New Interest in Music at St. Olaf
In the fall of 1902, when I came to St. Olaf to become a member
of the faculty, there was no music department at the college. This
does not mean, however, that there was a lack of interest in either
vocal or instrumental music. Far from it! There was a teacher of
piano, an instructor in band, a choral union which rehearsed regularly
for a presentation of Harvey Gaul's The Ten Virgins, and
compulsory group singing for some of the classes in the academic
department. There also were some smaller voluntary groups, quartets
and octets that now and then sang at school functions. During the
years prior to 1902, a number of music instructors had been engaged,
mostly on a part-time basis, to instruct the classes in singing
and to direct the band and the choral union; but no instruction
in theoretical music was given and no attempt was made to coordinate
the efforts that were being put forth along the various musical
lines. The most important music group was, of course, the band which
had been organized in 1891 and under the voluntary leadership of
students, had made considerable progress. One of these students,
Mr. Andrew Onstad, was officially engaged as band director on a
salary basis in 1899 and continued as such until 1903. The band
then numbered fifty players, appeared at concerts in uniform, and
made a number of appearances locally during the year, one of which
was a part of commencement festivities.
To show that interest in singing has always been a characteristic
of the student life at St. Olaf, it may be mentioned that on the
day "Old Main" was dedicated, November 6, 1878, a mixed
chorus of twenty students under the leadership of professor Lars
Lynne sang a number of anthems. One of the members of that first
chorus --- at that time a girl named Mathilde Berg, later in life
Mrs. Reverend Grevstad --- gave me, sixty-nine years after the dedication
day, some information about the chorus and the program presented.
She stated that the rehearsals were long and exacting and that the
numbers sung were:
Herre, O hör vort Raab!
Herre, os i Naade!
Du, Du alene os hjelpe kan.
Styrk os i Tro, i Haab.
Altid os lede til Himlen's Land.
O Lord! Hear our Cry
In Mercy hear us.
Thou alone can'st help us.
Strengthen our faith, our hopes
May Thy spirit guide us
And lead us to the Heavenly Home.
Lydt gjennem verdener's rum
Jehovah's store Navn gjentoner;
Han Lovprises av Stövet og av Englenes Kor.
Förend Jorden blev dannet
Og Himlen blev velvet
Var Gud, --- var Gud.
Bringer ham Tak og Pris!
Song of Praise
Clearly through the world's wide space
Rings the name of great We
Before the earth was made
And the heavens arched above it,
God was, God was.
Bring Him thanks and praise!
She also stated, incidentally, that very good reviews of the singing
were given in the local papers. She remembers the names of the members.
Among the boys were I. F. Grose, Thorvald Larsen, Langemo, Nils
Remen, Knut Finseth, Breding, O. T. Lee, Guttormson, Thompson, Peterson
and Hovland; and girl members were Sophie Aaker, Clara Muus, Marie
Larson, Valborg Loftness, Berit Ellingboe, Julia Malmin, Gunhild
Solberg, and Mathilde Berg.
The situation so far as music at St. Olaf was concerned in 1902
was rather confusing. The president of the college, Pastor J. N.
Kildahl, was much concerned about it and had urged the synod both
in 1901 and in 1902 to establish a music department at the college.
His third effort was successful, and in June 1903 the synod did
decide that such a department should be included in the curriculum,
and the president of the college was authorized to secure a capable
man to assume the responsibilities of establishing the new music
department on a secure and permanent basis.
President Kildahl was also pastor of St. John's congregation and
when we moved to Northfield in the summer of 1902, both Mrs. Schmidt
and I joined St. John's church choir. Quite frequently we had occasion
to talk with President Kildahl about music matters. Invariably he
would mention the problem that was of so much concern to him at
the time --- whom he could engage as music director at the college.
He asked us if we knew of anyone who was capable and who in other
respects would be the right man for the place. It was then only
natural for me to suggest the man for whom I had learned to have
very great respect, my friend in Minneapolis, the director of the
Kjerulf Male Chorus, F. Melius Christiansen. President Kildahl did
not know him, but agreed to go to Minneapolis to meet him and talk
matters over with him.
No doubt there were others too who urged the president to consider
Mr. Christiansen for this newly created position at the college.
An interview did take place in Minneapolis, after which Mr. Christiansen
came to Northfield to look things over. An offer was made and accepted,
and Mr. Christiansen became the first Director of the music department
at St. Olaf College. He entered upon his duties with the opening
of the school year 1903-04.
Mr. Christiansen did not move his family to Northfield the first
year, for he considered the arrangement he had made as more or less
an experiment. He did not know the school, was not at all familiar
with its background, had probably never heard the names of the men
and women who were instrumental in its founding, and, what is of
greater importance, did not realize or visualize that here was good
ground for real growth and expansion and that here were inherent
possibilities for great and worthwhile accomplishments. I believe
he at first looked upon his place at St. Olaf as another job which
would help him earn a living for himself and family; for in Minneapolis
he had been holding down a number of jobs as church choir director
and part-time instructor in violin. He apparently had not had a
full time job anywhere before coming to St. Olaf.
The establishment of a music department on a permanent basis was
not achieved in a short space of time, nor without a great deal
of study and hard work. The new music director took his time and
made such proposals to the faculty as he thought could and should
be made so as to put courses in music on a level with courses in
other departments. This involved the granting of credit, and to
secure the approval of the faculty for credit in some of these new
courses proved to be no easy matter. There were at that time two
especially strong departments in the college, the ancient languages
and the rather newly created scientific, both quite self-centered.
As a rule, if one group favored a certain measure, however important
or unimportant, the other was quite sure to be opposed to it, and
there was considerable sparring at almost every faculty meeting.
Yes, faculty meetings in those days were not only important but
quite often interesting and entertaining. When therefore the proposal
was made to grant credit for courses in harmony, counterpoint, music
analysis, and similar subjects --- to say nothing about granting
a certain amount of credit for playing in the band --- more than
one long faculty meeting was necessary to make it clear that harmony
and counterpoint were not games like checkers or crossword puzzles.
It proved to be a long and arduous struggle for Mr. Christiansen
and no doubt he often felt discouraged. In the course of time, however,
credits were granted and the music department was established on
a sound and permanent basis.
There were two music organizations at St. Olaf at that time in
which the director took a great deal of interest and which in turn
gave him much encouragement to continue the work he had begun here;
these were the St. Olaf Band and the Choral Union. The band had
a membership of about forty-six. I remember well the first rehearsals
under the new director. Although I was not then connected in any
way with the organization, I attended quite a number of rehearsals
and kept in close touch with Mr. Christiansen for old times' sake.
The first rehearsal was rather brief. The director made a quick
survey of the men and instruments at hand; told some of them to
take off their hats or caps and sit up straight with feet on the
floor, explained in a very forceful manner the importance of strict
attention to the work at hand during all rehearsals, requested everyone
to be in his place at the next rehearsal exactly on time for extensive
work, and then left the room. It took some time for the boys to
get used to the new director. Most of them had looked on band work
as fun and entertainment. Many were careless and noisy. All of them
were fond of playing marches and waltzes for their own entertainment
and considered that to be the aim and purpose of rehearsals. Their
preference was to play one piece after another just for the fun
of it. They soon learned, however, that their new director had other
ideas than that. He demanded and enforced strict discipline and
attention. He was not at all impressed by the fact the band could
play some marches from beginning to end without any noticeable mishap,
but made every effort to improve tone quality and balance in the
different sections, spent a great deal of time in repetition of
certain musical phrases, and --- what really surprised some of them
--- took time to show them how to handle and finger their instruments
most effectively. After ten or twelve rehearsals the members began
to realize that now they really had a master director and that the
band was on the way to becoming a really high-class musical organization.
Rossini's William Tell Overture, Wagner's Lohengrin,
Schumann's Traumerei, and his own Norwegian Rhapsody
were some of the numbers added to the repertoire.
The director found the instrumentation of the band to be quite
good when he began work with the organization. Most of the smaller
instruments were the personal property of the boys and therefore
various makes were found in every section. The director hoped that
in time the instrumentation could be enlarged and new instruments
purchased which would be the property of the band. He also was very
anxious to get, as far as possible, instruments of the same make
in the different sections. My impression from the beginning was
that Mr. Christiansen loved to direct the band and was eager to
bring it to a high degree of perfection as a concert organization;
also that he was interested in having it accomplish a useful purpose
as a student organization. For this reason, he favored a marching
band for various college occasions. So it came about that new uniforms
were purchased, a drum major was elected, and regular marching rehearsal
hours were added to the band's schedule. As I had had some military
experience at the university where two years of drill were required,
the band and its director elected me to be the new drum major, which
position I held for a number of years. The band soon learned to
march quite well and to go through some simple maneuvers.
During Mr. Christiansen's second year at St. Olaf, band members
began to talk about the possibility of a concert trip. Someone in
the organization knew of a Mr. Walker who, it was said, had had
some experience as a manager and who could be secured to plan the
trip. A petition was submitted to the faculty, the trip was allowed
with some restrictions about class work that would be missed, and
the band engaged Mr. Walker as trip manager. A number of towns in
southern Minnesota and northern Iowa were included in the itinerary.
Just before the start of the tour, in January, 1905, President Kildahl
asked me to go along as faculty representative.
Transportation was of course by train. The first stop was Faribault
for an afternoon concert. The attendance was so poor that, although
a local friend gave me a five-dollar bill to help pay expenses,
it was necessary for me to collect a small amount from each band
member to enable me to buy the ticket to the next town. In the depot
I overheard Mr. Walker call the next town by telephone; he explained
that he was Mr. Walker, the manager of the "St. Olif Band,"
and asked how the sale of tickets was progressing. Result: that
concert was canceled. The attendance at some of the other towns
was better, although the tour turned out to be a financial flop.
Boys who were members of that first concert trip I am sure will
never forget the ride from Lanesboro to Spring Valley. It was a
bitterly cold day. After the matinee in Lanesboro, the manager,
Mr. Walker, scurried around among the farmers who had come to the
concert and pleaded with them to drive groups of band members across
country to Spring Valley. He had hoped that a freight train would
come along to take the entire group over, but had made no definite
arrangement for train service. Some of the members, including the
director and myself, did get a ride by freight train. The others
went with the farmers in box sleighs and were nearly frozen when
they finally reached Spring Valley. Needless to say, it was difficult
for the band to play a good concert after such an experience.
Former President Brown of Concordia College, who was a member of
the band, likes to tell this story to show how poor we all were
when we neared the end of the trip. He claims that at Red Wing I
borrowed ten cents from him in order to get a shave. I cannot remember
if I ever paid it back and, so far as that is concerned, I cannot
remember that I got it from him in the first place. Well, the final
concert of the trip, which was given in The First Baptist Church
in Minneapolis, was more heartening from the standpoint of attendance
and income. I was able to buy the ticket for the entire group back
to Northfield. So far as I know no one in the band ever saw or heard
of Mr. Walker again.
The trip was not altogether without rewarding results. Important
observations were made and much was learned about tour planning
and conducting that was of value to the manager of St. Olaf organizations
in later years. The reception given the band by our church people
and by friends of the college was most cordial and sincere. We were
all housed and fed in private homes, were shown every possible courtesy,
and were earnestly implored to come again soon. This personal contact
with students and teachers from their college meant more to our
college friends and members of our congregations than I had dared
to imagine. The college was, as it were, brought into their midst
and they appreciated it and loved it. As the years passed and more
trips were taken into other sections of our own state and into other
states, I became more and more convinced too of the importance to
the college of such contacts. On our return to college from this
first trip, President Kildahl asked me to assume the duties of manager
and to arrange yearly trips for the band, which I agreed to do.
Early that spring, announcement was made at the college that a
famous music group from Norway would soon pay St. Olaf and Northfield
a visit and give a concert in the Ware Auditorium in town. There
was at that time no auditorium on the campus. The date was to be
the afternoon of May 27, 1905. This proved to be an important and
noteworthy occasion, for the group was the Student Singing Society
from the University of Norway, with Mr. O. A. Grondahl as director.
As a matter of historic interest it may be mentioned that the day
on which they were at St. Olaf was a memorable one also for the
visitors, for word had just been received that Norway had declared
herself free from the union with Sweden and that a King was to be
chosen for their own country. Excitement was intense for no one
could foresee what results would follow from this action by the
Norwegian Parliament. Would this lead to war between the two countries?
Would the singers be recalled home at once?
When the singers came to Northfield, they were taken at once to
the campus where a bountiful lunch was served on the lawn in front
of Ytterboe Hall. Two things especially seemed to interest them
greatly --- the heaping bowls of fresh strawberries and cream and
the playing of the band. Director Christiansen had arranged some
favorite Norwegian music for the band to play during the lunch hour
and the visitors were simply spellbound. I remember especially how
they applauded the playing of Bjorneborgernes Marsj, The Norwegian
Rhapsody, and their own national anthem, Ja vi elsker.
It was not long before they suggested and then urged a visit by
the band to Norway; and this suggestion was brought by them to the
attention of their American tour manager, Mr. Harry Randall. He
took the matter up in earnest and some months later brought word
to the President of the college and to the director of the band
that he had secured the promise of Mr. Olaf Searle, a prominent
business man in Minneapolis connected with the Scandinavian American
Steamship Line, to pay any deficit that might be incurred on a concert
trip by the band to Norway. This, of course, created a great deal
of excitement at the college. The tour would take place in the summer
of 1906 and Mr. Randall would go to Norway early in the year to
make all necessary arrangements. He would also accompany the band
as tour manager.