One Woman Among A Chorus of Fifty Men
By Suzanne McGrady
Beacon Hill Times, September 1992
Florence "Flossie" Dunn is sitting on an elegant tapestry sofa with an ear bent toward a
breezy open window across the room. On the wind are the sounds of church bells, and she
whistles with them, perfectly pitched, until the tune fades.
”My parents’ dreams for me have come true," she beams. "I have lived my life with music."
The reminiscence comes as Dunn recounts her musical
past--playing organ at the Second Congregational Church
in Williamstown when she was twelve, studying keyboard
at the New England Conservatory, directing the
Chanterbury Chorus at Trinity Church, teaching music to
elementary school children in Brookline, and her current
musical venture: conducting the Apollo Club of Boston,
a 50-member al1-male chorus. Dunn begins her twenty-
fifth year at the post this fall.
The Apollo Club has a long history, which Dunn is both conscious and considerate of.
Organized in 1871, the club was formed, as its original charter claims, "for the practice and
performance of Choruses for Male Voices and for the cultivation ... of a refined taste in
this class of music." A few luminary members include Thomas Ball, the sculptor whose
equestrian statue of George Washington stands in the Public Garden; James Rattigan, the
Irish portrait painter who would later become director of music at Holy Cross Cathedral;
and Colonel Arnold A. Rand of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry in the Civil War, a former vice
president and director of the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. Arthur Fiedler
directed several performances of the club in the forties.
Since its beginning the club has practiced in and around the Back Bay, and now finds its
home at the Harvard Musical Association at 57A Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill. On some
Tuesday nights from late September to June, the windows of that building, too, emit
melodic sounds—of the chorus at work--and the practices are an unexpected pleasure for
passers-by. If the group is not practicing, they are off at a performance. Their audiences
today range from local civic groups to religious, business, and professional organizations.
On "Apollo Night," the H.M.A. building has a jubilant, hearty atmosphere, for the chorus is
as much a social club as a singing group. "It's supposed to be fun and not like school. I have
to remember that," says Dunn, although she admits the school teacher in her comes out
anyway, when "her boys," as she calls them, aren't with the program. "They're like third-
grade children. I don't know how they get through the day sometimes," she goes on. "They
drop things. They can't find their music ... They don’t listen ... But I can scold them and
they take it very well."
It's easy to see why Apollo Club members are captivated by Flossie Dunn. She is a cheerful,
handsome woman with a warm smile and a twist of golden hair the kind of woman girls
want to be someday. John Dineen, the club's longest member, with service since 1951,
says of her, "She's wonderful...and she has the rare talent of being able to push us to
improve our quality just enough to keep us from getting discouraged. She knows how to
whip us into shape." As she did in the classroom, Dunn uses the disciplinarian's art. "A dirty
look will usually do the trick," she says, explaining her way of bringing the singers in line.
"They don't want to disappoint me, or the other members."
What it is about the Apollo Club that enthralls Dunn and the rest of its members is that it
seems like a perfect model for what music has the power to do. As with the sound of
distant church bells, singing has rejuvenating powers, says Dunn. Since the club is made up
mostly of business and professional men, the quality is all the more useful. The all-male
Apollo Club and “Flossie” Dunn, a very special woman.
"They come in all tense in their suits and vests, and when you think about what they've
heard in court that day, or what the market has done, you shiver...but by the time they go
home they're whistling and they're all loosened up," she says. Spouses and loved ones tend
to be thankful for the club, too. Confides Dunn, "Many wives have said to me, 'Oh! When
my husband comes home on Tuesday nights, he's a different man!“
Maurice "Mo" Frye, former state representative from Beacon Hill and four-year member of
the club, notes, "As your life gets more and more complicated, you appreciate getting
together once a week and just singing the best you can enthusiastically, learning the
music, and losing yourself in the activity."
For all its rich tradition, though, the Apollo Club has remained somewhat of a secret over
the years, appearing only infrequently at public concerts. In the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries the chorus performed primarily for what were called "associate
members," or people who paid dues to hear the "active members" sing at a series of
prescheduled concerts. Throughout its history the group has most often sung in small
venues: gatherings for the display of civic pride, such as the dedication of a monument or
building; or where singing could provide solace, such as at a memorial service, or cheer,
such as at charity dinner or retirement home. In 1874, at the funeral services of Charles
Sumner, the illustrious U. S. senator from Massachusetts, the Apollo Club sang; and
received a thank-you note from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The chorus was also invited
by the city of Boston to sing at the memorial service for President McKinley at Faneuil Hall
in 1901. And in 192(?), when the George Francis Parkman Memorial Bandstand was dedicated
on Boston Common, seventy-nine Apollo members attended and sang to the
accompaniment of the Boston Municipal Band.
In those earlier days, when concerts were frequently attended by critics, the Apollo Club
received both praise and chiding in the local newspapers. After a concert for the
dedication of the new buildings at Harvard Medical School in 1906, in which some drinking
songs were apparently sung, one Herald reporter noted: "...it is a good thing to hear a
drinking chorus sung, not by burdened rounders, two-handed drinkers, or practical toss-
pots of an operetta company, but by highly respectable citizens, some of them no doubt,
fathers of a family, and sung with decent reserve and a sobriety of expression that would
become a convention of prohibitionists." What the club seemed most often criticized for
was its choice of music. A Christian Science Monitor piece in 1914 remarks, "The chorus
sang admirably, but their selections did not rank high enough in musical worth to bring
their performance to a high plane of interest."
Today the selection of music is perhaps even more difficult. Dunn can frequently be found
thumbing through endless yellow-ing sheets the city's music stores for songs arranged
specifically for men. Tough work, she says, but "I love it. It's just my kind of stuff." Show
tunes are a favorite, as well as sea chanties, folk songs, and spirituals. This season, which
begins September 29, the Apollo Club will feature the music of Cole Porter in its
performances (Porter would have been 100 this year). "Wunderbar" and "Begin the Beguine"
are in the repertoire. Dunn has a special affection for Porter. Growing up, she used to
admire the composer from afar, and see him strolling about in Williamstown, where he had
two houses--one for himself and one for his wife. "The wild parties that went on!" Dunn
What most Apollo Club members hope for in the future is that the tradition of the club will
be carried on. Frye says the group is always on the look-out for new members. Right now
they rely on advertisements in the alumni quarterlies of colleges and universities (many of
the members studied at Yale, Harvard. and Dartmouth), word of mouth, and intrigued
listeners walking past their practice place (a couple of the members got involved after
knocking on the door at the Harvard Musical Association and wondering 'who is that
singing?'). Any man with a music background and 'who can carry a tune,' as they say, is
welcome. A painless, brief tryout will ensue-much less painful, apparently, than in former
years. In 1892, H. M Ticknor wrote of the club in the Globe, “...of the first tenors applying
for membership, thirty-one percent are accepted. Twenty-five percent of second tenors
are accepted, and only one out of every five basses are admitted to membership. This is
truly an elite organization, as democratic as New England--the only basis for membership
being how well can he sing."
Today, current members vote new members in by a simple majority. And if you join, Dunn
promises some fringe benefits--and a sense of high social purpose.
"How can you sing with someone and hate them?" she wonders. "You have a message.
You're doing something physical and mental. You can't do anything but love mankind when