PETER J. WILHOUSKY (1902-1978)

Popular composer and arranger, distinguished educator and eminent choral director, Peter Wilhousky has left a legacy that will enrich American music for generations to come. Best known for his "Carol of the Bells," which has become a part of the traditional music for Christmas, Wilhousky also wrote the stirring concert arrangement of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," made popular in recordings by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and frequently performed at music festivals, holiday celebrations, and-state occasions. His many translations and arrangements of music from the Slavonic liturgy are still widely used in schools and churches of many denominations throughout the country. He founded and conducted numerous choruses during his long musical career and his remarkable abilities with vocal ensembles brought him to the attention of Arturo Toscanini, who in the early 1940's employed Wilhousky to prepare the choruses used by the maestro in his now historic NBC Symphony broadcasts. Despite these and many other diverse musical achievements, however, it was in the field of education that Wilhousky left his deepest mark.

Wilhousky was born in Passaic, New Jersey, into a family of Carpatho-Rusyn origin. Both his parents came from Rusyn villages in the Presov Region of what is today northeastern Czechoslovakia - his father Joseph from Vysny Orlich, his mother (nee Julia Hnath) from Ujak. The young Peter's musical talents were nourished since earliest childhood both at home and at church. His parents were choir members at SS Peter and Paul Greek Catholic Church in Passaic, where the child was brought up to the choir loft every Sunday as soon as he could stand. In those years, the Passaic parish - was fortunate in that it had a fine choir and church school under the direction of its talented cantor John G. Boruch. In 1910, when Peter Wilhousky was eight, SS Peter and Paul Church switched its allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church, thereby becoming one of the largest Rusyn Orthodox parishes in the United States. Now within a Russian-American cultural sphere, Peter was sent the next year to the renowned Russian Cathedral Boys' Choir in New York City. He was to spend five years in this live-in choir school, becoming soprano soloist and participating in many cathedral services as well as prestigious concerts, including a command performance before President Woodrow Wilson at the White House. In 1920, Wilhousky continued his musical education at the Damrosch institute of Musical Arts in New York City, which later became the Juilliard School of Music from which he received a B.A. degree.

Having completed his formal education in 1923, he became a music teacher at a high school in Brooklyn, where he began organizing the first of the many choruses he was to conduct in the New York City area. It was in 1936 that Wilhousky was first propelled into national prominence. New York City was to be host to a convention of the National Association of Teachers of Music, and Wilhousky was invited to prepare a student chorus for the opening ceremony at Madison Square Garden. For a full year beforehand, he spent afternoons in each of the five New York boroughs auditioning, selecting, and training voices for this event. On March 30, 1936, before 16,000 people, his chorus of 1500 students filled Madison Square Garden with a sound so magnificent so as to astonish the nation's music teachers present and to win the acclaim of the press. With this concert, the All City High School Chorus of New York was born (though pared down thereafter to a more manageable 260 voices), and throughout the remaining thirty years of Wilhousky's career, the group performed a major concert each year at Carnegie Hall and later at Lincoln Center. The popularity and prominence of these events led to Wilhousky's appointment in 1940 as Assistant and later Director of Music for the New York City school system.

Despite increasing administrative burdens, Wilhousky always maintained direct contact with students, particularly through his All City High School Chorus, from which he helped to place promising students. Many alumni of the chorus later went on to successful careers at the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, Radio City Music Hall, Broadway musicals, radio and television shows, and professional church and concert choirs, including the famous Robert Shaw Chorale.

Wilhousky was not by any means exclusively a high school educator. He trained choral conductors and other music educators as well, teaching for almost a decade at Juilliard, presenting master classes in choral conducting in major cities along the East coast, presiding at university choir clinics, and conducting at major music festivals throughout the country. Thus, the techniques learned in a Rusyn-American parish church and Russian-American choir school were refined, adapted, and handed down by Wilhousky to many of today's leading choral conductors in the United States.

As a result of his many achievements, Wilhousky was awarded an honorary doctorate from the New York College of Music, the Handel Medallion "in recognition of his service to the youth of the city of New York," and in 1975 the American Choral Directors Association award for "pioneering leadership, inspiration, and service to choral art." Indeed, few have contributed as much to the popularity which serious choral music enjoys in the United States today.

Lawrence Chvany

Copyright ©1983, Carpatho-Rusyn American, Vol. VI, No. 4
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