Early Music Singers harmonize to director William Mahrt’s last concert

Published June 7, 2024, 3:33 a.m., last updated June 7, 2024, 8:49 a.m.

Amber light coursed through Memorial Church as the songs of the Early Music Singers filled the dome and nave. One could imagine the music on the page of an aged book, as yellowed and antique as the evening light.

The  group of Stanford students and community members performs late Medieval, Renaissance and Early Baroque music. The choir, which is offered as a 0- or 1-unit course, has been directed by William “Bill” Mahrt Ph.D. ’69 since 1972. The Wednesday concert marked the start of his retirement from the University and the end to his long career in conducting of the Early Music Singers. 

Mahrt has long been prominent in the music department at Stanford as an associate professor of Renaissance and Medieval music. Off campus, he directs the St. Ann Gregorian Choir at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto and serves as president of the Church Music Association of America. 

During Mahrt’s directorship, the Early Music Singers has connected community members interested in early music. Miriam Palm joined the Early Music Singers in 2006 after the madrigal music group — a genre from the Renaissance and Baroque period — she sang with dissolved. She was proud of the group’s last performance with Mahrt, and expressed hope that the ensemble would continue performing. 

“We’re sad [Mahrt] is retiring,” said Palm. “But it’s time, and we all need to retire at some point. We’re hopeful the group will continue, though we’re still in conversations about the next conductor.” 

Husband and wife Charles and Katharine Hanson were connected many years ago through music from the Renaissance period. The two sang together in an early music singing group at the University of California at Berkeley, and felt grateful to have “stumbled upon” Mahrt and the Early Music Singers. 

“It’s a wonderful performance,” said Hanson. “We’ve never heard this group before; it brings back a lot of positive memories about the beauty of the music and the satisfying challenge of learning to sing this music.”

With selections which ranged from the 15th to 17th century, the Early Music Singers presented repertoire in Latin, Spanish, French, German and English. Every three songs, Mahrt turned around to inform the audience of the history of the pieces the choir was about to present. Many texts were from the Bible and Petrarch, as well as compositions for Catholic masses.

Audience member Libby Roth, a former Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI) scholar, went to hear the Early Music Singers for the first time Wednesday.

“[The concert] is lovely. Just a real blast from the past,” said Roth. “We lived in the community for decades, and when we were busy lawyers we didn’t come over here to see how many wonderful things there were. But now, we’re able to enjoy so much more of the incredible richness of the Stanford community.” 

Early Music Singers harmonize to director William Mahrt’s last concert
Members of the current cohort of Early Music Singers and alumni unite for a final picture with Mahrt, who has conducted the choir since 1972. (Photo: CHARLOTTE BURKS/The Stanford Daily).

Scattered in pews throughout Memorial Church, the audience gave a standing ovation at the conclusion of Mahrt’s final concert. As the choir scattered following the performance, singers Deborah Clark and Miriam Palm recounted their introduction to Early Music. 

Palm joined in 2006 after her last madrigal music group dissolved and was proud of the group’s last performance with Mahrt, expressing hope that the ensemble would continue performing. 

“We’re sad [Mahrt] is retiring,” said Palm. “But it’s time, and we all need to retire at some point. We’re hopeful the group will continue, though we’re still in conversations about the next conductor.” 

Mahrt’s expertise as a conductor was felt by choir members even before they joined the Early Music Singers. Choir member Susan Murphy performed with a cappella groups before joining and singing with the group for “at least 25 or 30 years.” Even then, Murphy looked to Mahrt for advice. 

During his time as conductor, Mahrt demonstrated dedication to directing and sharing early music with choir members and the community. Such a trait is one that choir members greatly appreciated having in a conductor.   

“He has been so generous with his time and his life,” said Murphy. “Many people retire to go travel, but his whole life has been about this. He has committed to this work, and I don’t know how much he’s had to sacrifice for that, but everyone who’s had contact with him and experienced his expertise appreciates that very much.” 

A previous version of this article stated that Mahrt earned his Ph.D. in 1996 instead of 1969. The Daily regrets this error.

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