Our Own Hall of Fame
JOHN FINLEY WILLIAMSON
Singing Career Cut Short, He Formed Top Choir
DAYTON DAILY NEWS, MARCH 12, 1961
BY MARY ELLEN LYNCH
Daily News Staff Writer
A throat operation ended John Finley Williamson’s own hopes for a singing career, but it helped give rise to one of the world’s finest a cappella choirs.
In 1958, Dr. Williamson stepped down as head of the famous Westminster choir and choir school of Princeton, N.J. He founded both in Dayton in the ‘20s.
The Canton native was a minister’s son and, when he was growing up, there was no money for music lessons, or even for sheet music. Williamson used a hymn book from the First UB church in Altoona, Pa., to teach himself the piano.
He worked his way through the Otterbein conservatory of music, then studied with vocal coaches. When surgery ended his own singing career he came to Dayton to teach voice and conduct the choir at first UB church.
IN 1920 Dr. Williamson went to Westminster Presbyterian church and built up a choir that, two years later, was touring and building up a national reputation. Members started getting offers to head choirs in other churches, and, with the help of the late Mrs. Harry E. Talbott, Dayton social and civic leader, the Westminster Choir school was founded.
Its objective: to train young musicians to be organists, vocalists and conductors in churches and also to take over Christian education and young peoples’ programs. In short, to be what Williamson called “ministers of music.”
The school prospered, moved briefly to Ithaca, N.Y. when expanded facilities were required and then, in 1932, located permanently on a 20-acre campus at Princeton.
Meanwhile, a 40-voice choir made up of top student talent continued to tour. In 1929 and again in 1934 Williamson took his young singers to Europe.
The Westminster choir became the first foreign choral group ever to tour Russia. A year before Williamson retired the choir again went abroad as part of the State department’s cultural program, sang to 227,000 people in 22 countries. Its director also taught conducting techniques in the Philippines, Japan and Thailand.
AFTER HE retired, white-haired Williamson took another group, called the Westminster singers, on a four-month concert tour of Africa.
Williamson’s choirs gave 110 performances with the New York Philharmonic in 17 years, sang with Toscanini, Stokowski, Mitropoulis.
Each year Williamson tried to bring his current choir to Dayton—sometimes for a concert, sometimes jut to go back to the church where the Westminster choir was born for a brief, between-trains visit with the pastor.
The Westminster singers, under Williamson, became rigorously disciplined. Their repertoire—known entirely from memory—ranges from Palestrina and Bach to cowboy songs and Negro spirituals.
Now at 73, Williamson and his wife (who was dean of the choir school until she stepped down with her husband) live in retirement in New Jersey.
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