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Who Killed Madrigals?

November 6, 2009

by The Forum
Who Killed Madrigals?

The immediate answer is the Athenaeum staff, but it's more complicated than that.  After 26 years of the Madrigal Dinner tradition at Claremont McKenna, this year David Edwards and Bonnie Snortum, the Athenaeum's Manager and Director, respectively, decided that tradition is over, at least for now. This is sad for many reasons.  The most obvious reason is that CMC, a college only 63 years old, has few historic traditions as it is.  CMC has no geographic or architectural significance, no statues of our founders on campus, and now, almost no significant annual events.  Maybe the closest we come to a tradition is the Foam Party, and that isn't even at CMC.  Madrigals were rare in that they not only involved students, but they were about holiday cheer, food, and song.  For 26 years, alumni, faculty, and students came together on a few nights in early December for a five-course meal, medieval-themed skits, and choir performance.

So what caused the Athenaeum to end the tradition?  According to Ms. Snortum, a few things made it difficult to keep the event going.

First, live traditional Madrigal music was hard to come by.  The Scripps Chamber Choir that performed at Madrigals for 24 years refused to do so two years ago when the new Director of Choirs, Charles Kamm, decided it wasn't worth a week of preparation for Madrigals if CMCers weren't respectful of the performance.  In addition, Dean Debra Woods at Scripps College, who was in attendance that year, wrote a letter to President Gann complaining about the drinking she saw at the event. Given all of this, the Athenaeum Advisory Committee -- a group of faculty, staff and students -- decided that Madrigals was going to be difficult if not impossible to continue.

Brad Walters '08, ASCMC President at the time, fought to keep the tradition alive by reviving the event with 5C a capella groups instead of the traditional choir.  It worked for the first year, but it was not comparable to a real chamber choir.  Brad also e-mailed the school to ask them to be on their best behavior at the event. It worked; the tradition lasted another year.

The next year, ASCMC again hired some a capella groups to perform, but some dropped out at the last minute.  The music was pretty bad.  The alcohol problem got worse.  Many students decided to pre-game the event, showing up blacked out or worse.  Students were disrespectful to the Madrigal-themed servers, singers, and CMC staff.  A CMCer got so sick at his table that the table cloth had to be thrown away. After the event, glass bottles and handles were found under tables. Maintenance workers had to clean up the bathroom while wearing hazmat suits.

Personally, I had a great time at Madrigals last year and didn't realize any of this was going on.  The description above describes a small minority of the audience, but a visible minority to the Ath staff.  While it's one thing to have a good time, it's pretty unbelievable that CMCers can't even keep it together at a formal holiday dinner with alumni, faculty and staff.

That said, I don't think students are entirely to blame for this. After all, I doubt incoming CMCers have changed that dramatically over the past 26 years -- we didn't come here as raging, disrespectful alcoholics. More likely, the controls that had been in place -- the formality of actual Madrigal events and the self-policing by students that came along with it -- left with the Scripps Choir. What is needed, then, (and what was attempted this year) is a joint effort by the students and the Athenaeum to bring Madrigals back and to maintain it as an annual tradition, before it escapes college memory:

  • Make it clear to the students from the outset, as Brad did in 2008, that this isn't another TNC. It requires the decency, if not more, that other Ath events receive.

  • Then, at the event itself, just don't let in students who can barely stand up and kick out those who are being disruptive. As we have seen this is a case where a few people can ruin it for everyone.

  • Get a real madrigals choir to perform. In October, when ASCMC heard the Athenaeum actually canceled Madrigals this year, we offered to find outside groups to perform a real madrigal concert (we set aside $7,500 last spring for this purpose).  Willing to listen, David Edwards asked us to get some options ready.  We did, but by the time we did (two weeks later), he told us it was too late.

  • Hold the Athenaeum responsible for hosting the event.  An issue was the Athenaeum made absolutely no effort to find an outside group.  When I asked Bonnie Snortum why the Ath didn't try to find a group to keep the tradition alive, she told me they "aren't really set up for that."  But isn't that what the Athenaum does -- find outside speakers and performers to come to CMC? Her suggestion was that students should be responsible for that. No, the students are here to learn. That's why our families are paying $50k+ to employ people like the Athenaeum staff, Dean of Students office, etc. to take care of student life and extracurricular matters. ASCMC plans parties*, and the Ath has made it clear Madrigals isn't one. For more than two decades, it had been planned and executed in no small part by their staff, and it's unfair to students to drop that responsibility now. If we're willing to step up, so should they.

___________ *ASCMC does not just plan parties, of course. It does much, much more, but if the Ath wants us to take Madrigals as seriously as a regular Ath event, maybe they should as well.

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