Dr. F. Melius Christiansen A Brief Biography
Birth and Early Years
Frederick Melius Christiansen was born April 1, 1871,
in a little settlement called Berger, a few miles from the town
of Eidsvold, the cradle of Norway's independence. He was baptized
in the Lutheran Church in Eidsvold, the church in which the St.
Olaf Choir years later sang one of its tour concerts under his direction.
His parental grandfather, a smith and mechanic by trade, had built
a home in the Berger settlement on a hill which came to be known
as Smedhaugen (Smithhill). It was in this house that F. Melius was
born. His father, Anders Christiansen, had married Oleana Jonsen,
whose home was in the nearby settlement of Braaten, and Anders had
made his home at Smedhaugen. He and his brothers were mechanics
and were employed at various times in the factories of nearby towns.
In 1876 Anders moved with his family to Sarpsborg
where he was employed as mechanic in the construction of a huge
bridge. A year later he moved to Agnes, a small town situated on
the Larvik Fjord, and still later across the fjord to the larger
city of Larvik. Both the Jonsen and Christiansen families were interested
in music, especially instrumental music and the boy F. Melius already
in his third year was given a three-key clarinet which he soon learned
to play. In all of the localities mentioned members of the family
played in the local orchestras and bands, some of which the father
directed. As a boy six years of age F. Melius marched as a member
of his father's band in the 17th of May parade in Agnes. He had
great respect for his father and throughout his entire life was
very grateful to him for the encouragement and help he had received
from him to study music and learn to play first the clarinet, then
the violin, and later the pipe organ.
One day here in Northfield, after he had retired
from active work at St. Olaf College, Dr. Christiansen invited a
group of twelve former St. Olaf Band members to dinner in the Stuart
Hotel. When the group had been seated round the festive board, he
gave a short talk in which he said, "Today, had he lived, my
father would have been one hundred years old. I revere his memory
and feel urged to give expression to my feelings of profound respect
and gratitude for what he has meant to me, not only during the early
years of my boyhood in Norway, but throughout my whole life. That
is why I have asked you men to be with me on this occasion."
It has been my privilege to meet Anders on each of
the three tours to Norway. He was a grand old man, dignified and
stately in appearance, whom I am very happy to have met. After our
last meeting I received from him a round solid glass paper weight
inside of which is a small bouquet of beautiful colored flowers.
He had made this in the glass works for me and, needless to say,
I prize this gift very, very highly.
Boyhood in Larvik
Melius was eight years old when his father moved from
Agnes to Larvik. The next nine years in this beautiful coast city
were very important formative years for the boy. He attended public
school, getting very good grades in his studies, he was confirmed
in the Lutheran Church, and he came in contact with a number of
very able musicians who took special interest in him and started
him on his life's career.
One of these, Professor Oscar Hansen, was his instructor
in piano and another, Professor Olsen, gave him his first violin
lessons. Professor Hansen was the conductor of a fine orchestra
in the city and the youthful F. Melius soon became a member and
at times was called upon to play solo numbers at public appearances
of the organization. Professor Hansen also gave the boy lessons
in organ playing and in the course of time he became so proficient
that when Mr. Hansen was obliged to be absent from the city for
a while, the boy took his place in the large local Lutheran church
and very ably played the music for the services. Although he made
splendid progress in both piano and organ, he favored the violin
and on this instrument became an artist of exceptional ability.
During these years in Larvik the young boy worked
hard to help pay for his piano, organ, and violin lessons by copying
music for Mr. Hansen and by giving piano and violin lessons to beginners.
He was not very well satisfied with the arrangements he was able
to make and came to the conclusion it would be difficult to make
a satisfactory living there, since there already were such able
music instructors in the city who could take care of all prospective
needs. An uncle and a brother had gone to America some years before
this, the former to Oakland, California, and the latter to Washburn,
Wisconsin. More and more he considered the advisability of himself
going to the new world too, where he thought more opportunities
were available and good jobs more easily obtainable. In the spring
of 1888, when he was seventeen years of age, he had fully made up
his mind to seek a new life in America. It was not until fall, however,
that he was ready to leave his native land.
A New Life in America
On his boat trip to America many strange incidents
occurred, some of which caused him no little grief. The same was
true of the long train ride from New York to Oakland, for he was
unable to speak English and had difficulty in answering questions
and in making his wishes known.
When he came to his uncle's house, he very soon began
looking for work. Surely there must be an opening for an organist
in a city of so many churches. After days of walking from one church
to another without success, he gave up and tried to find employment
of some other kind. For a while he did office work for a Norwegian
periodical but that kind of work was not at all to his liking. His
money was just about gone when he received a letter from his brother
Karl, containing sixty dollars and an invitation to come to Washburn.
He gladly accepted this invitation and with his trunk and violin
was soon on his way to the Middle West. His brother Karl was a mechanic
by trade but continued his interest in music by serving as director
of the local band.
The two year's stay in Washburn was of value to F.
Melius in more ways than one. With the help of his older brother
he secured some profitable employment and during the school year
made great progress learning to speak and write English. He also
began to advertise in some of the Norwegian papers for a position
as band director or instructor in piano and violin and received
a number of favorable replies. One of these came from Marinette,
Wisconsin, and led to his move to that city where he became the
director of the city band, director of the church choir, and instructor
in piano and violin.
In the summer of 1892 a male quartet from Augsburg
College and Seminary in Minneapolis gave a concert in the church
in Marinette. One of the men spoke briefly and made a plea for young
men to enroll as students at Augsburg. F. Melius was favorably impressed
and entered college in Minneapolis in September when he was twenty-one
During his first year in Minneapolis he finished
the prescribed freshman courses at Augsburg, directed a male chorus
there and taught classes in choral singing. Then he entered the
Northwestern Conservatory of Music where for two years he studied
theory and counterpoint, graduating with highest honors. At various
times he also directed a number of choruses in the city, one of
which was "Nordlyset," --- and served as organist in several
Lutheran churches. He also had quite a number of students to whom
he gave private violin instruction. He was kept busy though his
work was varied and scattered; he probably saved some money, however,
for in July 1897 he returned to Marinette to marry a girl whom he
had met there when he directed the church choir, Miss Edith Lindem.
After the wedding, with his young wife he left America for a two
years' stay at the Conservatory in Leipzig, Germany.
The Years in Leipzig, Germany
Dr. Christiansen often told his friends that the years
in Leipzig were two happy and consequential years. His brother Karl
from Washburn had come with them from America and he too enrolled
as a student in the conservatory. The three were fortunate in finding
a pleasant and suitable apartment not far from the places where
they probably would spend much of their time --- the Royal Conservatory,
the Gewandhaus where the important concerts were given, and the
St. Thomas Church where in his day Johann Sebastian Bach had been
choir director. F. Melius enrolled in a number of theory classes
at the conservatory and studied violin with Hans Sitt, who was regarded
in Germany as a violin virtuoso. Sitt is said to have remarked that
he considered this young man from Minnesota one of his ablest students.
Perhaps the most important contact he made in Leipzig
was with the director of the St. Thomas Church Choir, Gustav Schreck,
who was his teacher at the conservatory in composition, counterpoint,
and choir conducting. F. Melius also attended very regularly the
rehearsals of the St. Thomas Choir and never missed one of their
public concerts. There is no doubt that the association with Schreck
and his choir was a real inspiration to him and had much to do with
his success as choir director and composer in America.
Early in 1899 after receiving his diploma from the
conservatory, he decided to return to America. The family now had
increased, as a boy had been born in Leipzig. When they reached
the Middle West, Mrs. Christiansen and baby Elmer went to Marinette,
Wisconsin, to live for a while with her parents while F. Melius
came to Minneapolis to seek employment and establish a suitable
In Minneapolis --- 1899 to 1903
The employment he secured was of a varied nature.
He joined the faculty of Northwestern Conservatory as teacher of
violin, was organist in one of the Lutheran churches, and served
as director of Kjerulf Male Chorus, a fine organization that gave
a number of splendid concerts in the city. At times he was also
called upon to conduct large choruses, one of which was a benefit
concert in the Swedish Tabernacle. In its review of this concert,
December 9, 1899, the Tribune had this to say regarding the chorus
and its director: "The renditions by the chorus were something
remarkable when it is known that Mr. Christiansen had welded the
fragments from half a dozen singing societies into the harmonious
whole which appeared that evening. There were no fragments then.
It was an organization that stood on its merits."
It should also be mentioned that he was quite often
called upon to appear as violin soloist in concerts of different
kinds. He worked hard and was willing to accept appointments provided
there was some remuneration for himself as he was concerned about
his earning enough to provide properly for his family.
It was the summer of 1903 that Mr. Christiansen decided
to accept the call to come to St. Olaf College in Northfield as
head of the music department. That story has been recorded in a
Seven children were born to Dr. and Mrs. Christiansen,
three of whom died very young. Elmer was born in Leipzig, Germany,
and lived to be only four years old when he died quite suddenly
of spinal meningitis. Carl, born in Northfield, was severely injured
in an automobile accident on his tenth birthday and lived only one
day afterwards. Mrs. Christiansen was also severely burned in that
accident and was hospitalized a long time.
Dr. Christiansen was not with Mrs. Christiansen when
the accident occurred. He found it very hard to be reconciled to
these tragic events. I was at that time on vacation in Northern
Minnesota. President Boe wrote me asking me to come at once back
to Northfield to be with Dr. Christiansen as much as possible as
he needed the sympathy and encouragement of friends. I complied
with this request and was with him much of the time for many days,
both in Northfield and at the hospital in Minneapolis.
A girl, Tullah, born in Northfield, died in Northfield
at the age of five years. Mrs. Christiansen passed away in May,
1949 Those living are Jacob, coach at Concordia College, Moorhead,
Minnesota; Olaf, who succeeded his father as director of the St.
Olaf Choir and head of the music department at St. Olaf College;
Paul, head of the music department at Concordia College and director
of the Concordia choir; and Elsa, who married Kurt Wycisk, manager
of the Concordia Choir.
Dr. Christiansen himself enjoyed good health until
late in life and very seldom was absent from choir rehearsals or
classes because of colds or other ailments. When he was well over
seventy-five years old, it became evident that his health was no
longer very good and he complained about a trouble that bothered
him. One day he spoke to me more fully about this ailment and I
suggested that he consult a good doctor at once. Early the next
morning he called me by phone and asked me to take him to the clinic
in Rochester, Minnesota as he had had a bad night. This I did and
at his request remained with him during his examinations by the
physicians. He later underwent an operation from which, I am glad
to say, he made a splendid recovery.
In 1952, however, he suffered a stroke and for some
years was in poor health, part of the time bedridden. Late in May
1955 he passed away, just before the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir under
the direction of his son Olaf was to leave on a concert tour of
European countries. The choir had already left Northfield to give
the first concert of the tour in a nearby city, but returned to
be present at the funeral service in the chapel of St. Olaf College
on June 3. The choir sang "Asleep in Jesus" and Dr. Christiansen's
own immortal arrangement of "Beautiful Savior."
Dr. Christiansen had been made Commander of the Order
of St. Olaf by the King of Norway in 1928. Four institutions had
conferred on him the honorary Doctor of Music degree: the University
of Minnesota, Capital University, Oberlin, and Muhlenberg.
Some Personal Characteristics
Dr. Christiansen had few interests besides music.
He was nevertheless a busy man whose accomplishments were unusually
great. He did not play golf nor did he seem to be interested in
other forms of physical exercise. During the day he was busy teaching
classes at St. Olaf College in theory, counterpoint, and choir conducting;
and if you paid him a visit at his home in the evening you would
most likely find him at the piano with pencil in hand, either studying
a new number for the choir or working on a new composition of his
During the summer vacations of his later years he
conducted the "Christiansen Choral School" in several
sections of the country; and although he had a fine summer home
on Sister Bay in Wisconsin he was able to be there for rest and
relaxation only a part of the vacation period.
As a choir conductor or teacher he was very strict
and demanded from all his students hard work, punctuality and strict
attention to the work in hand. He had an uncanny way of discovering
the student who had not made sufficient preparation for rehearsal
or class recitation and as a rule a few rather unpleasant moments
then followed. This does not mean that he was a hard master. On
the contrary, his students loved him and made every effort to do
the work as he wished it done.
A description of Dr. Christiansen while conducting a rehearsal has
been given by a visiting music critic as follows:
"A strikingly calm, cool exterior might easily
mislead the careless observer into a belief that the celebrated
Minnesota Kapellmeister is a musician of the purely scientific,
"But a view of his face while he conducts a rehearsal, a glimpse
of his eyes as he discusses some great composer, the tone of his
voice as he expounds the great principles underlying his work, these
tell the story of an ever-burning spiritual flame which now and
again reaches white heat."
No wonder the choir members held him in such high
He conducted concerts with vigor, yet with a minimum
of flourish. He was always dignified and composed and very modestly
acknowledged applause. I know he often would have preferred no applause
at all especially after the singing of such numbers as Bach's Jesus,
Priceless Treasure or his own arrangement of the hymn O Sacred Head
Now Wounded. Hundreds of music critics in their reviews have not
only commented on the "flawless" singing of the choir
and the endless amount of work the director must have done to make
it possible for his singers to reach such "perfection,"
but they also invariably praised in highest terms his refined and
forceful conducting which added so much to the presentation of the
After every concert there always were crowds of people
who wished to shake his hand, ask questions, and engage him in conversation.
Not infrequently he slipped away unobserved through some rear door
and hurried to his hotel and to bed.
In his general conversation with people Dr. Christiansen
was often inclined to be argumentative. He seemed to enjoy taking
"the other side." I remember several occasions when he
engaged in argumentative conversation and perhaps gave the impression
that the statements he made were really his belief. He once asked
a pastor of the Missouri Synod in whose home we were to stay for
the night just what the doctrine of his synod was on a certain matter.
Dr. Christiansen of course gave other views, although I suspect
the synod pastor never did realize he was doing so just for the
sake of argument. Sometimes he engaged members of the choir in conversation
while we were having a long train ride. He would ask a boy what
he intended to do after he finished college. The boy would tell
him he planned to take up law, or medicine, or theology. Dr. Christiansen
would then question the advisability of his doing so. His purpose,
I believe, always was the same: to make a person give valid reasons
for a statement or belief or decision.
No doubt there are many who found Dr. Christiansen
to be a poor correspondent. Many letters remained unanswered for
months or were never answered at all. He would put the mail in his
desk drawer and forget about it until the drawer became so full
it had to be attended to. Then he would sort out the letters and
those that related to the choir or prospective concerts, he would
turn over to me. Many of these were as much as four months old and
I would often have quite a time of it giving a satisfactory reply.
Letters which he did write were usually very interesting and characteristic.
This was also true of his public talks; for he was frequently called
upon to speak at various functions. He was very original in what
he wrote or said, and whenever he spoke in public he usually tried
to put across some worthwhile thought or idea with emphasis and
His originality was also frequently noted in characteristic
statements he would make during choir rehearsals or while examining
students for admission to membership in the choir. Hundreds would
try for admission but only a few would be accepted. To those who
had to be told they had not succeeded, he usually had an original
way of doing it.
A gentleman who tried out for the choir when he was
a student at St. Olaf years ago, recently gave this version of the
experience he had: Dr. Christiansen asked him if he was anxious
to get into the choir. Of course he said, "Yes." Did he
really have great respect and admiration for the choir? Again his
answer was, "Yes, certainly." Then, Dr. Christiansen said,
"Will you please apply for membership in the band." This
was a polite way of telling him he could not join the choir. Similar
experiences are told by many former students and choir members as
one meets them in various parts of the country.
Through his work as composer, too, he has exerted
a profound influence on church and school choirs. Many of his compositions
and arrangements are sung by choirs everywhere: Beautiful Savior;
Praise to the Lord, Wake, Awake; Hosanna; Lost in the Night; Lullaby
on Christmas Eve are just a few of the best known.
He began composing as a boy in Larvik, but by far
the greatest number of arrangements and compositions date from his
best years at St. Olaf College, 1912 to 1940. These include six
or seven volumes of Song Service, a number of volumes of Easy Lyric
Songs and the well-known St. Olaf Choir Series, all of which have
been published by Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis. Some of
his latest compositions have been published by the Neil Kjos Music
Co. of Chicago. A cantata, Wondrous Things the Lord Hath Done, words
by President J. N. Kildahl, was written by Dr. Christiansen on the
occasion of the church merger in 1917.
The influence this quiet and unassuming teacher,
director, and composer has exerted principally in the field of sacred
choral music is indeed far-reaching and can not be overestimated.
Hundreds of young men and women have been so inspired by him that
after graduation they have accepted positions in schools and churches
in various parts of the country where they now are themselves conducting
choirs. Some are writing original choral compositions of high merit.
Not only through his former students, however, has
his influence been spread abroad. Many a choir leader --- not a
former student --- has found in Dr. Christiansen an able counselor
and inspiring friend. Commendable choirs that point to the St. Olaf
Choir as their model and inspiration may now be heard in all parts
of the land. Without question, it was through this choir that his
influence was most keenly felt.