Music at Gettysburg College: A Longstanding Tradition

Parker Wagnild ChoirBefore there was a Sunderman Conservatory, there was the Music Department at Gettysburg College. And before that department was formed shortly after World War II, there were decades of music-focused activities and groups on campus, including the first a cappella College Choir founded by Parker B. Wagnild. Thanks to a college faculty committed to the installation and growth of music opportunities for all students at Gettysburg - and a generous gift by a remarkable alumnus -- what began as a Glee Club more than a century ago has evolved into the Conservatory of today.

Dr. F. William Sunderman: From Student Orchestra Leader to Conservatory Benefactor

William SundermanAs the seeds of the music department were being planted on campus, F. William Sunderman was front-and-center in the Gettysburg College music scene.  In 1918, he led the Army Band on campus, as well as the Student Orchestra.

Fast-forward almost a century, and Dr. Sunderman -- a physician, pathologist, clinical scientist, chemist, toxicologist, author, editor, photographer, lifelong violinist and 1919 graduate of Gettysburg College - bequeathed his alma mater with a $14-million gift to establish the Sunderman Conservatory of Music.

Always a visionary, his intent was to provide talented students with comprehensive classical music instruction and performance training in conjunction with a high quality liberal arts education.

He also gifted Gettysburg College with his music library of over 1,000 scores and parts, as well as a collection of 18th and early 19th century violins and bows.

Over the course of his life, Sunderman played his Stradivarius violin at Carnegie Hall, developed an antidote for nickel carbonyl poisoning and tested it on himself while working on the Manhattan Project, and was one of the first doctors to use insulin to revive a patient from a diabetic coma. Upon his death in 2003, after a lifetime of extraordinary experiences and accomplishments, Dr. Sunderman was the College's oldest alum at 104.

When he enabled the founding of the Sunderman Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg College, Dr. F. William Sunderman left behind a lasting legacy through which his beloved music will continue to fill the air across the campus ... and around the world.

The First 50 Years

  • 1900: Early music at Gettysburg College includes the Glee Club and the Guitar and Mandolin Club.
  • 1910: College Band and College Orchestra begin; on-campus performance venues include the portico of Old Dorm (now known as Penn Hall).

“The College Band gave a concert [on Friday evening] ... The program was rendered in a pleasing manner and all present considered that the Band is a credit to our school.”

- The Gettysburgian, 1914

  • 1925: The Gettysburg College Musical Association is formed to involve faculty in managing and directing student music ensembles.
  • 1935: Gettysburg College Choir begins under the direction of Parker B. Wagnild, formerly of the famed St. Olaf Lutheran Choir; auditions are held at Brua Chapel (now Brua Hall). A Music Appreciation group led by Prof. W. Frederick Shaffer of the Greek department begins meeting at the home of Mrs. Robert Marsh, wife of the head of the Biology Department; she volunteers the use of her victrola for the occasion.
  • 1936: The Choir sings at the dedication of the Martin Luther memorial in Baltimore; the College Handbook describes the band, under the direction of Bertram H. Saltzer, as “the most popular of the musical organizations on campus.”
  • 1937: The choir performs in a variety of venues throughout PA, NJ and MD.
  • 1945: The Woman's League of Gettysburg College launches a fundraising drive to raise $50,000 in support of a future Music Department at Gettysburg College.
  • 1946: Professor Wagnild announces plans for the introduction of the Music Department, as authorized by the Board of Trustees. Initial courses are planned in Elementary Harmony, Music Dictation, Sight Singing, and Choral Conducting.
  • 1950: The Woman's League of Gettysburg College presents $50,000 to the Department and lays the cornerstone of the Fine Arts Building.