The influential American choral conductor, John Finley Williamson, founder and conductor of the Westminster Choir, was of English parentage and a product of American education. He showed talent for singing at an early age. Later when his voice developed into a baritone of excellent quality, he decided on a career in music. Majoring in music, he attended Otterbein College and was awarded honorary degrees from Otterbein College and Wooster University. Later he turned to choral conducting, taking charge of a small choir in Dayton, Ohio.
John Finley Williamson founded the Westminster Choir in 1920 at the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio. Convinced that professionally trained musicians could best serve the church, he established the Westminster Choir School in September 1926 with sixty students and a faculty of ten instructors. As the Choir School and the Westminster Choir's reputation grew, the demand for the school's graduates increased. The graduates came to be known as "Minsters of Music," a term coined by Dr. Williamson and still being used today by many church music programs.
As early as 1922, the choir, then known as the Dayton Westminster Choir, began touring the USA annually and sang in such prominent places as Carnegie Hall (New York City), Symphony Hall (Boston), the Academy of Music (Philadelphia), Orchestra Hall (Chicago) and the White House for President Coolidge. Years later the Westminster Choir also sang for Presidents Roosevelt and Eisenhower. The Westminster Choir made its first commercial recording with RCA Victor in 1926. Subsequently the Choir recorded with major conductors and orchestras.
In 1928, the Westminster Choir and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, made the nation's first coast-to-coast radio broadcast on Cincinnati station WLW. A few years later, because of the choir's growing reputation, it made a total of 60 half-hour broadcasts from NBC's New York facilities.
The first European tour took place in 1929 and was sponsored by Dayton philanthropist Katharine Hauk Talbott and endorsed by Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. The tour included 26 concerts in major cities of Europe.
Originally a three year program, the Choir School moved to Ithaca College in New York State in 1929 and enlarged its curriculum to a four year program culminating in a Bachelor of Music degree. This move ultimately proved unsatisfactory.
In 1932, the Choir School relocated to Princeton, New Jersey which became its permanent home. Classes were held in the First Presbyterian Church and the Princeton Seminary until 1934 when the Choir School moved to its present campus. This was made possible by a large gift from the philanthropist Sophia Strong Taylor. The dedication of the new campus was marked by a performance of J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) at the nearby Princeton University Chapel with the Westminster Choir, soloists, and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Because of his high regard for the choir, the services of the soloists, orchestra, and conductor were a gift from Leopold Stokowski.
There was a second European tour in 1934, lasting nine weeks and highlighted by a rare live radio broadcast from the Soviet Union to the USA. In the 14 short years since its founding in 1920, the Choir already had two European tours, which earned it international acclaim, and a campus of its own. The State of New Jersey in 1939 granted the Choir School accreditation and the name Westminster Choir College was adopted.
In years to come, under John Finley Williamson's leadership, the Westminster Choir would begin having regular concerts with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Westminster Choir sang with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time in 1939 conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Since that time the Choir has sung over three hundred performances with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a record number for a single choir to perform with an orchestra. Later that year the choir sang with the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. That same year the choir, directed by Dr. Williamson, sang at the dedication of the 1939 New York World's Fair which was broadcast to 53 countries.
In 1957, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department Cultural Exchange Program, the Westminster Choir undertook a five month world tour, concertizing in twenty-two countries, covering 64,000 km and appearing before approximately a quarter of a million people.
John Finley Williamson is considered to be one of the most influential choral conductors of the 20th century. He was described by The New York Times as the "dean of American choral directors."
John Finley Williamson retired as President of Westminster Choir College in 1958; however, he continued to give choral clinics and seminars around the world. Dr. Williamson did summer music workshops for two weeks in San Anselmo California for many years - were open to school music directors and church choir directors to learn repertoire for their choirs and get conducting skills refined. Dr. Williamson believed that a conductor could direct without using arms and hands. Sessions were devoted to incorporating body language before adding arms and hands to direct. Dr.Williamson pet saying to directors was for them to set the mood, breath, pace, attack. He said, If the choir goes flat, it is the directors fault. Most notably in 1959, the U.S. State Department asked Dr. Williamson to organize a Westminster alumni choir to tour Africa. This choir was called the Westminster Singers. The African tour consisted of performances in 50 cities in 26 countries with audiences totaling more than 250,000. Following this tour, at the invitation of leading vocal teachers and choral conductors, Dr. Williamson's "retirement" consisted of conducting choral clinics and vocal festivals throughout the USA, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. A South American choir tour was being planned by the State Department but was canceled because of Dr. Williamson's sudden death in 1964.
In accordance with his request, Dr. Williamson's ashes were scattered on the Quadrangle of his beloved campus on July 3, 1964. Dramatically this took place during the performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem with the Westminster Festival Choir, soloists, and the Festival Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. This performance on the Westminster campus was part of the Tercentennial Celebration of the State of New Jersey. The following day a memorial service for Dr. Williamson was held in the College Chapel.
In 1976, Westminster celebrated its 50th anniversary highlighted by a performance of L.v. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Shaw, alumni soloists, and the Westminster Alumni Choir on the Princeton campus.
In 1992, following a year of affilia, Westminster merged with Rider University (then Rider College) and is now known as Westminster Choir College of Rider University. The Westminster campus still remains in Princeton along with Rider's larger suburban campus in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. In 2001, Westminster Choir College celebrated its 75th anniversary.
Currently, the Director of Choral Activities is Dr. Joe Miller, formerly of Western Michigan University. He replaced longtime conductor Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt upon his retirement at the end of the 2004-2005 academic year.