A prolific paleontologist reflected on his mentor, Peter Wilhousky, for a 1988 issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Stephen Jay Gould and another alumnus of the New York All City High School Choir had returned to listen to the group thirty years after they’d been members (In their day, there were equal numbers of SATB and the director frowned upon rock and roll). As they listened, there was a noticeable imbalance of male voices, with the tenors nearly screaming by the end of the number Jeanette. More fascinating is the fact that the writer’s career path had been not in music, but in science education at Harvard. He remembered the rigorous training and Wilhousky’s insistence on perfection. “Fourth row, fifth seat: You’re flat.”
Peter J. Wilhousky (1902-1978) grew up in Passaic, New Jersey. His parents had emigrated from what is now northern Czechloslovakia, and sang in the choir of SS Peter and Paul Greek Catholic Church (which in 1920 changed to Russian Orthodox). Young Peter went to live at the school of the Russian Cathedral Boys choir as a soprano soloist. He performed with them at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson in 1920.
After graduating from the Damrosch Institute of Musical Arts (now Julliard), he got a job teaching high school music in Brooklyn. Gradually he built the program and became Director of Music for New York City Schools; in 1936 he trained 1500 students for a concert at the opening of Madison Square Garden. Later he whittled the number to 250 for annual performances at Carnegie Hall.
The two songs for which he is remembered are Carol of the Bells and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. He wrote the notes for neither, but arranged their scores with musical genius, adding English words to Carol (Schedryk), which had been composed by Mykola Leontovych. His stirring version of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn was made famous by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and is known to choirs young and old everywhere.
When Wilhousky died at the age of 76, the New York Times noted he had once played violin for Ozzie Nelson’s orchestra. Then again, he conducted the NBC Symphony in a 1947 radio broadcast of Otello. A versatile and accomplished artist, he left an everlasting mark on students he touched personally — in the opera, in symphonies, on Broadway, as teachers in their own classrooms, and across their daily lives. And on all of us who ever memorized his combination of notes, dynamics, and timing for a concert.
I copied a boys’ choir performance of Carol of the Bells, a group probably much like the one Peter Wilhousky sang in when he was young. Except the song would not be written by him for another thirty years.