famous “Westminster sound”!

As I was preparing to talk with you this morning, I decided to review the fascinating history of Westminster Choir College. Since this year marks my 70th class reunion, I realized how close to its beginning I began my relationship with this school.

The four original quadrangle buildings here in Princeton were dedicated in 1934. Two years later, in 1936, my high school choir director brought me here to have my first voice lesson with LoRean Hodapp. An Epiphany! I walked (or should I say ’floated’) out of her studio, knowing that THIS was what I wanted to do…to BE. I wanted to SING -- and be like LoRean Hodapp! My LIFE SONG had begun!

It took a year of stitching baseballs in my father’s factory (remember… depression days!) to earn the funds to enroll at Westminster Choir School in 1937. Yes, I said SCHOOL.  It wasn’t until 1938 that our Choir School became Westminster Choir COLLEGE.  I remember the trauma of the founders, the teachers and the students as our classes and private lessons were being evaluated by state officials. We students were groomed to perfection, and our lessons were models of academia. The news of the successful inspection was cause for celebration….. Oh No! …not with champagne! More likely a special dessert, made by our Swedish cook, the fearsome Ma Sillen!

Then there were historic and memorable times in THIS chapel when we students rose in respect (…and FEAR) as Arturo Toscanini entered and walked down the center aisle for the first time to begin rehearsals for the Verdi Requiem.

We quivered in our shoes when he went ballistic about the way we had learned “Li-be-ra-me-Do-mi-ne-de-mor-te-et-errrr-na...”.  Dr. Henri Switten, our very gifted French theory teacher had taught us -- precisely as printed on the page. We soon learned the passionate Italian way! “LIBera me, DOmine, de MORte eTERRRna.....”

Another unforgettable scene happened right here in this space when Sergei Rachmaninov stood …long and lanky, using his deep bass voice to help us learn the choral parts of The Bells The Bell Symphony. Westminster Choir and a piano were on stage, and when the Maestro couldn’t express what he wanted, he went to the piano where all of us could see the enormous span of his hands! This concert was near the end of his career, and the deep lines on his aging face made us realize how fortunate we were to experience his genius.

I am also reminded of the 1939 Westminster Choir Tour when Walt Disney entertained us in his Hollywood Studio, and Leopold Stokowski was working with us for possible inclusion in the film Fantasia.  Disney introduced us to the cartoonists who were creating Pinocchio …. and…..we went to see Gone with the Wind in one of its premier showings…  1939 was a BIG year!

All of you who have studied here during the 40s, 50s,60s,70s,80s, 90s and into the 21st century have long lists of great choral works that you have sung with world-famous conductors and Symphony Orchestras. This was the dream of our founder, Dr. John Finley Williamson…and his dream came true! All these great works are a part of your LIFE SONG!

But the most important thing is that through these experiences, you have been able to leave here, and bring song, beauty, art, and yes..love, into all levels of society: churches, schools, colleges and universities, concert halls, opera stages, perhaps Broadway, retirement communities, and more…..

Recently, it was my great joy to receive many enthusiastic Facebook posts during the Lenten and Easter Season….listing the wonderful music sung by your choirs all across this nation.  It made me rejoice that…unlike Vegas...what we DO here does NOT stay here!  It radiates around the world, encouraging LIFE SONGS to be sung by thousands….perhaps millions!

And the song lives on! When I decided to sell my big farm house and move to The Manor at York Town, a retirement community, I thought that perhaps this was my cue to enjoy the role of an observer - a listener - an appreciator. But within a few weeks I was asked if I would “take on” the Manor Singers. So now, after many years of working with 7, 8 and 9-year-old choristers, I’ve added zeros….70, 80 and 90 year–old youngsters.

We have a motto…..”You don’t stop singing because you get old; you get old because you stop singing!”  Our Spring Concert (for our residents) is coming up shortly and there is great excitement at the Manor.

Yes, times have changed in these 70 years.  Buildings have changed and multiplied.  Curricula have changed. Academic requirements have changed.  Our name has changed...again! We are now proudly Westminster Choir College of Rider University since the beneficial and necessary merger in 1994.

As I listened to your singing today, I knew that the song, the sound, the choral beauty, the joy, the singing, the HEART of Westminster Choir College of Rider University remains the same! Thank you to Westminster Choir College for teaching and inspiring us to sing our own LIFE SONGS.

In closing, I want to share lines of a poem, which our beloved Charles Schisler read at my husband John Kemp’s Memorial in this chapel. (Please forgive a few word changes...)

The Singing             
There was so much singing then,
and this was my pleasure, too
We all sang: The boys in the fields;
The chapels were full of singing
Always singing!
Here I stand
I have had pleasure [in abundance]
I have had singing!

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Helen Hubbert Kemp and her daughter Julia Kemp Rothfuss