Top of the page of Cornell's "Alma Mater" sheet music

Hail, All Hail, Cornell!

University’s ‘Alma Mater’ has tunefully connected Cornellians for a century and a half

Robert Shapiro ’04 first heard the “Alma Mater” played by the Cornell Chimes after he arrived on the Hill as an undergrad. But the song didn’t take on a particular resonance until his junior year, when he was majoring in music and joined the Glee Club, singing the bass line nearly every week.

“That same semester, I got season hockey tickets, and what struck me is how versatile the ‘Alma Mater’ was,” he recalls. “It could be sung lyrically at Sage Chapel—and raucously at Lynah Rink.”

The Big Red anthem is sung at nearly every official University event. It’s a staple in the Glee Club and Chorus repertoire; has brought alumni together for decades in swaying harmony at Reunion and around the world; is played at halftimes and between periods at sports events by the Big Red Pep Band and others; and concludes every midday Cornell Chimes concert. 

The song—which dates back a century and a half, to just a couple of years after classes began on the Hill—is identified with Cornell as closely as McGraw Tower or the Ezra Cornell statue. Its lyrics contain several iconic Big Red phrases, including “Far above Cayuga’s waters,” “lift the chorus,” and “glorious to view.” 

The song is likely the most famous alma mater in America, and it continues to bind Cornellians across the generations and miles.

Michael Slon ’92

Cornell was the first university to use the tune—adapted from a popular 19th-century ballad—for its alma mater. (The term, Latin for “bountiful mother” or “nourishing mother,” can mean both the institution from which one has graduated and that school’s song.) Cornell’s has been sung as part of a virtual global Sesquicentennial celebration, played on kazoos at the Sy Katz ’31 Parade in NYC, parodied, and even reimagined in a hip-hop version.

“The song is likely the most famous alma mater in America, and it continues to bind Cornellians across the generations and miles,” says Michael Slon ’92, a professor and the director of choral music at the University of Virginia who authored Songs From the Hill, a history of the Cornell Glee Club. “As a scholar of this music, you find there are a lot of similarities between school songs, including the themes and the sources for tunes. But there is something absolutely unique and powerful when it’s your alma mater.”

Alumni sing together in Bailey Hall during Reunion 2016’s Cornelliana Night
Students and alumni sing together in Bailey Hall during Reunion 2016’s Cornelliana Night. (Photo: Cornell University)

Origins in roommates’ duets

The story of the “Alma Mater” begins in 1870 with two undergrads: Archibald Weeks 1872—a bass singer and a clarinetist in the University orchestra—and Wilmot Smith 1874, a tenor. They often sang duets in their shared room on North Tioga Street; one of the most popular songs in the country at the time was “Annie Lisle,” a mournful ballad composed in 1857 by H.S. Thompson.

Weeks was also a skater and oarsman who spent a lot of time on Cayuga Lake and the inlet, “from which the University buildings could be plainly seen outlined against the sky,” he recalled late in life. He described how, with the “Annie Lisle” melody in his head, “the view of the college buildings as I frequented the lake suggested the words ‘far above Cayuga’s waters.’”

The view of the college buildings as I frequented the lake suggested the words ‘far above Cayuga’s waters.’

Archibald Weeks 1872

In a letter to the University librarian, Weeks described how he and Smith wrote the “Alma Mater”:

“The blending of our voice—he tenor, I, bass—pleased us exceedingly in the music of ‘Annie Lisle.’ I proposed that we adapt a college song to the music and suggested the first two lines of the first verse; he responded with the third and fourth, I with the fifth and sixth, and he with the seventh and eighth. The chorus was the result of mutual suggestion.”

The song’s popularity among students quickly grew. Tweaks to three lines of the lyrics (including replacing “ever free and true” with “glorious to view”) were likely made a few years later by Colin Urquhart 1876; changes in the structure—such as moving the chorus up into the middle of what was the first verse, splitting it into two verses, and then repeating the chorus—also occurred prior to 1900. 

78 rpm record and label of 1914 recording of the Cornell Alma Mater
The first-ever recording of Cornell’s “Alma Mater.” (Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

As early as 1876, Cornell’s “Alma Mater” shows up in official compendia, such as Carmina Collegensia: A Complete Collection of the Songs of the American Colleges, and appears as part of the University’s official canon (in Songs of Cornell) since at least 1900.

The first known recording was made by the Glee Club in January 1914 at the Columbia Phonograph Company in New York City; it was sold on a 10-inch, 78 rpm record with the song Cornell on the B side.

In pop culture, and through generations

While Cornell was the first to use an adaptation of “Annie Lisle” for its alma mater, high schools and universities around the world—including those in Indiana, Missouri, Georgia, North Carolina, and even Beirut—have since followed suit, employing their own lyrics.

album cover of a recording of "Annie Lisle" by the Cornell Glee Club
The Glee Club also recorded a version of the original “Annie Lisle.” (Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

The song occasionally shows up in pop culture. The Cornell version is sung in the 1953 film Titanic, in an episode of Marvel’s “Agent Carter,” and in two episodes of “The Office,” including Andy Bernard’s audition for “America’s Next A Capella Sensation.” The tune (sans Big Red lyrics) is the school song of the fictional Anarene High in The Last Picture Show and of P.S. 118 in “Hey Arnold!”; it’s the farewell anthem sung at Kellerman’s Resort in Dirty Dancing (“Kellerman’s we come together, singing all as one / We have shared another season’s talent, play, and fun”).

For thousands of Cornellians, of course, the quintessential Big Red song represents a lifelong connection to the University, serves as a vessel for Cornell spirit, and continues to echo through subsequent generations. Shapiro, for one, sang it “as a lullaby to my daughter when she was a newborn, along with the ‘Evening Song.’”

Current chimesmaster Jenna Mertz ’23 recalls first hearing the “Alma Mater” during Orientation Week, when she climbed McGraw Tower to watch a concert. “I was amazed by how difficult it looked and how skillfully they performed it,” she says. “At the time, the song was just a song, and Cornell was just school. As I’ve progressed through my time here, Cornell has become my home, and the ‘Alma Mater’ has become an embodiment of the sense of family I feel here. It connects me to Cornell in a way that nothing else does.”

The original ‘Alma Mater’ verse and chorus by Weeks and Smith

Far above Cayuga’s waters

With its waves of blue,

Stands our noble Alma Mater,

Ever free and true.

Far above the distant humming

Of the busy town,

Reared against the arch of Heaven,

Looks she proudly down.

Chorus:

Ever rolling, surging onward,

Glad her praises tell,

Hail to thee, our Alma Mater,

Hail, to thee, Cornell.

The full version contains six verses—but for the past 125 years, traditionally only the first has been sung, split into two verses that alternate with the repeated chorus.

Weeks himself expressed surprise years later that “the first verse, which had been floating around from mouth to mouth,” had been split into two and performed as the full song, “as it was only introductory in the way of locating the subject and there was no termination or proper ending or climax to it whatsoever.” He did ultimately revise the remaining verses (see below) for a preface to the first edition of the Songs of Cornell, published in 1900.

“The last verse is intended as a toast,” Weeks noted in a 1917 note to the Cornell Era, “and can be sung accompanied by any appropriate action.” 

Cornell's "Alma Mater" as it appears in an early copy of the book Cornell Songs.
Cornell’s “Alma Mater” as it appears in an early copy of Cornell Songs. (Photo: Cornell University)

The Cornell ‘Alma Mater’

Verse one

Far above Cayuga’s waters,

With its waves of blue,

Stands our noble Alma Mater,

Glorious to view.

Chorus

Lift the chorus, speed it onward,

Loud her praises tell;

Hail to thee, our Alma Mater!

Hail, all hail, Cornell!

Verse two

Far above the busy humming

Of the bustling town,

Reared against the arch of heaven,

Looks she proudly down.

(Chorus repeats)

The rest of the verses:

Verse three

Sentry-like o’er lake and valley,

Towers her regal form,

Watch and ward forever keeping,

Braving time and storm.

So through clouds of doubt and darkness

Gleams her beacon light,

Fault and error clear revealing,

Blazing forth the right.

Verse four

To the glory of her founder

Rise her stately walls;

May her sons pay equal tribute

Where’er duty calls.

When the moments swiftly fleeting,

Ages roll between,

Many yet unborn shall hail her

Alma Mater, Queen!

Verse five

In the music of the waters,

As they glide along,

In the murmur of the breezes

With their whispered song;

In the tuneful chorus blending

With each pealing bell,

One refrain seems oft repeated,

“Hail, all hail, Cornell!”

Verse six

Here, by flood and foaming torrent,

Gorge and rocky dell,

Pledge we faith and homage ever

To our loved Cornell.

May time ne’er efface the memory

Of her natal day,

And her name and fame be honored,

Far and wide, alway!

Top image: The sheet music to Cornell’s “Alma Mater” as it appears in an early copy of Cornell Songs. (Photo: Cornell University)

Published: November 12, 2021


Comments

  1. David Chipurnoi, Class of 2000

    It’s also used as the Aliens’ Mission Song on 3rd Rock from The Sun!

    • Tien Lee, Class of 1999

      Thanks. I didn’t know there were so many other verses! Wish one of the a Capella groups can make a rendition with the remaining verses some day. They are full of meaning too… BTW, the song is used even in Penang, Malaysia by a Chinese high school (Chung Ling high school) where my eldest brother attended.

  2. Carolyn Hill Rogers, Class of 1959

    As an “old grad” there are many cultural changes on campus that I’m not fond of (to be courteous).
    However, I’ve always loved Cornell and the four memorable years spent there.
    Hearing the ‘Alma Mater’ sung or played is still deeply moving, and I remain grateful
    to have matriculated at CU!

  3. Mike Cochrane, Class of 1992

    The Cayuga’s Waiters performed this all over the Cornell campus and they did it better than ANY of the a cappella groups. They should be mentioned as only the best of all time at Cornell.

  4. Donna Maria Blancero, Class of 1991

    I always loved singing this and it brings back wonderful memories.

  5. Lewis B. Ward-Baker, Class of 1952

    In my senior year, 1952 (no misprint), as one of three Student Directors appointed by Tom Tracy, I had the great joy of turning to the audiences at the end of each concert and directing the standing throngs in Bailey Hall (and other halls around the East when we traveled) in Alma Mater. The thrill never leaves!

    • Robert L. LaBelle, Class of 1950

      It was good to see the full text of our alma mater. If I knew about it, I’ve forgotten.

  6. Ken Plattner, Class of 1996

    This song truly moves me even now 25 years after graduation.

    • Wally Day, Class of 1967

      When the Big Red “Pep Band” played the Alma Mater at the ECAC Hockey playoffs at the Lake Placid 1980 Arena about 4 years ago, I’m not ashamed to admit that I was moved to tears.
      Wally
      Class of 1967

  7. Bruce Waxman, Class of 1964

    I never have trouble knowing that it is my mobile phone ringing and not someone else’s. That’s because I downloaded a recording of the Cornell Alma Mater played on the Cornell Chimes and made it into my personal ringtone. Plus, it feels special every time it rings!

    • Michael (Tim) Graves, Class of 1964

      Great idea, Bruce. Think I’ll borrow it.

  8. Joanne Wietgrefe, Class of 1954

    As I recall all six verses are sung at Senior night in Lynah rink. We had copies, of course.

  9. Charlie Good, Class of 1979

    In my time with the Big Red Band, we would always include the Alma Mater in post game concert, ending with singing it acapella. It is still almost too emotional to sing it.

  10. Melissa Yorks, Class of 1975

    Syracuse University also uses the tune for its alma mater. My mom would sing it to me sometimes (she taught there) but in spite of getting my masters degree there I only remember the first line of it. Cornell’s I know—learned it when I first got to Cornell because my roommate and I decided to volunteer as ushers for football games and knew they’d be singing it there. Still remember her and I singing it as we painted our room.

    • James Wolff, Class of 1990

      *Slight correction…Syracuse uses the same melody for the verses, but the chorus is different.

      My son is a senior in the marching band at S.U., so we’ve heard it quite often these last four years.

  11. Jon Humphrey, Class of 1978

    Having been born in Ithaca and attended Cornell football, hockey, basketball and lacrosse games the Alma Mater was always deeply moving for me. Then attending and graduating made it even more special.

  12. John J Brennan DVM, Class of 1952

    It always thrills me when I rise and sing my alma mater.

  13. Tara Prince Goldman, Class of 1955

    I have always loved to hear our Alma Mater, which has the same melody as the Alma Mater from my high school(Fort Lee, NJ). I missed going back to Ithaca because of Covid in 2020 for my 65th, but I was there on ZOOM for it! I would love to hear from any classmates who see this posting!

  14. Bruce J. Cochrane, Class of 1973

    I am the proud father of a member of the class of 2012 – in fact, he is a fourth generation Cornellian. My wife and I were fortunate to be able to attend his commencement in Schoellkopf and join in the singing of the Alma Mater. Like many other commenters here, it literally moved me to tears. And having said that, I am always appalled by the Dirty Dancing version.

  15. Harold Guthrie Suiter, Class of 1965

    Love the story and the comments!

    Bud Suiter, ’65

  16. Jon D.Meer, Class of 1986

    To me, the Alma Mater has always been one of the things that binds all Cornellians together, regardless of generation, gender, or geography. The music and the lyrics still invoke a sense of pride, history and belonging. And, as so many on here have admitted, it still brings tears.

    Thank you to the classmates from 1872 who did something so inspiring for all of us. Loud her praises tell.

  17. Nathan Merrill, Class of 1995

    Beyond the lyrics and melody, what is most special to me is our Big Red tradition of linking arms-over-shoulders and swaying side-to-side during the alma mater. Both of our daughters also graduated from Cornell, so it is especially meaningful and emotional now when we go to a hockey game (when Big Red comes to New Hampshire to play Dartmouth or UNH) and we proudly sing the song with the pep band playing, locked together with fellow alumni and friends in the stands!

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