The Choir Workshop
The St. Olaf Lutheran Choir has always been a student organization
and as such has been subject to annual change in membership due
to graduation from college. Approximately thirty percent of the
members have been lost to the organization each year and new material
has had to be found. This has been no easy task, for the number
of applicants has usually been fifteen or more times the number
of vacancies to be filled and to try out that many voices is indeed
a tremendous assignment. Some of those who try out have been members
of one of the other choral groups during the preceding year and
therefore are not complete strangers to the St. Olaf Choir director.
Nevertheless, it has meant many days of arduous and fatiguing testing
every fall to select first of all a fairly large preliminary group,
and then out of this group to make the final selection.
In the fall of 1910 a constitution was adopted in which certain
requirements for membership were specified. This constitution, by
the way, was not drawn up in a hurry. Many hours of discussion and
careful consideration preceded the adoption of each requirement
and I have great respect for Dr. Christiansen's insistence on the
importance of each of these in the formation and maintenance of
a superior choral organization.
Dr. Christiansen was a strict disciplinarian and demanded hard
work and strict attention to what was required at the moment. It
was therefore to be expected that punctual attendance at sectional
and choir rehearsals would be one of the strictest regulations.
The rule adopted and followed was that for every absence a valid
and certified excuse be given to the director. Three unexcused absences
forfeited membership in the choir.
Other qualifications and requirements were, (1) a good voice; (2)
a good ear; (3) rhythmical perception; (4) ability to sing at sight;
(5) knowledge of the rudiments of music; (8) good pronunciation;
(7) educated taste; (8) musical temperament; (9) experience in choral
singing; (10) a spirit of willingness to sacrifice self-interests
for the general welfare of the choir. Comments on some of these
qualifications may not be out of place.
It sometimes happened that an applicant was much surprised when
not accepted by the director. Breathy voices and tremolos were usually
not accepted by Dr. Christiansen. Among sopranos the director differentiated
between reed-like and flute-like voices and very carefully selected
the right proportion of each kind for the most effective presentation
of the various numbers on the program he had selected for the year.
Those who had had experience in choir work, who could easily sing
at sight, or who were musically inclined and interested, were given
special consideration. The choir has always been an eight-voice
group and in order to get proper balance in the ensemble singing,
the selection of the right volume of desirable voices in each section
has been a major consideration.
Choir interests come first! Other dates and appointments must
never interfere with choir interests. This regulation was of special
importance on choir tours; for there were many distracting interests,
much to be seen during the day, and a strong temptation to stay
up late at night. Dr. Christiansen demanded that every member be
in the best possible physical and mental condition for every concert.
He insisted on early retiring when on tour and on using the liberal
daily allowance for a well-balanced diet and not for sweets and
A knowledge of the applicant's personality was also considered
of real value. Freshmen, as a rule, were not accepted but were advised
to join one of the other college choirs during their first year.
This gave time and opportunity to become personally acquainted with
each new student before the final decision was made regarding admission
to the St. Olaf Choir.
During tryouts a record was made of each singer's response to the
questions asked and to the various tests given by the director.
These annual fall tryouts were given both to new applicants and
to those who had been members of the choir during the preceding
year. One of the choir's rather unusual regulations made it necessary
for each member to resign at the close of each school year. "Once
a member, always a member" did not apply to the St. Olaf Choir.
This made it possible for the director to start anew each fall and
choose just those voices he regarded the most promising for that
year's successful work.
When the selection of members was finally completed intensive work
began at once. Five hours of choir rehearsals were held each week,
three in the forenoon and two in the afternoon. In addition, each
section --- tenors, altos, sopranos, and basses --- met separately
for half an hour three times a week. Each section elected a leader
from among their group and decided on the place for the sectional
rehearsal. These leaders conducted section rehearsals and checked
attendance. They also checked attendance at choir rehearsals. Some
music was handed out at the first rehearsals and members were urged
to memorize their parts as soon as possible. Dr. Christiansen explained
very carefully that a certain amount of mechanical work had to be
done first. Only after the various numbers could be sung from memory
would the polishing process begin. Choir rehearsals were interesting
as well as exacting, and comparatively few absences occurred. From
the start of work in the fall a spirit of friendly cooperation pervaded
the entire group and every member had great respect and sincere
admiration for the director. The choir was like a large family.
At times it may have been difficult for members to try to measure
up to the requirements of the director, especially when he called
on them to sing their part alone. But on the other hand, what joy
and real satisfaction was experienced when the director seemed pleased
with the efforts put forth! Of course he was sharp and critical.
He expected much and strove earnestly and endlessly to encourage
the singers to grasp and attain to the beauty inherent in message
and music. Perhaps the basses were singing a passage rather listlessly.
He would stop the singing at once and tell them in a stern voice:
"That phrase you are singing is a powerful prophetic utterance.
Sing it that way! There is a big difference between a bar of steel
and a rubber hose."
When the program numbers had been well memorized the polishing
began. The printed music was laid aside and from then on all eyes
and ears were held in strictest attention to the director's moves
and words. Only sacred music was sung and attention was frequently
called to the glory of the message as well as the beauty of the
music which conveys the message. As previously mentioned, the choir's
repertoire was not large as the director felt it to be more important
to sing comparatively few numbers supremely well rather than a much
larger number only moderately well. Dr. Christiansen was not easily
satisfied and phrases were sung over and over again in an effort
to attain to the most perfect and beautiful expression possible.
The result of such drilling is well known. Hard work and strictest
attention to minutest details were important factors in the making
of the St. Olaf Choir.
In addition to the daily rehearsals at the college, the choir
sang an anthem every Sunday morning at services in St. John's Lutheran
Church. Dr. Christiansen was organist as well as choir director
and both organist and choir very materially helped to make the services
of surpassing beauty and inspiration.
Membership in the choir at St. Olaf College has always been looked
upon as the highest honor that can come to a student from participation
in extracurricular activities. It has meant, however, that the student
has been obliged to give much additional time and work in order
to meet requirements. To memorize a new program each year is quite
an assignment; and to attend all rehearsals takes time.
Furthermore, it has been a standing rule at the college that no
student is permitted to join or retain membership in the choir unless
his grades in all college subjects at the end of the preceding semester
are eminently satisfactory.
Having been a singing member as well as manager during all the
years Dr. F. Melius Christiansen was director, and also during some
years following his retirement, I have memorized approximately five
hundred choral compositions, have attended five thousand rehearsals,
and have sung in more than two thousand concerts, the great majority
of which were directed by him. This, of course, has meant that in
our years at St. Olaf we have spent much time together. Besides
the daily choir rehearsals we frequently met to confer about choir
and band matters. On tours we always shared the same hotel room
and spent much of the day in each other's company. I have come to
know him intimately, and although in the chapters I have written
so far, I have told the story of my own years at St. Olaf, that
story is largely my association with a man who was the dominating
personality in the events that have been described. Without him
my years at St. Olaf would doubtless have been much more drab and
Having been with him on three concert tours to the land of his
birth and having heard him frequently speak about his relatives,
his friends, and his early years in Norway and America, I would
like to write a brief biography and try to describe the man, his
personal traits, and his achievements as I knew them.