The Founding of the St. Olaf
Lutheran Choir Tours of 1912 and 1913
I first came to Northfield as a boy in 1886 and attended services
in St. John's Church --- then located on the east side --- I remember
well there was a choir that sang quite regularly at Sunday morning
services. The director was a well-known businessman of the city,
Mr. H. A. Boe, and the singers were mostly elderly members of the
congregation. At that time the Norwegian language was used exclusively
at all services. The choir's repertoire was therefore limited, as
suitable choral music in Norwegian was difficult to obtain. When
Mr. Boe retired, one of the St. Olaf students who had had some experience
with choir work was asked to take his place and continued as director
for some years.
When in the summer of 1902, after an absence of eleven years, I
returned to Northfield to join the faculty at St. Olaf, Mrs. Schmidt
and I both joined the choir in St. John's Church and continued as
members for many years. The St. Olaf student who directed the singing
at Sunday services graduated from college in 1907 and a new director
had to be found. The unanimous choice of the choir members was Professor
Christiansen and when he was interviewed he gladly accepted.
Soon after he became director, Mr. Christiansen and I quite often
conferred about the possibility and advisability of making some
rather drastic changes for the choir's improvement. We both felt
that, with so much youthful material available at the college, a
larger organization of college students could render the congregation
better service, and at the same time stimulate greater interest
in our Lutheran choral heritage. President J. N. Kildahl, who then
also was pastor of St. John's, concurred and gave wholehearted support.
The personnel of the choir therefore gradually changed,
and instead of a small group of 15 elderly people, the organization
included in its membership 50 young singers, who, under Mr. Christiansen's
magnetic direction, soon gained a reputation as a superb singing
group, both locally and in nearby communities.
The repertoire also changed materially. Mr. Christiansen added many
choral numbers with which he had become familiar when he had studied
in Leipzig, Germany, where he came much in contact with the wonderful
work of Gustav Schreck, director of the famous Bach choir of St.
Thomas Cathedral. There is no doubt that Mr. Christiansen was profoundly
influenced by this great musician and by his choir. Although it
was difficult for us to get choral music from Germany, some numbers
were available for the choir's use. Mr. Christiansen also added
some of his own compositions and arrangements.
Requests began to come from our congregations in Kenyon, Holden,
Zumbrota, and other nearby places to bring the choir out to them
so that they might have an opportunity to hear the inspiring rendition
of hymns and chorales. Trips to their congregations were undertaken
from time to time.
Quite often, too, when I was out arranging concerts for the band,
people would ask me: "Why don't you take St. John's choir out?
Our church people like to hear the band, that is true; but they
would be very grateful if they could also hear that choir in sacred
concert." It was therefore decided I should try to arrange
a trip for the choir during the Easter recess in 1912. Madison,
Stoughton, and Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, Chicago and Ottawa in Illinois,
were some of the cities visited. Concerts were given in churches
on a collection basis and choir members were housed in private homes.
Inasmuch as the choir was now largely composed of students from
the college, its name was changed to "The St. Olaf Lutheran
Concerts on that first tour were in the nature of a song service.
President Kildahl accompanied the choir and after a few numbers
had been sung, he gave a sermonette stressing thoughts brought out
in the choir songs. There were three groups of songs and two meditations.
The success of the first trip afield was so pronounced that a second
one was undertaken that same year after the close of college in
June. This time the itinerary included cities in the northwestern
part of Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. The annual meeting of
the synod was to be held in Fargo that year and two leading churchmen
from Norway were to be there as visitors and guests. They were Bishops
Böckman and Hans Nielson Hauge. The choir tour in June was
therefore arranged so as to bring the singers to Fargo while the
convention was in session. The choir sang at a number of meetings.
Both Bishops from Norway were much impressed, and when asked how
the choir would be received in Norway, both said emphatically that
such a tour would be most desirable, and the church people of Norway
would be very grateful if the choir could come.
Mr. Christiansen and I had sometimes toyed with the idea of taking
the choir to Scandinavia, but how to finance such an expensive undertaking
was a problem indeed. The favorable comments of the visiting bishop
from Norway encouraged us and we began to think very seriously of
a tour in 1913. Some concerts could be given in this country on
the way to New York, but income from these would be small as the
choir was not known in eastern cities and sacred concerts were rarely
given except on a free admission or collection basis. Finally it
was decided that I should try to get financial backing from a few
individuals who would then be recognized as sponsors or guarantors
of the tour. Thirteen men agreed to become guarantors, but only
a few of these actually gave financial aid; income from choir concerts
during the two years after the return from Norway was sufficient
to pay back whatever deficit had been incurred.
Having decided that the trip was to be undertaken, we began to plan
arrangements in detail. Decisions were made as follows:
1. Membership in the choir should be limited to 50 singers, to
be selected by the director.
2. Rev. Th. H. Haugan, pastor of St. John's Church, was to accompany
the choir as the official speaker on all occasions.
3. J. Jörgen Thompson, who had won a scholarship for a year's
study in Norway in 1910 was to arrange the concert tour in that
4. Women members of the choir were to appear at concerts in uniformly
designed white satin dresses and long kid gloves. The men were to
wear full evening dress.
5. The program was to consist of choral anthems by the entire choir
and a few hymn arrangements sung by a women's quartet. There was
to be no speaking during the concerts as had been the case on the
first concert trips in 1912.
6. I was to arrange the trip to New York with as many concert stops
as possible; also transatlantic passage on the Christianiafjord,
the first boat of the Norwegian-America Line.
Mr. Thompson was very well qualified to undertake the important
task of arranging concerts in Norway. He was a student member of
the band that toured the country in 1906 and during the school year
1909-1910 was a graduate student at the university in Christiania.
He also had had experience as manager, for in the summer of 1908
he had arranged a series of concerts through Iowa, Minnesota, and
the Dakotas for an octet of choir members which Dr. Christiansen
directed. It was fortunate for the choir, therefore, that he was
available and that he was willing to assume this difficult assignment.
Mr. Thompson went to Norway early in the spring of 1913 to begin
the work over there. It was necessary for him first of all to obtain
the consent of the department of Religion and Education of the Norwegian
government for the use of churches and school buildings in the different
cities. This having been granted, he visited each of the places
where he thought the most successful stops could be made and completed
detailed arrangements for concerts as well as for the housing and
entertainment of the choir members. The same travel plan that was
found to be so satisfactory in 1906 was used in 1913 for the choir.
A few concerts were first to be given in and near Christiania, then
a trip was to be made to Gjövik, Hamar, Lillehammer, and Trondhjem
where a beautiful coast boat, the LYRA, was chartered for the trip
along the coast back to southern Norway. This coast trip southward
would include concert stops in practically all the larger and more
important coast cities.
The arrival of our ocean liner in Christiania was an event of general
historic interest as well as of special interest to those who were
welcoming the choir. Our boat, the Christiania-Fjord, was the first
liner of the newly established Norwegian-America steamship line
and this was the first trip of that new liner from America to Norway.
No wonder a tremendous crowd was at the pier to see the arrival
of this new boat and to welcome the Americans. The reception at
the landing and later in the city was an unforgettable occasion.
The first concert by the choir, given in the University auditorium,
was completely sold out; the aisles were packed with people and
thousands were gathered in the streets outside that had not been
able to get tickets. The King and the Queen were present. On one
of the evenings of the stay in Christiania the Choir was entertained
at a magnificent banquet at Holmenkollen. A great many members of
the Norwegian Cabinet were present as well as many of the University
faculty members and city elite.
The critics all wrote glowing columns of the marvelous work of the
singers and expressed profound admiration for Dr. Christiansen.
One of the best known had this to say: "In all Norway there
cannot be found a music group that in any way can be compared to
this marvelous group of singers from St. Olaf College." Another
writer, in commenting on the director's ability as composer, made
this statement: "How many in Norway are able to write a polyphonic
chorus like `Praise to the Lord' or `Wake, Awake'? If they were
written by someone over here they would probably remain unused."
While in Christiania I received the following card from an enthusiast
in a nearby city:
St. Olaf's Song qwair:
You all must come up to Kongsberg and hold a concert. Every family
in these town have sons and daughters and grandparents scattered
all over your land of fridom. Make notice in good time and you will
see a great deal of de most beautiful in Norway, of people, silver,
guns, water, and mountains. Be sure to come!
A stop of special interest was the one in Lillehammer
where the choir had time to visit the famous Maihaugen museum, a
collection of old original buildings and contents that had been
brought from valleys in the mountains and placed in a beautiful
park on one of the hills near the city. Each building and its contents
was of historic interest as it represented a home in the valley
community as it was in the olden days. There was a building which
had been the parsonage, in which the furniture, kitchen utensils
and ornaments were such as were found in the pastor's home. Another
building had been the home of an ordinary farmer; still another
that of a town official. Of great interest was the quaint old church
with its pews, altar and decorations. Members of the choir enjoyed
very much going from building to building and cameras were in constant
use. In front of the old church were stocks for the punishment of
those guilty of minor offenses. These consisted of a post to which
the offender was tied with a halter securely fastened about his
neck. The guilty one would have to stand there, we were told, to
be taunted by the good people as they passed him on their way to
choir's arrival in Trondhjem was quite different from that of the
band in 1906. Advance notices had appeared in the daily papers warning
the people not to make the mistake that had been made in 1906 when
no one, not even members of the local committee, had come to the
depot to welcome the visitors. As a result, in spite of rainy weather,
a very large crowd was present to greet the choir when they arrived.
A local mens' chorus of one hundred fifty members carrying flags
and wearing the well-known singers' cap, sang songs of welcome;
and a local band played marches and the national anthems. Everything
possible was done to make every moment of their stay in the city
as pleasant as possible. In the evening, after the concert, the
Anglo-American Club of Trondhjem entertained at a magnificent banquet.
At Trondhjem the boat Lyra awaited us. We lived on the Lyra just
two weeks and it proved to be a most enjoyable way to travel as
the inconvenience of daily transfer of luggage was reduced to a
minimum. Berths on this boat were very comfortable and the meals
The daily routine was something like this: After each evening concert,
the singers were usually given an hour or two for relaxation and
leisure; but when the boat's whistle was heard, all were obliged
to come abroad to be checked in. The Lyra would then start out for
the next concert stop. As a rule the distance from one city to the
next was not great, so that the boat did not travel very fast. It
was wonderful to sleep out at sea night after night. The trips were
so timed that the arrival in each place would come at about ten
o'clock in the morning; and when the boat was still some distance
from the landing pier, our captain would set off small bombs which
exploded in the water with a deafening detonation. Tremendous crowds
were always on hand to bid the singers welcome; and there always
were welcoming festivities, with speeches by prominent local men
and music by various organizations. There were banquets and receptions
in almost every city and our choir members were really fortunate
if they were able to get in a few hours of window shopping.
The reception in all of the cities was beyond all expectations.
Great crowds were always present at each arrival to bid the visitors
welcome; then followed dinners and banquets with speeches and gift
presentations. The tour from beginning to end was a never-to-be-forgotten
experience for the choir members.
At all of these festive occasions Pastor Th. H. Haugan spoke on
behalf of the choir. He was an exceptionally fluent speaker in Norwegian
and on many occasions the audience was charmed both by his winning
personality and by the fine presentation of his message. In its
review of the banquet in Bergen the daily paper quoted him as saying:
"On behalf of St. Olaf College I wish to express our warmest
thanks for the wonderful reception you have given the members of
the choir. We knew that Norway's heart was big and warm but not
as big and warm as we have seen and experienced it. We, of course,
also realize that mother Norway looks with regret on the many folks
that have left her shores to establish homes across the sea. But
I want to assure you, my friends, that we cherish all that we have
received from our mother country. We will preserve this priceless
treasure, our heritage, and we will endeavor to make it felt in
the community life of the great country on the other side of the
Atlantic. To come back to Norway for many of us is like coming home."
His talks at the elaborate banquets at Holmenkollen and in Trondhjem,
as well as his more informal talks at concerts and dinners, were
always well received. The choir members, too, appreciated his presentations
very much and were sincerely grateful to him for what his daily
presence meant to them all.
Throughout the tour there were thrills without number, but only
a few can be related. In one of the coast cities, Haugesund, the
choir sang to an audience of about 2,000. This taxed the capacity
of the auditorium to the utmost. Many times that number of people
had come from the mountain valleys and neighboring coast cities
who were unable to get in. After the concert a vast throng followed
the choir down to the wharf where the chartered boat was moored.
Here in the open square people gathered by the thousand and stood
in silence waiting and watching for a chance to see and perhaps
also to hear the choir. It was estimated that more than 10,000 people
had gathered, for the most part just common peasant and fisher folk
who had not been able to purchase tickets in the city.
Finally, a temporary director's stand was set up on the boat's forward
deck, the choir members were called from their state rooms, and
in the midnight stillness the choir began to sing to the hearts
of these people some of the hymns and melodies known to them all,
but sung as I am sure they had never heard them sung before. To
be privileged to take part in the singing of those half-dozen songs
under such circumstances was a thrill never to be forgotten.
For me, personally, a thrill came at our first concert in Norway.
I had received a message stating that the King and the Queen planned
to attend this concert and I was asked to be on hand to meet them
and when the time came for the concert to begin, to conduct them
to their special chairs in the auditorium. It was quite a thrill
to walk down the center aisle with the King and Queen, while the
choir, standing in concert formation on the stage, sang in Norwegian,
"God Bless Our Good King."
I must not forget to mention an incident that occurred in one of
the cities in southwestern Norway. The concert was given in a church
in which the air was so bad that we removed one of the rear windows.
The church was located on the outskirts of town close to a steep
mountain side. When the choir had sung one or two numbers, we beard
from far up in the mountain the bleating of some goats answering
the singing of the choir with a faint baa, baa. A louder passage
was sung by the choir and then a softer one. Attracted by the singing,
the goats had come halfway down the mountain and this time their
baa, baa was very much louder. It was difficult for Dr. Christiansen
and the choir to refrain from laughing, but somehow we managed to
get along. Again the choir sang loud, this time the last number
intermission, and when we finished, the goats, that had now come
all the way down were gathered just outside the window which we
had removed, gave a veritable concert of their own. Their intonation
was something to hear. During the intermission choir boys in evening
dress could be seen chasing these pesky critters up the mountain
and that too was quite an attraction.
The program which the choir sang on this 1913 tour differs in some
respects from those sung by the choir in more recent years. The
one sung in Copenhagen is typical of those given on the entire tour.
|Der ringes paa jord
|Hvad est du dog skjön
|Lover den Herre (Praise to the Lord
|Come, Ye Disconsolate
|Still, Still with Thee
|Lead Kindly Light
|Alone with Thee
|Pilgrimssang (Beautiful Savior)
Arr. F.M. Christiansen
|Hör os Herre
|Som sol gaar ned
|It might also be of interest to mention that the
composition of the choir was as follows:
|First Tenor 4
First Soprano 10
|Second Tenor 4
Second Soprano 6
|First Bass 6
First Alto 7
|Second Bass 6
||Second Alto 7
50 in all
THE 1913 TOUR OF THE ST. OLAF LUTHERAN CHOIR
TO THE SCANDINAVIAN COUNTRIES IN EUROPE
||Flekkefjord and Mandal
||Gjövik and Lillehammer
||Stenkjaer and Levanger
||Stiklestad and Trondhjem
||Veblungsnaes and Molde
||Sarpsborg and Fredrikshald
||Florö and Bergen