I love to sing; I wouldn’t say I’ll be famous anytime soon, but I took all of the music theory classes offered in school and am always singing around the house. I’m the only one, though: the music gene seems to have skipped everyone in my family, and they’ve never been interested in reading music or playing an instrument. (And just in case, I promise I’m not trying to brag! One of my sisters is a gymnast, and the other plays soccer. Dad played hockey back in the day, but the athlete gene completely skipped me!) I even struggled with Amy Johnson Crow’s “Music” prompt for 52 Ancestors last year, ultimately deciding to write about a theater organ and jukebox factory in my dad’s hometown instead of a musical ancestor. But then I got a few new photo hints for an ancestor’s conservatory on Ancestry.com, and it turns out there is another musician in the family, after all.
Robert Howard Earlshope Lippert, Sr., was born on May 15, 1898 in Rock City, New York to George and Florence (Dye) Lippert, and he grew up in nearby Olean and Salamanca. On June 1, 1917, at the age of 19, Robert enlisted in the United States National Guard; within a few months, he had been honorably discharged from the service and returned home to marry his girlfriend, Anna Julia Neuschel. The couple had four children together–Betty Jo (b. 1919), Jayne Florence (b. 1921), Robert Howard Earlshope, Jr., (b. 1926) and Patricia Ann (b. 1928)–and it seems they moved around a lot, from New York to Massachusetts, Ohio and, ultimately, Pennsylvania.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; it all started back in Olean, where Robert’s musical talent allowed him to take lessons from Henry Hill and to join the local German Lutheran Church’s boys’ choir as a soprano. As a young adult, Robert attended the Ithaca Conservatory of Music–a college that is still in operation today–and studied everything from solfeggio and composition to guitar, mandolin and even china painting. Robert operated his own conservatory in Western New York immediately after graduation, and he directed a symphony orchestra in Buffalo, as well. His music career was put on hold, though, when he was sent overseas during World War I.
When he returned home, Robert supported his young family by working as an organist in the Pittsburgh Church of the Ascension before picking up and moving to Bradford, Ohio. In Ohio, he organized the Singing Boys of America, an a capella ensemble that was arguably one of the most outstanding achievements in his musical career. He formed the group as a counterpart to the internationally-famed Vienna Boys’ Choir, and they earned national recognition during the five years that they staged concerts, giving 1,003 concerts in total across the United States. The Singing Boys of America’s formal debut was at New York City’s Town Hall on October 28, 1935, and their performance was acclaimed by metropolitan critics:
Their singing made it clear from the start that this was a very well-trained organization. The unity of the performance was remarkable, the attacks and closes were uneeringly simultaneous, the response to the conductor’s direction was immediate and thorough, with the indications to the eye of his gestures immediately reproduced for the ear in variations of tempo or in rise and fall of volume of tune. The quality of the tone–very pleasing, fluent and well blended–the upper notes were consistently firm and full. The smoothness and steadiness of the collective tone deserved praise, while in part-songs the various voices were well defined. The interpretations were musicianly and well phrased. Control of dynamic shading was one of the choir’s strongest points. The fidelity to pitch was excellent…That some of the boy sopranos could reach notes of exceeding altitudes were well shown in the first half. A good-sized audience called for repetitions and extra numbers from this very promising new American acquisition. (New York Herald-Tribune, October 29, 1935)
Robert arranged for the group’s European concert tour to begin in 1939–including performances in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Russia and England–until the outbreak of World War II forced him to cancel. The group later disbanded in 1940 (when many of the singers became too old for boys’ choral singing), and Robert moved his family to California to begin organizing a Singing Boys of America group on the west coast. That’s when he took ill, though, and decided to return to the Pittsburgh area–where he suffered a stroke and passed away on October 22, 1941 at the age of 43. Robert was buried in New York with full military rites, and his legacy has been remembered for generations.
I sang in a small-town choir for seven years growing up, and although our choir didn’t travel the world (and certainly wasn’t nationally-acclaimed), it was my favorite thing in the world and one of the best parts of my childhood. I sang all kinds of songs–from “Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär” to “The Frim Fram Sauce”–and I’m convinced that studying music theory helped me with my math classes in school. I’m not really a musician–though I dearly love to sing–but it’s really cool to have found another musician in my family tree. Here’s to finally finding a musical ancestor to write about; and who knows, maybe there’s more musical talent left to find someday.