1998 Swan Award Winner: Charles Hirt
He was, in the words of William Dehnning, retired chairman of the two USC departments that Hirt founded, and a former student of Hirt’s, “quite possibly…the single greatest representative of all that was powerful and formative in choral music.”
Born in Los Angeles, reared in Glendale and educated at Occidental College and USC, Hirt achieved an international reach with his visionary baton. He was invited to direct festival choirs in Vienna, Belgium, France, England and Japan and to lecture around the world.
He led the young people’s nationwide chorus, American Youth in Concert, through tours of Europe and led his own groups from USC through Western Europe, then-communist Eastern Europe and Israel.
Hirt was one of 23 worldwide choral experts who met in New Orleans in 1981 to organize the International Federation for Choral Music, and he helped plan its first World Symposium on Choral Music in 1987. He founded the Choral Conductors’ Guild of California and served as president of its Los Angeles chapter in 1949. He helped found the American Choral Directors Association, was national president from 1970 to 1972 and chaired its first national convention in 1971.
The indefatigable Hirt consulted with Hollywood moguls on choral work for motion pictures and was choral advisor for Disneyland. He organized its annual Christmas Candlelight Ceremony.
From church chancels and concert stages of such vaunted venues as Carnegie Hall, the conductor molded handfuls or hundreds of voices into inspiring sound.
To all who would follow his direction, Hirt espoused his credo, as paraphrased by Dehning: “Choral music has a power for social good which no other art form can–or ever will–have: the combination of God’s finest musical achievement–voices in ensemble–plus humankind’s finest achievement, language. That combination is unbeatable, both in music and in society, and could be an unimaginable source of healing and community on a world scale.”
Hirt began his career modestly, as a music teacher in Los Angeles city schools from 1934 to 1941. On Sundays, he directed the choir of the First Methodist Church of Glendale.
He was persuaded to switch churches in 1941, by Louis H. Evans, then the new pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church. At the time, the vast Hollywood church, which grew to more than 8,000 members, had only an organist and a quartet–and Evans’ dream of a music department.
With his wife, Lucille, who organized and directed youth choirs, Hirt began recruiting vocal ensembles. Applicants, he specified, must have strong spiritual and social skills as well as musical attributes, because he considered congeniality as essential for any good choir as talent.
The Hirts, who worked with the church for the next 30 years, were soon leading various youth choirs, a chancel choir, a 70-voice cathedral choir and a summer chorus.
At the same time, Hirt moved to USC as its director of choral activities. He stayed for 35 years, creating one of the nation’s first major choral education centers.
Among the choral groups he organized were the USC Chamber Singers, the Madrigal Singers, an a cappella choir, the University Chorus and men’s and women’s glee clubs. In 1946, he established and chaired the special departments for church and choral music, offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees and eventually doctorates.
The university, which has given Hirt its Ramo Music Faculty Award, a Distinguished Emeriti Professor Award, its School of Music Centennial Award and its first Robert Lawson Shaw Award, has a choral laboratory named for him in its Music Faculty Memorial Building.