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The Birth, Near-Demise, and Comeback of “Bright College Years”
An instant hit in the 19th century, Yale’s unofficial alma mater was nearly a casualty of the first World War.

Cole Porter may be Yale’s best known songwriter, but one work by Henry Durand can lay claim to being the University’s most-sung tune. For Durand, a member of the Class of 1881, is the author of “Bright College Years,” the unofficial alma mater that, with handkerchief accompaniment, is a standard element of Commencement, football games, and almost every alumni get-together.

But though the song—an instant hit when Durand penned it during his senior year—has become a permanent part of Yale tradition, there was a time when the future of “Bright College Years” was very dim. The problem was the music.

“Harry” Durand was born in 1861 in Cincinnati and prepared for Yale at the Hopkins School in New Haven. Well known for his versification, he was named Class Poet in his senior year. In the spring of 1881, John F. Merrill, Harry’s classmate, told him it was his duty to write a poem that would add to the literary quality of the College and their class. A few days later when he came into the room shared by Merrill and William L. Harkness, later the donor of Harkness Hall, Merrill, who was president of the Glee Club, had another request: a song for his organization.

At Merrill’s 50th reunion, he recalled his friend’s reply. “If you will give me a tune, Jack, I will see what I can do,” said Durand.

After a moment’s thought, Merrill sang a verse of Die Wacht am Rhein—“The Watch on the Rhine”—a German patriotic song. He noticed Harry’s foot tapping to the swing of the music, and when he had finished singing, Durand, who pronounced the tune “splendid,” went back to his room in Farnam Hall. A half-hour later, he returned with a manuscript. Merrill raced through the poem, and as he came to the final couplet, he “realized that a great masterpiece has been completed.” He told his friend, “Harry, this is magnificent. I will take it right over to Tom Shepard, and we will have the voice parts arranged and get it up for our senior concert.”

As soon as “Shep,” the Glee Club’s director, saw the poem, he was equally enthusiastic, made the arrangements, and started rehearsals. The singing of “Bright College Years” at the senior concert evoked wild enthusiasm, and it has continued to be received in much the same spirit during most, but not all, of the intervening years.

Anti-German sentiment nearly caused “Bright College Years” to be banned from campus.

The song fell from grace in the aftermath of World War I when anti-German sentiment nearly caused “Bright College Years” to be banned from campus. The original words to Die Wacht am Rhein were written in 1840 when France threatened the left bank of the Rhine. In 1854, Carl Wilhelm set the poem to his music and played it for the silver anniversary of the Crown Prince of Prussia, later William I. Its popularity grew during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 and beyond.

During World War I, the German national song became so hateful to the Allies that the English wrote a rejoinder, “When We’ve Wound Up the Watch on the Rhine.” Yale men stationed in Paris began singing “Bright College Years” to the tune of La Marseillaise, and after the war, many students and alumni told the administration that they could no longer sing the German air in public.

On December 1, 1919, the Yale Student Council passed a recommendation that would have banished the song from undergraduate gatherings. The following spring, questionnaires went out to alumni clubs asking their opinion.

As it happened, 21 clubs voted for the retention of the tune, and five voted against it. Many alumni said that the unofficial alma mater would not be the same if sung to a different tune and that a wholly new song should be written.

Passions, however, would soon cool, and a new generation of students in the fall of 1920 saved the Yale song. At the freshman dinner, the Alumni Weekly was delighted to report, everyone sang “the song that was wont to stir Yale blood and quicken Yale loyalty.” In the Yale Bowl, undergraduates bared their heads and joined in singing without hesitation. “Bright College Years” was back to stay.  the end




Bright College Years

Bright College years, with pleasure rife,
The shortest, gladdest years of life;
How swiftly are ye gliding by!
Oh, why doth time so quickly fly?
The seasons come, the seasons go,
The earth is green or white with snow,
But time and change shall naught avail
To break the friendships formed at Yale.

We all must leave this college home,
About the stormy world to roam;
But though the mighty ocean’s tide
Should us from dear old Yale divide,
As round the oak the ivy twines
The clinging tendrils of its vines,
So are our hearts close bound to Yale
By ties of love that ne’er shall fail.

In after years, should troubles rise
To cloud the blue of sunny skies,
How bright will seem, through mem’ry’s haze
Those happy, golden, bygone days!
Oh, let us strive that ever we
May let these words our watch-cry be,
Where’er upon life’s sea we sail:
“For God, for Country and for Yale!”


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