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A Cappella Choirs in the Scandinavian-American Lutheran Colleges
    by Paul Benson (Volume 32: Page 221)

Bringing America the beauty of mixed a cappella choral singing is the undisputed contribution to American culture of a small band of Scandinavian-American Lutheran college choirs on the midwestern prairies. They are the American progenitors of an art form which, though a transplant from Europe, took root in the culture of the Scandinavian-American pioneers. Although unaccompanied choral singing was featured in the cathedrals and churches of Europe prior to the Reformation, it was in America and among these Scandinavian-American Lutheran colleges that the a cappella choir was transformed into a concert instrument, the touring mixed choral ensemble. The significance of this new type and approach should not be underestimated, for it has influenced American choral development in every quarter.

The existence of a rich tradition in choral singing at a number of the Scandinavian-American Lutheran colleges is clearly linked to a chain of historical events at several of these institutions, including Augsburg College, Minneapolis; Concordia College, Moorhead; and St. Olaf College, Northfield, all in Minnesota; Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois; Luther College, Decorah, Iowa; and Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington. The specific historical circumstances which allowed for the creation of so many choral ensembles at the various Lutheran colleges are complex, but one event forms the essential starting point for all discussions of Lutheran college choral music. That event was, of course, the founding of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir in 1911 by F. Melius Christiansen at St. Olaf College, then a small Norwegian Lutheran coeducational institution.

The St. Olaf Lutheran Choir burst onto the national scene in the spring of 1920 with a notable tour of the important music centers on the east coast, in particular Carnegie Hall in New York City. It was the first American collegiate choir to sing there. For a tiny midwestern college of 700 students to send its choir of some fifty voices to the acropolis of American musical life and expect to receive serious consideration was an audacious act. Yet New York critics and a discriminating audience gave the choir a rousing reception. This outpouring of praise reassured the midwesterners and more than justified their boldness. To this day, few American choirs have found such immediate acceptance.

The creation of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir and its success came about through the vision of two gifted men, F. Melius Christiansen and Paul G. Schmidt. From its inception, the choir’s unparalleled success was the result of the combined talents of these two very different individuals. F. Melius Christiansen was a choral perfectionist par excellence and a romantic devotee who had a special instinct for the dramatic and a deeply spiritual nature. Christiansen’s frequently quoted statement that his art was his religion and religion was his art perfectly reflects the importance he placed on the choir’s singing. {1} For Christiansen, the choir was much more than a vehicle for entertainment; it was always his goal to move the audience to a higher spiritual consciousness. He wanted to create a choir on the pattern of the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir of Leipzig, Germany, where he had spent several years. But he had in mind a mixed-voice touring ensemble.

Christiansen’s early life in Larvik, Norway, was filled with music. Playing the violin and the church organ, and trading music lessons for English lessons from American Mormon missionaries, young F. Melius decided to immigrate to the United States in the late 1880s in the footsteps of his brother Karl. Becoming director of the Marinette, Wisconsin, Scandinavian Band in 1890, he was encouraged by Theodore Reimestad to enroll at Augsburg College, which he did in 1892. Christiansen’s facility with the violin caused him to receive the moniker of the “Ole Bull of Augsburg.” After his work at Augsburg and an additional stint at Northwestern Conservatory in Minneapolis, he and his new wife, Edith Lindem, traveled to the Royal Conservatory in Leipzig where he received a diploma in 1897. Returning to Minnesota, he took a position at Northwestern Conservatory, where he taught from 1899 to 1903. While directing the Kjerulf Male Chorus in Minneapolis, Christiansen met a member of the bass section named Paul G. Schmidt who encouraged him to come to St. Olaf College where Schmidt had been teaching since 1902. {2}

Schmidt’s connection to St. Olaf through his father is a interesting one. During its first year of operation in 1861, Luther College, then located at Halfway Creek, Wisconsin, had only one faculty member, a young German by the name of Frederick Schmidt, Paul’s father. Schmidt had immigrated from Saxony with his mother in 1842 and had attended Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1853 to 1857. He became fast friends with a group of young Norwegian Americans who were studying there because their synod lacked a seminary. {3} Schmidt, in fact, became so close to the Norwegians that he learned their language in order to communicate with them and minister to their needs. Later, during a chance meeting in Baltimore with Norwegian Synod president H. A. Preus, Schmidt surprised him with his facility in Norwegian. When Preus offered Schmidt the first faculty position at Luther College in Wisconsin, Schmidt accepted, leaving his pastorate in Baltimore for the West. {4} Schmidt thus became the first music teacher in a Scandinavian-American Lutheran college, and equally important, later taught at St. Olaf College, where his son Paul would eventually become associated with F. Melius Christiansen and the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir.

Paul G. Schmidt became the choir’s tireless impresario and detail man, performing the public relations work so crucial to the choir’s success. Schmidt was also the mainstay of the choir’s bass section for over forty years. It was Schmidt who got the choir engagements at all the best concert halls and then worked out the complicated logistics necessary for making the extensive tours successful. In fact, Christiansen and Schmidt were so successful that they were able to contribute about half the cost of an impressive new music building, named the Christiansen Music Hall, from the proceeds of choir tours, over and above expenses. {5}

This talented team achieved a coup for choral music by bringing the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir onto the national scene at a time when most American colleges and high schools were proud if their singing groups could perform such works as “Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day.” {6} However, the mediocre, if not inferior, quality of American school choral music was forever altered by that 1920 tour. College, university, and particularly high school choir directors began emulating the style and technique of F. Melius Christiansen and performing his choral works. By the late 1920s and early 1930s many American secondary and post-secondary schools and congregations had a cappella choral ensembles which tried to follow the St. Olaf example. This growth was fostered not only by those who heard the choir, but by a cadre of St. Olaf-trained directors who practiced many of Christiansen’s ideas in the field. {7}

The choir’s tour of 1920 marked the beginning of a golden age of Lutheran choral music in America which existed between the two world wars. This period, in which the influence of Christiansen’s theories about choral singing reached its zenith, might with justification be called the Christiansen Era. Christiansen made St. Olaf College, for a time, the capital of a choral tradition from which the new doctrines and dogmas spread quickly into many of the colleges, universities, high schools, and churches of America. In creating the nation’s pioneer a cappella collegiate touring choir, Christiansen established a unique type of college choir at a new level of excellence.

Christiansen’s choir was not America’s first mixed a cappella collegiate choir, even though St. Olaf may have had the first one. The St. Olaf College Sangkor, founded in the year 1875, had little continuity in terms of leadership or membership, however, and did not tour. {8} Another early a cappella choir was created in 1906 by Peter Lutkin at Northwestern University, but it was also a nontouring choir. {9} The difference at St. Olaf is that Christiansen’s choir was established as a touring choir, with the avowed purpose of bringing sacred choral music of the highest standard to every part of the United States.

It was unusual in the early years of the twentieth century for a college or university singing ensemble to be of mixed voices. All-male or all-female choruses were much more common because co-education was a relatively new phenomenon on the American scene. In Scandinavia also, the all-male or all-female chorus was well established, whereas the mixed a cappella choir was relatively unknown. {10} Singing without accompaniment was reserved for only the best choirs. That the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir sang its whole concert of two hours and more without accompaniment and from memory was unprecedented.

Within a few years Northfield, Minnesota, became the unlikely mecca for those choral devotees who wanted to study Christiansen’s techniques. A whole generation of choir directors traveled either to St. Olaf or to one of the many summer Christiansen Choral Schools to learn his methods. Yet to suggest that the St. Olaf success was a spontaneous happening or that there was not already a fine Scandinavian-American choral tradition in existence is to obscure history. St. Olaf's principal contribution was to bring high caliber a cappella choral singing to the larger American scene on the concert stage, but it was itself the product of several generations of Scandinavian-American singing.

One must try to visualize the spirited a cappella singing of numberless isolated Lutheran congregations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Iowa, and the Pacific Northwest. These years of singing the old Lutheran chorales through bleak blizzards and searing summers fostered a love of choral music. Without the state-church trained musicians and the great organs of the European cathedrals, the pioneers developed a feeling for the sound of human voices blending together in choral and congregational singing. In 1943 Paul Glasoe recalled, “The pioneer generation of parents, now almost gone, knew many hymns by heart. Many a mother could accompany her daily round of routine duties with an almost endless series of hymns.” {11}

The movement toward fine choral ensembles among the Scandinavian Lutherans started well before the American Civil War with the first wave of Scandinavian immigrant farmers. As early as 1847, the Reverend J. W. C. Dietrichson of Koshkonong, Wisconsin, reported the existence of a “singing school” in his congregation. Soon after the Civil War, Norwegian congregations established parochial schools in which choral singing was a basic part of the curriculum. Another cultural carryover from the Norwegian homeland was the singing societies (sangerforbund). These societies eventually developed into large choral unions which brought together the scattered congregational choirs into a single regional, or even national, choir on festive occasions. {12}

Following the pattern of American Protestant denominations, the Scandinavian Lutherans soon began to establish normal schools, academies, and colleges. The earliest of these colleges, which emphasized the training of young adults in music and religion, were Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, and Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Augustana College, founded in 1860, is the oldest Scandinavian Lutheran college, though this statement is somewhat misleading because the original school actually split into three colleges. The Swedish Augustanians remained at Rock Island, Illinois, while the Norwegians eventually founded Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. All three of these colleges developed choral programs, but none before the 1880s. {13} The distinction of having the earliest organized choral group among the Scandinavian-American colleges goes to Luther College, which offered music classes at its founding in 1861 and established the Idun Quartette in 1869. {14}

One of the key personalities in the creation of Lutheran collegiate choral music was a teacher at Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis named Theodore S. Reimestad. Professor Reimestad helped determine much of the future of Scandinavian-American choral singing by co-founding the Norwegian Lutheran Singers Choral Union in 1892. {15} This organization served as the prototype for many such groups. Also significant, Reimestad encouraged F. Melius Christiansen to enter Augsburg as a student, and when he came, put him into the Augsburg Quartet. The Quartet was the first musical organization to tour Norwegian settlements in America and the first American collegiate choral group to visit Scandinavia - in 1895, but without Christiansen. {16}

However, the search for the roots of a cappella singing among Scandinavian Lutheran colleges inevitably centers on St. Olaf, despite the fact that it was not the oldest Lutheran college. It was St. Olaf College, coeducational from its founding, that first experimented with a cappella singing, beginning in 1875. The St. Olaf Sangkor shows St. Olaf's commitment to creating a mixed a cappella choir immediately after the founding of the college. {17} When F. Melius Christiansen launched the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir some thirty-seven years later, in 1911, he was using the earlier choir’s constitution, although with some modifications. {18}

The reign of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir was not disturbed within the Scandinavian-American community for an entire generation. During this period, several non-Lutheran choirs arose to challenge St. Olaf's supremacy, including those of Northwestern University and the Westminster Choir College. {19} However, among the Lutheran college choirs, none owned national prominence to equal St. Olaf’s until the 1920s. Yet virtually every Scandinavian-American college in the United States and Canada did at some point create a choir following the St. Olaf model. Among these, five colleges besides St. Olaf would eventually create touring choral organizations of national and sometimes international reputation. {20}

St. Olaf’s international choral leadership has remained constant. In 1941 Olaf Christiansen stepped into the immensely difficult situation of following his father as director of the choir. While initially attending St. Olaf, he had dreamed of a career in commercial design or athletic coaching, and for a time he even considered a religious vocation, possibly as a missionary. But what he chose was music. In 1920, at age nineteen, he took over the positions of band director, athletic director, and dean of men at Mayville Normal Teachers’ College in Mayville, North Dakota. {21} After Mayville, Olaf Christiansen returned to St. Olaf College from 1921 to 1925 to finish his Bachelor of Music degree. Now he started seriously planning for a career in music. Upon graduation from St. Olaf, he studied opera with Paul Parks in New York City. From 1926 to 1929 he taught music in the Flint, Michigan, public schools, and then in 1929 went to Oberlin College, where he founded the Oberlin A Cappella Choir and edited the Oberlin Choir Series. {22}

The opportunity to direct the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir - the “Lutheran” was dropped in the 1950s - was too great a temptation for Olaf Christiansen to turn down; in 1941 he returned to St. Olaf to share the baton with his father, and in 1942 took over the choir on his own. {23} Two principal elements which he brought to the choir were rhythmic precision and textual intelligibility. Christiansen’s stress on enunciation and articulation meant that American audiences could usually understand every word of English text, a noteworthy accomplishment for any choir. Also, like his father, he composed for the choir many distinctive works with religious themes. His early interest in missionary work was not lost but came to fruition in his frequent choir-practice homilies which invariably came back to the theme of the worth and value of each individual.

The replacement of Olaf Christiansen as the St. Olaf Choir director in 1968 was a significant occasion. There was considerable fear that the tradition could not be maintained, but that fear has proved unfounded under the leadership of Kenneth Jennings. Jennings, a Connecticut Yankee who had never heard of St. Olaf, came to the college as a student through a chance Army friendship with a St. Olaf graduate named Luther Onerheim. Onerheim’s choral directing skills left such an impression on Jennings that he decided to investigate St. Olaf on his way to Colorado College, where he had planned to study music. {24}

Jennings graduated from St. Olaf in 1950 and returned as a member of the music faculty in 1953. His success with the choir has been widely acknowledged. While maintaining the standards of the choir, he has added his own stamp. In 1970, only two years after he took over the choir, it was invited to sing at the International Strasbourg Music Festival in France. The choir was asked to return in 1972, and one French critic wrote, “One would look in vain for the slightest criticism to make of this international-class group.” {25}

The next addition to the ranks of Lutheran collegiate choirs after St. Olaf was the Concordia Choir of Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota, founded by Agnes Skartvedt in 1920. It became a fine choral organization under the leadership of Herman Monson, who directed it from 1923 to 1937. Monson, a Luther College graduate who had conducted the Concordia Band from 1915 to 1917 and served as a band director in the Army in 1917-1918, returned to Concordia in the fall of 1923 to take over the choir. Monson had a solid musical background, having taken his undergraduate musical training under the charismatic tutelage of Carlo Sperati of Luther College. Later, as a disabled veteran, he studied at the Louisville Conservatory and at Minneapolis’ MacPhail School of Music. Monson was not only well qualified, but very energetic in his devotion to choral music. At Concordia, he compiled 450 pieces of music and revised and adapted them for choral singing. {26} The main body of this work was published by Belwin in New York City as the Concordia Choir Series. {27}

From the beginning, the Concordia Choir under Monson received uniform praise. A critical reviewer of Monson’s first year choir says that it “took the audience by storm in the opening number ‘O Sacred Head Now Wounded’ sung with dignity and an organ-like beauty of tone. Well-balanced parts, precision of detail and unity of effect were notable achievements.” {28} Although, at first, one might discount such a review as friendly and uninformed hyperbole, the yearly tours brought many such statements. For example, a 1926 critique in a Minot, North Dakota, newspaper was typical: “These forty singers from Concordia, trained so effectually by Herman W. Monson, the director, sing as one voice and achieve the beautifully colored shading and effect possible on an organ. The singers respond with such instant unity to the baton that a delightful finish and clear-cut phrasing are made possible.” {29}

During the late 1920s, the choir received the appellation “Pride of the Northwest,” which, if nothing else, hints at a certain regional acknowledgment. {30}

In 1937 the Christiansen era began at Concordia, an era unprecedented in length in American choral music history. Few if any American conductors have led the same choir for nearly a half century, and Paul J. Christiansen’s Concordia Choir was always among the top collegiate choirs in the country. To many, Christiansen symbolized the Concordia Choir. Only a few remember that he inherited a fine choral program intact.

Despite the fact that Paul J. Christiansen was born with one of the most famous names in American choral music, his success in the field was anything but a foregone conclusion. In fact, as a student at St. Olaf, Christiansen had little interest in choral music, though he did sing in his father’s choir. Instead, he devoted himself to piano, composition, and orchestra. His early lack of interest in choir work paralleled that of his father, who was a violinist, organist, band and orchestra director long before he became involved in choral music. Paul Christiansen got the choral position at Concordia, then a small college with a tiny music faculty, in 1937, by virtue of his taking the chairmanship of the department and the directorship of the choir in the same package. As with his father before him, his significant gifts as a choral director were revealed over time and were not immediately manifested.

Though Paul Christiansen at age twenty-two had had pitifully little experience with choral groups, he was well equipped aesthetically. He knew the sound he wanted, and he started to develop it in his choirs. Perhaps the foremost quality he was after was a certain type of color. Not a uniform color or even the same color on different songs, but a richness that came from individual voices blending their own particular tonal qualities. “Color has been a great interest to me and a joy” was the way Christiansen described his fascination with this aspect of choral music. {31}

It is interesting to read Christiansen’s reflections on his father’s St. Olaf Lutheran Choir: “In 1938, I heard the [St. Olaf Lutheran] Choir which I had not heard for a few years. I was surprised by the lush, rich alto section. Earlier my father was interested in the boys’ choir sound, particularly in the sopranos, from his Leipzig years. By ‘38 he had forgotten about the boys’ choir sound.” {32}

The impact his brother’s St. Olaf Choir had on him reveals much about Paul Christiansen’s choral views. “I admired Olaf’s St. Olaf Choir very much. It was always clean singing and that is an ideal that one should have in front of him all the time. The St. Olaf sound under Olaf was very unified like an orchestra with the uniform sectional sound coming through whereas F. Melius’ choir had less of the sectional alikeness. Olaf was very much for the high overtones like the oboe whereas F. Melius had low overtones like French horns for richness. It is like comparing the Cleveland Symphony under Szell and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy. Szell’s sound was always very clean and no one had better intonation, but Philadelphia had a sensuous, warm sound under Ormandy.” {33}

In this comparison Paul Christiansen sees himself as much closer to his father, leaning as he does toward low overtones and vowel richness. There is a more sensuous sound, especially in the alto and bass sections.

The catalog of critical acclaim given to the Concordia Choir under Christiansen since 1937 is voluminous. However, one particular article written during the 1958 European tour might be representative of many which critics have written after hearing the choir for the first time. During that 1958 tour, the choir sang at the Vienna Music Festival with 117 other choirs from eight countries. After it received a surprising foot-stomping ovation, the critic wrote: “The first day of the music festival in Vienna brought us a sensation we shall especially remember. Never before in Vienna have we heard a choir sing in such a musical way. Very sonorous and homogeneous. Seldom before have we heard a concert that from the first to the last tone was so perfectly sung. There was nothing more to wish. It is impossible to sing more artistically." {34}

In the spring of 1986, Dr. Christiansen retired after forty-nine years as director of the Concordia Choir.

The third Lutheran college to develop a nationally touring a cappella choir was Pacific Lutheran College in Parkland, now a part of Tacoma, Washington. In the fall of 1925, Pacific Lutheran College, by then grown to nearly 150 students, hired a young St. Olaf College graduate, Joseph Edwards, to head the music department. Edwards was very much a product of the Norwegian-American community. His pastor father had served Lutheran parishes in Minnesota and South Dakota and later in Everett and Tacoma, Washington. Joseph had been a member of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir at the time of its famous 1920 tour, and even roomed with another well-known member of that choir, Olaf Christiansen. The influence of F. Melius Christiansen on Edwards was pronounced. It was the elder Christiansen who recommended Edwards for his first job, as organist at the First Lutheran Church in Toledo, Ohio. {35}

During the opening weeks of the 1926-1927 school year, Edwards started trying out voices for an a cappella choir at Pacific Lutheran College along the lines of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir. From the beginning the title “Choir of the West” was used, a name suggested by Victor Elvestrom, an early tour manager of the choir. {36} Despite a shortage of qualified singers, Edwards started building a choir which became respectable and even excellent in time. Although there were short tours, the choir did not make a major tour until 1932, when it traveled as far east as Chicago. According to a Lutheran Herald article written about the choir’s performance at the Luther League convention, the choir was well received. “The ‘Choir of the West’ came from Tacoma to take part in the convention, and surprised all by its wonderful singing under the directorship of Professor Joseph O. Edwards.” {37}

Edwards’ tenure at Pacific Lutheran College was cut short by the Great Depression. Since the college was barely able to pay even its meager salaries to teachers, Edwards felt he had no choice but to leave Parkland. He was replaced by Gunnar Malmin, who had a background similar to Edwards’. Son of a midwestern Norwegian Lutheran pastor, Malmin attended Luther College, played in the Carlo Sperati band for five years, and received his B. A. degree there in 1923. In 1924 he decided to enroll in St. Olaf College to work on a Bachelor of Music degree and sing in the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir. This experience made an impression on Malmin which would influence his future work at Pacific Lutheran. After brief teaching stints at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa, where he directed the Men’s Glee Club and the University Band, and Dana College, Blair, Nebraska, where he directed the choir and took it on a tour of Denmark in 1935, he came to Pacific Lutheran College in the fall of 1937. {38}

At first Malmin’s efforts to keep the Choir of the West going were something of a struggle. During the war years of 1941-1945, the male student body was reduced at one point to nine, yet the choir never stopped singing. Also, during this period, Malmin, along with other faculty members, worked in the Tacoma Shipyards to help in the war effort and to supplement his income.

The postwar years were a time of strong development for the Choir of the West. The choir made its yearly tours to large and enthusiastic audiences, mainly on the West Coast, and it was well loved by the college’s constituents. The choir under Malmin was essentially a church choir, with an exclusively religious purpose, as distinct from a concert choir. Malmin said of it, “I have always believed that the a cappella choir singing sacred music expresses the highest ideals of Christian higher education culturally and spiritually.” {39} It was also a fine singing organization which profited greatly from Malmin’s flair for programming. Gunnar Malmin knew his audience and what they wanted to hear.

The choir’s 1963 tour of Norway marked its peak of artistic attainment, as demonstrated by the reviews in many Scandinavian and German newspapers. No fewer than fifteen Norwegian newspapers reviewed the various concerts and the comments were universally favorable.

In the fall of 1964, Maurice Skones came to Pacific Lutheran University, as it had become in 1960, as chairman of the Music Department and director of the Choir of the West. Skones was well prepared for his new role, having studied choral directing under Paul J. Christiansen at Concordia College, directed an award-winning high school choir at Cut Bank, Montana, and created a good collegiate choir at Adams State College in Colorado. When Skones took over the Choir of the West, he immediately put his own stamp on it. Although he was well within the historical tradition of Lutheran college choirs, he wanted to emphasize the choir as a concert ensemble rather than strictly as a church-choir training group.

Skones was raised in Turner, Montana, where his earliest musical influence besides his brother and father, both amateur musicians, was a St. Olaf graduate named Hazel Hansen, the pastor’s wife, who directed the local church choir. It was through Mrs. Hansen that he first heard about the St. Olaf choral tradition. After a short period in the Navy, Skones entered Concordia College in the fall of 1944 to prepare for a career in medicine. When he got to the campus, after the term had begun, he went to a chapel service and heard the Concordia Choir, directed by Paul Christiansen, for the first time. He was overwhelmed by the experience. Later that week Skones was in an ear-training class with Christiansen, who asked him to try out for the choir. From that point on he sang in the Concordia Choir, though it was not until the end of his junior year that he decided on a career in music education. {40}

At Pacific Lutheran University Skones developed an entirely new type of choral sound which departed in some ways from the Lutheran choral tradition of emphasis on sectional unity. In its place he created a “heterogeneous” choral formation in which the choir is organized not by sections but by quartets. The problem, as Skones saw it, was that the individual voice, its color and beauty, was often lost in the section because, surrounded by others singing the same part, the individual singers could not tell if it was their own sound they were hearing. So Skones started developing a choir of quartets, with each quartet containing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices. Skones gives his wife Pat credit for this musical idea, tracing it to her comments about his Adams State Choir in the early 1960s. Mrs. Skones felt that the choir’s sound was too thin and that individual choir members were blending only with their section rather than with the choir as a whole. {41}

Skones’ new approach to a cappella choir singing paid good dividends. Seattle music critic R. M. Campbell commented enthusiastically on a 1981 concert by saying, “One of the hallmarks of the group is its evenly produced sound. . . . so perfectly molded are its phraseology and formulation of choral sonorities.” {42} Skones retired in 1983 and his place as choir director was taken by Richard Sparks, the founder of the Seattle Pro Musica. {43}

Credit for developing the a cappella choir program at Augsburg College belongs to Henry P. Opseth. Opseth came to Augsburg in the early 1920s from St. Olaf College on the recommendation of F. Melius Christiansen. Opseth had been a tuba virtuoso in the St. Olaf Band under Christiansen’s baton; he came to Augsburg, however, as director of the Men’s Glee Club and a women’s ensemble called the Choral Society formed when Augsburg introduced coeducation in 1922. The Glee Club and the Choral Society functioned and toured as independent units from 1922 to 1933. In 1924 there was a mixed choral ensemble identified in the yearbook as “The Augsburg Choir.” This organization did not survive, however, and it was not until the fall of 1933 that the Glee Club and the Choral Society merged to create a permanent Augsburg Choir under Opseth. {44} In addition to his choral work, Opseth was particularly good at encouraging students to develop their latent talents. Leland B. Sateren, an Augsburg alumnus who eventually took Opseth’s place, made this observation: “Opseth was absolutely selfless in his encouragement of many of us. In my case, he gave me many opportunities to direct the choir - even in public appearances, and finally in my senior year appointed me assistant director. And he performed - as regular program - compositions of both [Norman] Myrvik and myself. {45}

The Augsburg Choir was similar to most Lutheran college choirs of the 1930s and 1940s whose repertoire was exclusively religious and whose concerts were aimed at Lutheran congregations. The choir sang well under Opseth’s leadership, with a passion which reflected Opseth’s intense personality. His training as a bandsman, as in the case of Christiansen, aided him in his work as a choral director. Opseth built a choir with distinctive choral tone and, with only limited vocal resources, accomplished the task of producing a quality choir year after year.

Upon his death in December, 1950, the choir was taken over by Sateren, who had joined the Augsburg music faculty in 1946 and had been directing the second choir known as the Choral Club. Sateren’s years at Augsburg were to be the richest period in the college’s choral history; it was he who raised the Augsburg Choir into the top rank of Lutheran college choirs.

Sateren was born in Everett, Washington, where his father, the Reverend Lawrence Sateren, was president of Bethania College, a small Lutheran Free Church junior college. Sateren graduated from Augsburg in 1935. After World War II, he was asked to return to Augsburg as a teacher. Taking the good choral tradition already established there, Sateren began building and expanding the choir with a view to creating a first-rate choral organization. He also saw the need for the choir to expand its audience by singing not only in church sanctuaries, but also in concert halls. {46}

Music critics, both in Europe and in America, suggest the artistic stature and the particular character of Sateren’s choir. Dagbladet (Oslo) commented on the choir’s “extraordinarily pure sound” while Oslo’s Aftenposten noted its “exquisite pianissimos and truly full-toned singing with power and body.” In Germany, the Stuttgart Nachrichten remarked that Sateren was “a virtuoso ‘playing’ on the choir as one would on a precious instrument.” In the American press, the Capitol Times (Madison, Wisconsin) called the singing of the Augsburg Choir “magnificent”; and perhaps the most generous praise came from the National Broadcasting Company’s music supervisor who wrote, “I can remember no better choral performance on the air in all the years I have been with NBC.” {47}

Sateren took early retirement in 1979 to allow more time for creative work as a composer and writer, as well as guest conducting and choral workshop engagements both here and abroad. “As both the Choir and the Music Department had reached a fairly reasonable degree of excellence, it seemed like the right time to move on.” {48} Larry Fleming, who had earlier developed the choir at Valparaiso University, succeeded Sateren, and thus was presented with the opportunity of carrying forward a strong and influential choral tradition.

Although Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, did not have an a cappella touring choir until 1934, the Augustana Choir was actually created in 1931 by Henry Veld when he combined the male Wennerberg Chorus with the female Oriole (later Jenny Lind) Chorus for a concert in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on March 18, 1931. Within a very few years Henry Veld, who spent thirty-seven years at Augustana, created from this fusion a choir of national stature. {49}

Veld, of Dutch extraction, was an Augustana product, having studied both at Augustana and at the Chicago Musical College, where he was influenced by his vocal teacher, Richard DeYoung. Veld was also choirmaster at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Chicago. Starting his career as an organist, he came to Augustana in 1929 to teach singing and direct the Oriole Chorus. Veld said about the choral situation at Augustana, “They had no male chorus then - it disintegrated the year before - and had 22 girls in what they called the Oriole Chorus. I don’t know why they called it that; the female oriole doesn’t sing.” {50}

A strict disciplinarian, Veld insisted on regular rehearsals and was always concerned with the religious importance of the music the choir sang. His often stated theory was that the enunciation of the words affects the tone and that both tone and words were essential to his primary goal of conveying the religious meaning. {51}

One of the key influences on Veld’s concept of a cappella singing was dramatically demonstrated when he took his choir to St. Olaf College to start its first tour. This concert was performed as a tribute to F. Melius Christiansen, whom Veld greatly admired. {52}

Honors and attention came early to the choir, as when it was asked to sing at both the Music Educators National Conference and the Music Teachers National Convention in 1934. In 1936 the American Council on Education described the Augustana Choir as one of the four leading collegiate choirs in the United States, together with the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir, the Northwestern University A Cappella Choir, and the Harvard University Glee Club. {53}

The choir has toured extensively since 1934. In 1936 it made its first east coast tour. During World War II, the choir’s tours were curtailed for lack of singers, and for a time Veld was in the service, training choruses of military personnel at army centers in Europe. Veld’s American Army University Chorus appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra at Albert Hall, London, and later made a series of recordings of part songs for male voices under the sponsorship of Boosey and Hawkes, music publishers. {54} Veld’s chorus also made an extensive tour of British towns and cities.

Veld returned to Augustana in 1946, and in the spring of 1949 the choir made its first tour to the west coast. In June of that year the choir sang for 20,000 people in the Chicago Stadium to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Swedish migration to the Midwest. In 1950 it gave concerts at Symphony Hall in Boston, Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, and in New York’s Carnegie Hall with the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling. Veld was named conductor of the 2,000 voice choir of the World Council of Churches Assembly held at Soldier’s Field, Chicago, in 1954. He was also conductor of the Apollo Musical Club, a 200-voice mixed choir which was Chicago’s oldest musical group. {55}

The critical comments that follow suggest the enthusiastic response to the choir’s tours: “Unquestionably the top college choral group in the United States” Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle-Times; “The most impressive undergraduate choral body in the United States,” Detroit News; and “One of America’s truly great choral organizations,” Los Angeles Times. {56}

Veld had a talent for getting recognition. No other Lutheran college choir has had anything like the media attention of the Veld Augustana Choir, which made more than ninety nationwide broadcasts over the major radio networks, including a broadcast from Radio City in New York over NBC in 1939 and a three-month series of weekly concerts for the Mutual Network called “Concerts in Miniature.” The series was repeated annually from 1940 through 1944. {57}

During the early days of television, the choir was seen on ABC for an hour’s program in 1952 and in 1955 the choir appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. In addition to this, in 1938 the Augustana Choir was the only choir recording on the RCA Red Seal label, and eleven recordings were made in succeeding years. A long-playing record was made for RCA in 1953. During this period the Augustana Choir was the only collegiate choral group in America receiving royalties for recordings simultaneously from two different companies, since they had another contract with Key Records of New York City. {58}

Veld was succeeded in 1966 by Donald Morrison, Morrison, quite different in temperament, nevertheless maintained the level of musicality established by Veld. A Stuart, Iowa, native, Morrison received a Bachelor of Music degree from Drake University and a master’s degree in sacred music from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. {59} He has combined his background in voice, organ, and conducting to achieve noteworthy results. Morrison puts great emphasis on the religious work of the choir; it is more a church choir than Veld’s, singing mostly in churches or cathedrals on tour.

Morrison’s choir has received its own set of accolades, including this in 1970 from a New York Times critic: “The Augustana Choir has the reputation of being one of the finest in the country and yesterday at Carnegie Hall they quite lived up to it. The seventy singers displayed remarkable finesse in matters of diction, phrasing, balance and intonation. Performing without music, under the deftly controlling direction of Donald Morrison, their vocal blend had a silken sheen, and their stylistic perception ranged unfailingly over 350 years of music.” {60}

Development of a touring a cappella choir at Luther College was relatively late because the school was all-male until the middle 1930s. In June of 1934, two years prior to Luther’s adoption of coeducation, Theodor Hoelty-Nickel organized a mixed choir, with women from Decorah College for Women, which was the forerunner of Luther’s later mixed a cappella chorus. {61} Unfortunately, Hoelty-Nickel’s outstanding work at Luther was shortened by the war. Because of his German background, he did not feel welcome in Decorah at that time and so took a job at the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s radio station KFUD and Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He later became the head of the Music Department at Valparaiso University. {62}

Hoelty-Nickel’s departure from Luther in 1941 left a vacancy in the directorship of the choir. This void was filled for the remainder of the year by Sigvart Hofland, who was much more talented as a composer than as a director. Hofland’s interim duties ended with the return to Luther of another Sigvart, Sigvart Steen. Steen had studied music at St. Olaf College under F. Melius Christiansen and had been a member of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir. He and Hofland had joined the Luther faculty together in 1942, but Steen had served in the Navy from 1942 to 1946. During this period, Hofland did nothing with Hoelty-Nickel’s mixed choir. {63}

Upon his return, Steen reinvigorated the choir, named it the Nordic Cathedral Choir and took it on tour for the first time in 1946. {64} History professor Chellis Evanson had suggested the name Nordic Cathedral Choir because Luther College was Norwegian in background, the choir sang sacred music, and it was to represent the highest type of choral singing. Later the name was changed to the Luther College Choir and finally to the Nordic Choir of Luther College. {65}

Steen’s choir was Luther’s first attempt to produce a first-class mixed a cappella ensemble. The previous and short-lived mixed choir did not tour, but Steen’s group traveled extensively during his brief tenure as director. Steen might very well have led the choir for many years had not his wife, a professional singer who sang under her maiden name of Margery Mayer, been given an opportunity to join the New York City Opera. This was too good an offer for her to pass by, and so Steen left Luther and took a position at Wagner College on Staten Island. {66}

Weston Noble’s association with Luther started as a student. The Riceville, Iowa, native had already paid his room deposit at the University of Iowa when he was visited by a Luther College admissions officer. After a two-hour visit, the man left, and Noble and his father decided he should try Luther. Of English and Methodist heritage, Noble was not the typical Luther student. In fact, when he first attended a Lutheran church service, he thought “it was the weirdest thing I ever attended.”

Gradually, Noble became involved in Lutheran choral music through his Luther years. He had, in fact, had a strong interest in choral music from his boyhood. One of his heroes was Fred Waring, and he never failed to listen to the “Pennsylvanians” on the radio.

After leaving Luther, Noble spent three years in the Army, as well as some time at the University of Michigan working on a Master of Music degree. In the fall of 1948, he was called to Luther on a one-year contract to direct the band and the choir. The contract was extended, however, and during the next twenty-five years both the Luther band and the choir achieved national and international distinction under Noble’s direction. Finally, in 1972, he decided to relinquish the band and concentrate his energies on the choir. {67}

The Nordic Choir under Weston Noble has been known for its sensitive performances of sacred choral music, and particularly for performances of Romantic works. A vital part of the Luther College Choir tradition, Noble’s interpretations occasionally are marked by a distinctively personal and at times a more than usually emotional approach to standard repertoire. The distinctive sound of the choir is a product of Noble’s quest for lyricism which stems primarily from his soprano and tenor sections. The alto-bass forces tend not to be quite so deep and rich as some others among the Lutheran college choirs.

The praise which the Nordic Choir received under Weston Noble has been plentiful. One of its highest honors was to be chosen to sing on the internationally televised program “The Joy of Bach.” Paul Salamonovitch, assistant conductor of the Roger Wagner Chorale, perhaps best summarized the choir’s finest achievement when he said, “The sensitivity to the musical phrase attained by this group is seldom equaled by professionals.” {68}

The six choirs discussed in this article make up the core of a larger group of Scandinavian college choirs in the United States and Canada which have together had an impact on American choral music. For over sixty years these church-related college choirs have established and maintained a reputation and standard for excellence in choral singing which is one of America’s musical treasures.


<1> Albert Johnson, “The Christiansen Choral Tradition: F. Melius Christiansen, Olaf C. Christiansen and Paul J. Christiansen” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa, 1973), 142.

<2> Robert Jennings, “A Study of the Historical Development of Choral Ensembles at Selected Lutheran Liberal Arts Colleges in the United States” (Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State University, 1969), 67.

<3> Edel Ytterboe Ayers, “The Old Main” (Anniston, Alabama, 1969), 101.

<4> Richard Irl Kegerreis, “The A Cappella Ideal,” in The Choral Journal , 9 (April, 1971), 19.

<5> William Benson, High on Manitou: A History of St. Olaf College, 1874-1949 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1949), 250-251, records that the total cost of the building, dedicated in 1926, was $102,928.77, of which the choir and other musical organizations of the college raised about $50,000.

<6> Leonard Van Camp, “The Formation of A Cappella Choirs at Northwestern University, St. Olaf College, and Westminster Choir,” in Journal of Research in Music Education, 13/4 (February, 1968), 228-230.

<7> Paul Glasoe, “A Singing Church,” in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 13 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1943), 103.

<8> Glasoe, “A Singing Church,” 97.

<9> J. C. K. Preus, The History of the Choral Union of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1847-1960 (Minneapolis, 1961), 3-7.

<10> Preus History of the Choral Union, 3.

<11> Jennings “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 326.

<12> Jennings “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 220.

<13> Paul G. Schmidt, My Years at St. Olaf (Northfield, Minnesota, 1964),

<14> Schmidt, My Years, 2-3.

<15> Interview with Frederick Schmidt, July 14, 1982, Northfield, Minnesota.

<16> Glasoe, “A Singing Church,” 107.

<17> Glasoe “A Singing Church,” 102.

<18> Benson High on Manitou, 27.

<19> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 80.

<20> Other Lutheran colleges with noteworthy choral programs include: Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas; California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California; Camrose College, Camrose, Alberta; Dana College, Blair, Nebraska; Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota; Midland College, Fremont, Nebraska; Texas Lutheran College, Seguin, Texas; Upsala College, East Orange, New Jersey; and Waldorf College, Forest City, Iowa.

<21> Interview with Olaf C. Christiansen, July 9, 1982, Little Sister Bay, Wisconsin.

<22> Interview with Olaf Christiansen.

<23> Interview with Olaf Christiansen.

<24> Interview with Kenneth Jennings, July 14, 1982, Northfield, Minnesota.

<25> ”The Ultimate Accolade” in Saint Olaf, 20 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1972), 12.

<26> Ariel Molldrem and Kenneth Halvorson, “A History of the Concordia Choir, 1920-1931” (Moorhead, Minnesota, 1931), 15.

<27> Erling Rolfsrud, Cobber Chronicle (Moorhead, Minnesota, 1966), 193.

<28> Molldrem and Halvorson, “History of the Concordia Choir,” 21.

<29> Molldrem and Halvorson, “History of the Concordia Choir,” 21.

<30> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 165.

<31> Interview with Paul J. Christiansen, July 12, 1982, Moorhead, Minnesota.

<32> Interview with Paul J. Christiansen.

<33> Interview with Paul J. Christiansen.

<34> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 171.

<35> Interview with Joseph Edwards, July 26, 1983, Fresno, California.

<36> Letter from Joseph Edwards, April 9, 1983, Fresno, California.

<37> Preus, History of the Choral Union, 84-85.

<38> Letter from Gunnar Malmin, October 28, 1982, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

<39> Interview with Gunnar Malmin, August, 1984, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

<40> Interview with Maurice Skones, July 28, 1982, Parkland, Washington.

<41> Interview with Maurice Skones.

<42> R M. Campbell, “PLU’s First-rate Choir,” in Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle, Washington), February 23, 1981, 86.

<43> Jim Peterson, “The Awesome Oneness of Many,” in Scene, 63 (Park-land, Washington, 1983), 5.

<44> Leland Sateren, “A Brief History of Augsburg College and Its Choral Music” (Edina, Minnesota, 1983), 4.

<45> Sateren, “Brief History,” 4.

<46> Interview with Leland Sateren, July 12, 1982, Moose Lake, Minnesota.

<47> Michael Walgren, “Reviews of the Augsburg Choir” (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1978), 1.

<48> Interview with Leland Sateren.

<49> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 343-344.

<50> Don Clasen, “Many Faces of Veld,” in The Argus Roundup (Rock Island, Illinois), December 4, 1965.

<51> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 342-343.

<52> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 344.

<53> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 344-345.

<54> The Argus Roundup, June 16, 1976.

<55> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 348-351.

<56> ”Press Comments,” a publicity brochure published by Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois, 1942).

<57> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 351.

<58> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 352.

<59> ”Augustana Choir 1984 Press Book” (Rock Island, Illinois, 1984), 3.

<60> “Augustana Press Book,” 8.

<61> Jennings “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 273.

<62> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 266.

<63> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 234.

<64> David Nelson, Luther College, 1861-1961 (Decorah, Iowa, 1961), 295.

<65> Jennings, “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 171.

<66> Interview with Weston Noble, May 1, 1982, Dallas, Texas.

<67> Interview with Weston Noble.

<68> Jennings “Historical Development of Choral Ensembles,” 245.


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