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A Singing Church
By Paul Maurice Glasoe  (Volume XIII: Page 92)

The Norwegian penchant for singing dates from the distant past. An authority says that the best folk ballads come down from the Middle Ages. Norway has always had a rich tradition of folk dances and from the Faroe Islands came the song-dance--dancing to melodies sung by dancers and onlookers. This mode of entertainment and enjoyment was common to all Norseheld territories. It may be said that it belonged to all the northwest European countries.

There was a close connection between instrumental music and singing even then. In the expressive sculptured stonework of the Trondheim cathedral is found a representation of an old Icelandic fithla {1} with its player. The instrument is without doubt a forerunner of the langeleik {2} and salmodikon. {3} Beautiful singing is also frequently mentioned in the old records. The singing in the cathedral was carried out by clerical assistants, and so effective was it that Hamarkrøniken {4} says a person could cry for joy listening to the beautiful hymns. So even in saga days it could be said that Norwegian life was rich in its treasure of vocal and instrumental music. As folk culture accumulated, musical development kept pace; it may be called one of the most expressive representations of the spiritual trends within the nation. The joint agencies, folk poetry and folk melody, can hardly be separated. Great festivals were celebrated by means of song, poetry, and dancing, and thus called into active cooperation cultural gifts representing a varied endowment of latent genius. The spiritual impulses among the people simply called for utterance and on demand there came expressions of joy and sorrow, patriotism, humor, and satire. This complex folk culture became a cross-section of the soul life of the race.

By the time of the mass migration of Norwegians from the 1840's to the 1870's, folk culture had reached heights that compelled attention internally among the people themselves, and externally among cultured groups abroad. It was gradually recognized that the North had something of intrinsic worth that not only compared with the best but deserved to be known as an essential part of general culture. As early as 1780 a Frenchman, Laborde, published a volume of music containing six folk ballads with their folk melodies, sixteen folk dances, and five Icelandic folk tunes. {5} By the time emigration reached its height, the national conscience had awakened to the expectation of high national expression; the folk melody had reached a rich flowering period. It was a way of releasing pent-up feelings and of arousing the nation to common action. The greatest poets wrote stirring words which were set to music by distinguished musicians. The male chorus became the means of popularizing the twin combination of cultural influence. This agency was not limited to the upper classes, the academicians, or professional men of university training. Thus, Larvik, for instance, boasted the Glassworks Choir, the Commercial Men's Choir, the Workmen's Choir, and Larvik's Choir. {6} Singing played an important role in all public schools and every child, even in the remotest valley, learned to sing, notably patriotic songs and the hymns of the church.

Ludvig M. Lindeman spent many years going through the country districts collecting folk music. He finally gathered about fifteen hundred folk melodies and national dances. His work inaugurated an interest in collecting, and many a gem of melody is ours today because of these efforts. Magnus Brostrup Landstad, while serving as pastor in a secluded valley of Telemark, became aware of the rich poetic values couched in the folk poems that had never been written down but were passed from mouth to mouth. He set about making a collection of these and received the plaudits of an appreciative public. His volumes of folk poems opened new channels for language study which were much used by linguists in the development of landsmaal. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was one of the great admirers of this activity and spoke of Landstad's work as a "national treasure."

The efforts of these two men -- Landstad and Lindeman--were united by a most interesting circumstance planned by neither of them. After considerable maneuvering Landstad was commissioned as a one-man committee to select hymns for a new hymnbook for the Norwegian state church. At the time a chaotic situation prevailed; there were no less than half a dozen hymnbooks in use. Some of these were really meritorious, but because of the limited patronage given to each, the condition was generally described as the "hymnbook famine" (salmebogsnøden). Landstad's manuscript was ready and accepted by 1868 and in a remarkably short time it was adopted by more than six hundred of the nation's thousand congregations. At this point Lindeman came in; the question of a really professional koralbok or tune book for Landstad's hymnbook forced the issue and Lindeman was given the task of preparing such a book.

The co-operation of the talents of these two geniuses furnished the emigrant with useful as well as effectual tools for the transfer of spiritual culture to the new home in America. It may well be assumed that a like condition has resulted in every country where emigrants were sufficiently numerous to organize New-World Christian congregations. The grandmother, with her hymnbook wrapped in a clean white handkerchief, ready to go to church on a Sunday morning, might well serve as a model for the artist seeking to represent in stone or brass the true spirit of the Norwegian immigrant. The Landstad hymnbook, Luther's Catechism, and the Bible formed a trilogy which in their unity have done more to make the Norwegian-American people what they are than any other combination of instruments or racial traits.

The schools of Norway from the 1820's to the 1870's were not what they became by the beginning of this century. But there was something substantial about them. Many teachers were men trained in the two-year courses of the teachers' seminaries; and what those men accomplished in the way of training the younger generation borders on the phenomenal. Many country boys, the educational product of these teachers, rose to become bishops, university professors, members of parliament, and even to hold seats in the cabinet. So self-confident and philosophically sound in its thinking was the constitutional convention of 1814 that it decided, in order forever to safeguard the future of rural life, that the parliament should have twice as many representatives from the country as from the cities.

The seminarists cut a niche for themselves in our mid-western civilization and made a cultural contribution among the Norwegian Americans second only to that of the preachers. Indeed many of them became pastors. Several were admitted to the theological seminaries on the basis of their teachers' seminary credits. There are famous names in the roll of our pastors who called themselves seminarists. {7}

These seminarists had a well-grounded training in the elements of music. They lived before the days when pianos and organs were common, and in most instances the teachers had to make use of the salmodikon. Every teacher had to know how to handle it. One seminarist, the Reverend Svein Strand of Wallingford, Iowa, told me that he was lacking in the ability to "carry a tune," so he could not teach the children to sing by singing with them, but he learned to handle the salmodikon and by means of it his classes learned to sing the hymns and folk melodies very well. His singing teacher in Asker Seminary was a son of the famous Ludvig M. Lindeman. It was Ludvig Lindeman who, as organist in Our Savior's Church in Oslo, had the heroic role of bringing to the singing public a realization of the importance of correct hymn singing. When he took over the place of organist the singing in the churches was poor beyond expression. His opportunity came when he was commissioned to furnish the koralbok for Landstad's hymnbook. He succeeded in getting a number of his own new melodies adopted and these were of such a nature that, sung correctly, they added spirit and interest to the singing. Lindeman was a shrewd student of human nature and he brought musical genius and practical psychology into most effective co-operation at this point. He believed in making haste slowly; he began by using his new melodies as preludes and postludes, playing them in the tempo in which he wished them to be sung. Gradually this took hold of the people's imagination-- fancy hearing this towering genius playing "As after the waterbrooks panteth, the hart as it sinks in the chase," or "Built on the rock the church doth stand," or "Awake, thou that sleepest, arise from death's slumber! Christ on thee shall shine!" It simply was not to be resisted; before long he had the most dignified Christiania congregation breaking with the old tradition of dragging congregational song. He brought new life and interest into the service. Lindeman could make his organ laugh for joy or weep in sorrow and now he had the whole congregation following him in the spirit of the hymn.

To enhance the influence of this musical genius still more, Lindeman was engaged both to teach singing in the city public schools and to teach the future pastors of the church in the theological department of the university. Thus his influence went far and wide until the whole nation had responded to the call of one who knew how songs should be sung and had the ability to put his ideas into action.

This, then, was the influence that by 1870 had thoroughly penetrated teachers' training and through the teachers' seminaries had touched practically every child in the nation. The children thus affected were the mothers and fathers of a large part of the Norwegian-American people. What they learned they retained. The pioneer generation of parents, now almost all gone, knew many hymns by heart. Many a mother could accompany her daily round of routine duties with an almost endless series of hymns. She could quote a hymn stanza to illustrate almost any subject that came up. Here is one illustration. A woman was sick in the hospital; her pastor came to see her; knowing that she was fond of song, he started to sing, "Jesus, I long for Thy blessed communion, yearning for Thee fills my heart and my mind," and immediately the patient joined with him and sang the whole stanza through: "Draw me from all that would hinder our union, may I in Thee, my beginning, be joined; show me more clearly my hopeless condition; show me the depth of corruption in me; so that my nature may die in contrition, and that my spirit may live unto Thee."

Let me take you back sixty years into the life of a typical seminarist, who came to America in 1873 without a call, but with enough faith in the rosy-hued reports from the new Promised Land to believe that even if he did not get work as a teacher, there was always work for willing hands to do. Father had taught for eight years in Norway and was not in condition for the work in an American pioneer hayfield and harvest. Some of the early pioneers were hard drivers and it was work from sunup to sundown. His was a severe initiation. But before winter set in Father was engaged to teach parochial school and lead the singing in the Highland Prairie and Elstad churches of the parish of the Reverend Christian Magelsen. Three years later Reverend Styrk S. Reque from Spring Grove came over to see Father and offered him a place as schoolteacher and song leader in the Spring Grove congregation. He was to have seventy-five dollars a year as song leader and twenty-five dollars a month and his board for all the teaching in the parish. What was then one is now divided into at least four parishes. There were so many districts that wanted parochial school that Father taught thirteen months in one year. This he did by teaching Saturdays and counting twenty school days as a month.

The position of song leader for the congregational hymn singing developed into the position of choir leader. But to form a choir was not simple. The great majority of the young people--even at that time it was self-evident that it took young people to make a choir -- did not know much about singing by note. Music and note-reading had not yet found their way into the public schools of pioneer settlements. The only hope of progress lay with the choir leader, and so singing schools were started. What wonders patience and perseverance can work! Father played the salmodikon and by means of it he could grind out the melody--alto, tenor, or bass--to the different groups. And what a thrill it was when two parts could perform--and then all four! These singing schools were not for the towns alone; country school districts, some of them four or five miles from town, also felt entitled to their singing schools. Of course these meetings often became important social gatherings; older people came for the fun of listening and the opportunity of hearing the latest news. After some years of these activities, Father knew every child in the parish, and thus he was acquainted with them much more intimately than the pastor himself.

The neighboring congregation had a very capable song leader. He played the violin beautifully and brought it to choir practice. It was capable of much easier maneuvering than Father's salmodikon and he had a good choir. On the occasion of the big church festivals, Christmas and Easter, Father used to take me along and we walked five miles to be present to help them sing. That choir had three very impressive unmarried sisters who took me under their protection, and I remember as clearly as if it had happened yesterday that one of them told me that she could hear my soprano voice distinctly. That was all it took to impress a ten-year-old with the importance of his contribution to the success of the choir. There were people who were skeptical about the propriety of bringing the leader's fiddle to choir practice and, of course, it was never brought into the church for services.

To work up a choir in the early days was a laborious process in many ways. One difficulty was the dearth of printed music for mixed choirs. Another was the fact that during the 1860's, 70's, and 80's there were comparatively few who had been away to school or had much knowledge about notes. Dr. F. Melius Christiansen waxes enthusiastic when he speaks of that development and attributes much of the success of those early days to the spirit and ability of the seminarists. Their musical education was not deep or extensive, but what they knew they had the will and ability to use. He says the work done toward establishing choirs in our early congregations borders on the miraculous.

Probably the earliest effort toward providing a source of choir music was that of the Reverend Gjermund Hoyme and the Reverend Lars Lund, of the Norwegian Conference, when they published Harpen (The Harp), a collection of songs for choirs. Their work of collecting extended from 1878 to 1888, and their books were used by Dr. Christiansen when he led the choir at Marinette, Wisconsin, in 1889. Then John Dahle entered the scene, Norwegian-trained at Hamar Seminary and later a student of dramatic arts at Christiania in the early 1870's. After he arrived in America, he devoted a lifetime to cultural efforts among the Norwegian Americans. In 1889-92 he taught singing at St. Olaf College, then at Concordia College, and later became teacher of sacred music at Luther Theological Seminary, a position that he held until his death. As organist and choir leader he became impressed with the needs of the day. His earliest publication, Sangbog for kirkekor (Songbook for Church Choirs), appearing in 1884, was followed by a second volume in 1890. Dahle's efforts were of a high order, including many choir arrangements of "old masters." Dahle is an example of the seminarist who developed his genius on the basis of a fine musical taste. A very important link in the cultural chain forged by Dahle through a long and successful period was his Sangbog for barneskolen (Songbook for Elementary Schools), 1888. Such books were eagerly sought by the parochial school teachers as an aid to teaching singing to the children. Dahle published many books and wrote extensively in the field of composition.

Another pioneer leader who served his people well was Erik Jensen, who was born in 1841 in Norway. He arrived in America in 1867, attended Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and was then ordained. A very important work was his Sangbog før børn og ungdom (Songbook for Children and Youth), 1878. Many a copy of it was worn out in the service of preparing children to become members of "the singing church." Another great help in that period of intensive growth was Jensen's Koralbog of 1880. As a publisher of choir music he ranks among the most prolific. His titles are numerous and varied. {8}

While Knud Henderson contributed very little to the choir literature of Norwegian-American pioneer history, he did a great service in the publication of the first Norwegian-American Koralbog, which appeared as early as 1865. More than twenty thousand copies of it were sold between the years 1865 and 1915. {9} He came to Chicago as a fourteen-year-old boy and in addition to his high-school education he had a thorough course in the rudiments of music. While he taught music and did some publishing, he resorted to other occupations as well; for eighteen years he did art painting and worked for a manufacturer of wagons and agricultural machinery. It is pretty certain that Henderson conducted the first singing schools among Norwegian pioneer youth. He interested himself in the salmodikon as a practical tool of instruction in singing and issued a Practical Manual for the Use of the Salmodikon.

Aside from these individuals there were numerous contributors who enriched the choir literature with single compositions or larger groups, now and then with a collection of hymns or songs. The Holter Publishing Company did a very worthy service by publishing singable music as a regular department of Ungdommens ven, later the Friend. All this material was collected and issued in several volumes under the name Frydetoner (Songs of Joy). The bulk of the work done up to 1900 was in the Norwegian language. Now and then a small contribution was made in English. The leading synods became aware of the need of hymns in the English language and in 1898 the United Norwegian Lutheran Church published its Church and Sunday School Hymnal; in 1897 the Norwegian Synod published its Lutheran Sunday School Hymnal and in 1896-1898 its church hymnal, Christian Hymns. The present Hymnary of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, published in 1918, is the result of a joint effort between the three synods, which finally united in 1917. The pressure of the language question may be seen in the number of bilingual and English publications appearing as far back as 1886.

A stimulating movement in singing came from Augsburg Seminary when Theodore S. Reimestad, in 1882, became attached to that institution as teacher. He had enrolled as a student in 1875 and after graduation studied music extensively both here and in Europe. He came to Augsburg with the background, spirit, and preparation required to make him a strong influence among his people. Although there is some conflict in dates, it appears from Professor J. L. Nydahl's reminiscences {10} that the Augsburg Quartet must have been started about 1892. In 1893 it was reorganized and here, for the first time, the name of F. Melius Christiansen appears in American annals of song. He came to Augsburg as a student in 1898 and immediately became attached to the Augsburg Quartet. Reimestad was the organizer and director; the remaining places of the quartet were filled by Professor Nydahl and a student, later the Reverend B. Sundal. They traveled during summer vacations in the interest of the cause of temperance. In 1895 the quartet made a tour of Norway, singing forty-five concerts over there as the first musical organization from America to visit the home country. {11} It was also the first musical organization to tour the Norwegian settlements. There were already a large number of choirs among the congregations but as a result of these visits there was greatly increased interest in singing and numerous choirs resulted. After 1895 Reimestad traveled extensively as tenor soloist on lyceum and Chautauqua programs.

We have been dealing with the rise and growth of choir interest and choir literature. The whole story is a recital of a most remarkable development taking place within an immigrant people. The mixed choir idea did not come from Norway, where the ideal was the male chorus and upon this was lavished abundant talent and interest. We are now long past the pioneer period and the laborious days of small beginnings, but there is a chapter yet to be noted which took its beginning fifty years ago, when F. Melius Christiansen entered Augsburg Seminary as a student. We have seen how he took his place in the Augsburg Quartet and from that time on he was destined to wield an ever-increasing role in the musical life of the Norwegian Americans. He soon became the leader of the Augsburg Male Chorus, and from then on he began writing music. In collaboration with Professor H. A. Urseth of Augsburg, Korsangeren (The Choir Singer) was issued in 1901. One fourth of that book was in English, and of the eighty-four numbers it contained altogether, Christiansen composed twenty-five. The book was published by Ungdommens Ven Publishing Company, and it has run through a large number of editions. Korsangeren was standard choir material for hundreds of choirs, scattered over many synods, for a quarter of a century.

The work just mentioned might be called the "budding out" series of Christiansen's career. He studied at the Northwestern Conservatory of Music during 1892-94, specializing in the violin, and was retained there as a teacher of violin until 1897, when he left for Europe and spent the next two years at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Leipzig. While he continued the study of the violin he laid special stress on composition and theory. Returning in 1899, he again taught music at Augsburg and violin at the Northwestern Conservatory until the fall of 1908, when he joined the faculty of St. Olaf College.

Dr. Christiansen immediately took charge of the St. Olaf band, which was already a going organization with a creditable tradition. The band made steady progress. As a leader he introduced the ideal of musicianship and loyalty to routine duties. In the spring of the fateful year 1905 the Student Chorus from the Royal Fredrik University of Oslo toured America and visited St. Olaf. It was a hypnotizing day in May and while lunch was served on the green the band played. The singers were spontaneous in their comments on the accomplishments of Christiansen's boys and then and there extended an informal invitation for the band to pay a return visit to the land of their fathers. The tour of Norway was arranged for the summer of 1906 and it made a very favorable impression on that music-loving and musical land.

There was no singing organization at St. Olaf with a fixed tradition like that of the band. A chorus was organized in the fall of 1905, and this led to a notable movement which has become a fixture in St. Olaf routine. The first annual music festival was held in May of 1904, and each succeeding May became a great time for music lovers. At first two or three outstanding choirs were invited to sing; lately enough have been invited to make a chorus of between a thousand and fifteen hundred singers.

Between 1905 and 1910 Dr. Christiansen was conducting a series of experiments. One year he would try separate men's and women's organizations, the next year he would return to the mixed chorus. In the spring of 1907 something happened which was destined to have a decided influence both on the director and on future singing in the church. The annual conference of the United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America met at St. Olaf College that year. The Hoyme Chapel, seating one thousand, had been erected and it made possible such an event. In the program of the convention a concert was scheduled for Saturday evening. All school organizations had been disbanded and students had gone home. Professor Christiansen had picked a chorus of forty voices composed of students and faculty members, and a program of church hymns, contrapuntally arranged especially for singing, was prepared. There were no new or strange hymns among them--they were the very hymns we sang every Sunday in our churches. After each hymn Dr. J. N. Kildahl spoke briefly, touching upon the text just sung and introducing the theme of the next. Scarcely ever has such a response been registered; the air was tense and electric with feeling. That was thirty-six years ago but there are people still living who speak of the concert and say they never had realized how beautiful the Norwegian hymns were. The program for that occasion was printed in pamphlet form under the title En sanggudstjeneste (A Song Service). Song Services numbers 1 and 3 were so popular that they were reprinted in several editions.

This was destined to be the beginning of a stream of song literature emanating from Dr. Christiansen's pen. The very next year, 1908, he undertook another experiment. He trained a mixed octette which toured Minnesota and neighboring states during summer vacation and sang a program of hymns, many of them taken from Song Services 1, 2, and 3. The effect on the audiences was spontaneous and the result of this trip was to bring a settled conviction into Dr. Christiansen's mind that the Lutheran chorale was choir material that gripped the heart of our people. Of course that had been discovered 250 years before by Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote 295 cantatas, each based on a chorale. The cantata was then a part of the liturgic program of the service. He had also produced 130 choral preludes for the organ.

Though Dr. Christiansen studied Bach intensively, and drew inspiration from the environment of the Thomas Church and the very choir Bach directed and wrote so extensively for, yet he is not a slavish follower and imitator of Bach. Christiansen is a born product of the flowering period of folk melody. He was saturated with it from childhood. His "Norwegian Rhapsody" for band, his "Reformation Cantata," and his "Centennial Cantata" are so typically inspired by folk music that the person who has a rather wide acquaintance with that literature finds himself continually reminded of it. {12}

Song Services 1-7 served as a forerunner to the publication of the St. Olaf Choir Series. The St. John's Church Choir of Northfield officially emerged as the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir in 1910, and the St. Olaf Choir Series began to appear in 1919. The first two volumes were largely Christiansen's choice of "Old Masters "; from then on the series has been almost exclusively devoted to his own writings. The number of individual selections now runs up into the hundreds. The St. Olaf Choir Series has won great popularity and is used by high school, college, and church choirs throughout our country. A cappella singing, which was almost a forgotten art in America, has come back, and today high school and college choirs present sacred programs with liberal choices from the St. Olaf Choir Series. As a sign of the progress that has been made we need only say that today high school choirs render creditably songs which have formerly been used by the St. Olaf Choir. Thousands of people have become conscious of the devotional and cultural values of the sacred a cappella program.

It is a far cry from the singing schools, made up of farmer or village boys and girls, of fifty to sixty years ago, to the Christiansen choir schools that have been conducted during summer vacations for the past seven years. In all, there have been twelve of these up to date. They are now really schools for choir conductors and have reached song leaders by the thousands from coast to coast.

Just a word about choral unions. Interest and enthusiasm were aroused by the mass efforts put forth when choirs gathered from far and near to form unions of singers. The first choral union was formed in January, 1892, at the instance of Professor Reimestad, Reverend M. Falk Gjertsen, and Reverend B. B. Haugan. Seventy choirs were counted in the membership. The Norwegian Synod Choral Union was organized in 1903 by Professor John Dahle. Closely associated with him were Dr. Carlo A. Sperati of Luther College and Reverend J. O. Dreng, who was secretary. The United Norwegian Church Choral Union was formed in 1911 with Dr. Christiansen as director. The present choral union is the lineal descendant of the two just named and has repeatedly given concerts sung by three thousand and more singers.

With all the effort, enthusiasm, and evident success that have attended our efforts down through the years, we are still conscious of the original ideal set up by the men and women of emigrant days who had nothing to offer but hearts' devotion, courage, and willingness to sacrifice. As a singing church we are still loyal to and inspired by the chorales of Luther, Nicolai, and Bach. Dr. Christiansen says that all great church melodies have sprung from the same source--the folk melody, and we claim the folk melody of Norway as our particular heritage.


<1> An ancient musical instrument, probably the original Norse fela (violin), having from one to four strings; originally the strings were picked but from the twelfth century on they were bowed.

<2> A hollow box up to four feet long, with seven or more strings picked or bowed; found notably in Telemark and Valdris.

<3> A hollow, narrow box with one string which was bowed, producing a full, pleasant tone.

<4> Sandvik and Scheldrup, Norges musikhistorie, 90 (Christiania, Norway,

<5> Sandvik and Scheldrup, Norges musikhistorie, 108.

<6> Glasværkets Kor, Handelsstandens Kor, Arbeidernes Kor, Larviks Sangkor.

<7> Here are some of them: Professor Ylvisaker of Luther Theological Seminary; Reverend David Lysnes, who also filled a chair in a theological seminary; and the following well known men: Jaastad, Kroggess, J. Møller Eggen, Wiese, Helsem, Lars Lund, P. G. Ostby, Eisteinsen, T. H. Haugan, Ole Nilsen, O. A. Bu, Tødal, O. H. Hoel, Saevig, A. E. Hauge, H. Hjertaas, Halyard Roalkvam, R. A. Lavik, Nummedahl, and Svein Strand. The last named is the only one of the list now living, and he is ninety years of age.

<8> Some of Erik Jensen's publications are: Bjorneharpen (The Children's Harp), 1885-1894; Songs for the Children's Harp, 1890; Scandinavian Songs, 1886; Sangbog for søndagskolen (Songbook for the Sunday School), 1894; Religiøse korsange (Relgious Choir Songs), 1894; Klokketoner (Chimes), 1896; Sangbog for kirkekor (Songs for the Church Choir), 1896; and De unges sangbog (Songbook for Youth), 1900.

<9> Biography of Knud Henderson in O. M, Norlie's School Calendar (Minneapolis, 1924).

<10> Afholdssagens historie, 296 (Minneapolis, 1896).

<11> Christiansen did not go on this trip.

<12> For instance, a critic who reviewed the two cantatas written to commemorate the Norwegian Centennial of 1925 said, "The strange thing about the two cantatas is that the English one is the more Norwegian of the two." The English one was Dr. Christiansen's.

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