Historical documents show that the year 1891 is “when the idea first entered the heads of a few energetic young men to start a band” at St. Olaf College. It was the first musical organization at St. Olaf, a college which is now internationally known for its excellence in music. Fourteen young men met four times a week to practice with the help of Prof. John Dahle and student directors from within the band. Under the title of the St. Olaf Cornet Band, the “Boys in White” (referring to their military-style uniforms) gave their first concert at the Northfield City Park on June 17,1893.
In 1899, Andrew Onstad, a St. Olaf graduate, was named formal leader of the St. Olaf Band. “Mr. Onstad, having been a student here himself and knowing how hard it was for the students to meet the necessary expenses every year, to say nothing about paying a leader, undertook to instruct the band for a very small salary,” according to a report in the 1904 Viking yearbook.
F. Melius Christiansen, who founded the college’s music department and later the St. Olaf Choir, took over direction of the St. Olaf Band in 1903. He took the group on its first tour in 1904, with concerts in 15 cities in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. This was no small feat considering the state of transportation technology in those early years. In 1906, Christiansen took the Band on an even more ambitious tour – to Norway, his homeland – thus making it the first American college musical organization to conduct a concert tour abroad. The band performed for King Haakon and played to capacity crowds at 30 separate concerts.
In ensuing years the St. Olaf Band continued to play an important role in campus activities, performing in specialized concerts, at college celebrations, and at commencement exercises. J. Arndt Bergh assumed the position of band director in 1919, followed in time by Donald Berglund and Bruce Howden. Another milestone was reached in 1921 when the band welcomed its first female members, Klara Overby and Clara Duea.
Under the vigorous direction of Miles Johnson, the band achieved national and international prominence as a symphonic ensemble. Included among its honors: performing in joint concerts with the Royal Military School of Music-Kneller Hall and the famed Kneller Hall Fanfare Trumpets, who perform for the British royalty on all state occasions. The St. Olaf Band is the only American college or university band ever to play in concert with the Kneller Hall musicians.
The St. Olaf Band covered a lot of territory during its centennial celebrations, which included a return trip to Great Britain in June of 1991, a three-week tour of England, Wales, and Scotland. One of the highlights of that tour was a meeting with renowned British composer Malcolm Arnold, who attended the band’s concert in Norwich. The composer was lavish in his praise of the group, which performed “Four Scottish Dances,” one of his compositions. The band was also well received at the famed Aldeburgh Festival, in which it was the first college musical organization ever to perform. In addition to its tours to England, Norway, and continental Europe, the St. Olaf Band makes an annual tour of a portion of the Unites States, generally during the Interim break before second semester.
The St. Olaf Band opened the newest page in its illustrious history with the 1994 appointment of Dr. Timothy Mahr as conductor, replacing Miles Johnson who retired after his 37th year as band director. A St. Olaf graduate, Dr. Mahr has since continued Miles Johnson’s legacy pushing the band to new levels at every possible opportunity. In March 1997, the St. Olaf Band toured California for nine days. They were one of four college or university bands invited to perform at the prestigious American Bandmasters Association National Convention.