Behind the music: Northwestern Alma Mater and fight song
Shortly after the turn-of-the-century, Northwestern students sang the original version of the University Hymn in the language of ancient Rome.
The traditional hymn ("Quacumque sunt vera") was written in 1907 by Peter Christian Lutkin (1858-1931), who served as the first dean of the School of Music from 1883 to 1931.
Lutkin based the song on Franz Joseph Haydn's "St. Anthony Chorale," an Austrian pilgrim's hymn that Haydn used in one of his compositions ("Feldpartita").
The Latin lyrics were written by J. Scott Clark, the hymn's arranger. The literal translation of the Latin lyrics was based on the University's motto, the Bible verse Phillipians 4:8, that begins with the phrase "Quacumque sunt vera," which means "Whatsoever things are true."
Clark, a professor of English at Northwestern from 1892 to 1911, was fond of Latin and Greek songs and wrote several himself, in addition to a number of tunes in English. Clark's collaborators were Daniel Bonbright, former head of the Latin department, and James Taft Hatfield, another former faculty member and eminent Latin scholar.
During the early 20th century, the formal song was referred to as the "University Chant" and later became known as the "University Hymn."
Archival records indicate that English became the preferred language by the mid-20th century. The late J. Roscoe Miller, who was 12th president of Northwestern from 1949 to 1974, noted that there were times when the "University Hymn" was threatened with extinction.
During Miller's tenure, a decision was made to "revive the Hymn" because interest and enthusiasm for Lutkin's song had dwindled. Despite debate that alteration would detract from the song's prestige and elegance, English words were put to the Hymn in the late 1950s. The English lyrics were written by Thomas Tyra, a 1954 School of Music graduate. However, Tyra's words were not the literal translation of the original Latin text. Instead, Tyra created the words to fit the song that the Northwestern community is familiar with today.
While the "Alma Mater" has gone through changes over the years, the tradition and pride associated with the song continues. Today, the "Alma Mater" hymn is performed by the Marching Band during halftime at Wildcat football games, and by the orchestra during formal and special occasions such as commencement or convocation ceremonies.
Today, Lutkin is best known as the composer of the choral anthem "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," one of his numerous compositions of sacred music.
Both the words and music of "Go U Northwestern," the University's popular "fight song" were written by Theodore C. Van Etten, a 1913 alumnus of Northwestern. Van Etten was a senior in the University's School of Pharmacy and a member of the Marching Band when he composed it. Van Etten is also credited for organizing Northwestern's first football band in 1911. At the time, the band only performed collegiate songs from other universities.
In 1912, as Van Etten and the other band members were performing a song of another college prior to a football game between Northwestern and Indiana in Bloomington, he decided that Northwestern should have a song of its own.
Further inspired by the fact that Northwestern beat their Indiana opponents that day, Van Etten returned home and began to work on the words and music. He even "put in a Northwestern Æyell' for good measure," according to an article he wrote for the December 1929 issue of the Alumni News on how he came to write "Go U Northwestern."
When Van Etten completed the song, he had it arranged for the University's 20-member band. His new song was premiered at halftime of the Illinois/Northwestern game in Evanston on Nov. 23, 1912, (the same day that brought a 6 to 0 win for the Purple.)
According to Van Etten's personal account, when his new composition was played in public for the first time, "it went over with a bang. The crowd wanted to hear it again, and it was repeated." Soon his song was played, sung and taught to the students from the manuscript he had sent to the Evanston campus at a time when he lived on the South Side of Chicago (and attended the pharmacy school on Northwestern's old downtown campus at Clark and Lake Streets.)
Van Etten, a modest man, admitted that he was thrilled every time he heard a crowd sing "Go U Northwestern" or heard his song broadcast on the radio.
In 1940, Van Etten was made an honorary letterman and member of the N Men's Club for his melodic contribution to the University.
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Last updated 11/25/2003 and © 2003 Northwestern University