It is something of a marvel that virtually within the lifetime of an individual a college could grow from primitive pioneer beginnings, with a constituency limited to a comparatively young immigrant group, into a superior institution of learning, recognized and respected by educational leaders throughout the nation. Particularly remarkable is the fact that St. Olaf could excel in the field of music, and that, beginning with a relatively simple musical form, it could develop to such a degree of perfection as to command admiration and highest praise of the severest critics and the most sophisticated leaders in the world of music. The memoirs of Paul G. Schmidt tell the story in engaging style and include many details never before recorded in print.
From the earliest beginnings of St. Olaf College, music played an important part in the shaping both of the cultural and of the spiritual life of its constituency. Perhaps an appreciation of and a love for the rich heritage of the great chorales has helped develop a compulsion to spread the light of the gospel through the medium of sacred music.
To a degree that is quite unusual the St. Olaf of today represents the contribution of a number of outstanding personalities. This book is written by one of those who played an important role in its music development: Paul G. Schmidt. It was a rewarding combination of circumstances that enabled President J. N. Kildahl within two years to bring both him and F. Melius Christiansen, the man who was to revolutionize choral singing to the faculty of St. Olaf College in its important formative years.
“P.C.”, as he was affectionately called, pioneered as the manager of musical organizations. There were no precedents for this kind of responsibility. But he had imagination and vision. And he had courage. He seemed always able to meet sudden and well-nigh insurmountable difficulties with quick decisions, sound judgment, and a kindly dignity. The students loved him for all this, for his endearing sense of humor, and for the understanding and support he gave “F. Melius.”
The concert tour of the Band in 1908 was the first one to Norway of any major musical organization in America, and this from a student enrollment of 135! Professor Schmidt as tour manager was assisted by Mr. Harry Randall of Minneapolis. And for the Choir tour to the Scandinavian countries in 1913 Prof. J. Jörgen Thompson gave valuable help as advance man abroad.
Because of his faith in the genius of the young director, Prof. Schmidt, with the help of the New York impresario, Mr. M. H. Hanson, dared to take an unheralded and unknown a cappellachoir from a small college in the middle west to sing before critics in the large music centers of the east. In 1920 this was unheard of. And to sing a program consisting entirely of sacred songs with nothing light or popular “injected for relief” . . . this, the director was told, could not be done. But his strong convictions in this matter have held from that time to the present. The stirring Bach motets, Blessing, Glory and Wisdom and Praise, or Jesus, Priceless Treasure, and such numbers as Lindeman’s Built on a Rock, Mendelssohn’s Savior of Sinners, as typical examples, give expression to the religious fervor and dedication of the singers and their leaders. Such programming (in 1920) was truly unheard of. But the results were also unheard of:
From the dean of critics in a Chicago daily: “Their concert was one of the rarest expositions of the superlative in choral singing.” (1920). From the New York Times (1923) : “Last night in the Metropolitan Opera House a group of 60 young men and women from the small towns and villages of the midwest put on immortality for two hours.”
Glowing reviews, unanimous in their highest praise, with concert halls packed to capacity, emphasized the judgment that this contribution was something of very special worth that must be cherished and shared.
There followed other choir tours, an annual one becoming a part of the routine schedule of the college, with an occasional one abroad, in vacation.
Thus was inaugurated what grew to be a college tradition, as two gifted persons working together as a team created experiences of matchless enrichment for multitudes of people in all parts of the nation.
Besides managing other musical organizations of the college, Prof. Schmidt, head of the mathematics department, was also appointed manager of all public functions — a demanding task. In this capacity he coordinated programs which brought to the campus great numbers of people for such events as the Christmas Concert and the Spring Music Festival. The history of the latter goes back to the early decades of this century, when it was then called the Choral Union. We recall seeing a line of “sleeping cars” on the side-track, near the Milwaukee depot, which had brought the contingent from the Chicago area to participate in this festival of music. (No cars, no motels in those days) Dr. P. M. Glasoe, head of the chemistry department, is remembered gratefully for his enthusiastic interest in this project. Prof. Schmidt also worked out arrangements for the annual exchange of concerts between the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Choir which has continued without interruption since the ’20’s.
The present St. Olaf Band under the vital leadership of its talented director, Prof. Miles Johnson, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 1906 Norway Band Tour, made a distinguished concert tour of Norway in the summer of 1966, with outstanding artistic success.
And in January, ’67, another first was inaugurated, when the St. Olaf Orchestra made a tour to Norway for Interim study, under the able and gifted direction of its leader, Dr. Donald Berglund. A valuable and inspiring study of the musical scene in Norway was followed by a series of concerts, most enthusiastically received.
When the time came, as come it must, for the active work of Dr. Christiansen and Prof. Schmidt to come to a close, a most unusual circumstance presented itself in a “father-to-son” succession, with Olaf C. Christiansen as director of the Choir, and Frederick A. Schmidt as tour manager of the musical organizations. Well equipped for these important tasks they were — both by family background, tradition, training and talent. Worthy successors, they held the standards high.
Under Frederick’s management the Choir on its 1964 tour gave its New York concert in the new Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, and are scheduled there again for ’68. Also in the opening season of the new Music Hall in Los Angeles they “sang to a sold-out house.”
Dr. L. W. Boe said (in 1921):
“Student life at St. Olaf College is richer and deeper because of the singing of the Choir, and we are more than ever conscious of our spiritual ancestry and our common faith.”
John K. Sherman — (A History of the Arts in Minnesota — 1958):
“The St. Olaf influence . . . has had an overwhelming influence in the region and in the country at large. The son, Olaf, has carried on, with his own conscientious and cultivated musicianship, the high ideals and technical skill his father instilled.”
Winthrop Sargeant — (The New Yorker — 1964):
“The choir offered one of those comparatively infrequent opportunities to hear music performed in true pitch and with immaculate intonation. True pitch gives a glitter to the music in which it is used; a sort of heavenly purity of intonation in contrast to the blurring often heard in our concert halls. It appears in the work of very well-trained a cappella groups, like this one. It also appears intermittently in string-quartet playing, and in the playing of some symphony orchestra when they are presided over by extremely scrupulous conductors, like Toscanini and Pablo Casals. ”
Herm Sittard — (Minneapolis Star — 1964):
“Olaf Christiansen is not only a musician of impressive talents, but a forceful personality who sees his music as a missionary effort.”
Having been entrusted with a great spiritual heritage, may we carry it forward with high devotion. May the heart of the campus be filled with the spirit “singing and making melody to the Lord” — the “Beautiful Savior.”
It is my privilege and joy to commend to you this record of events that has gone into the establishment of a great music tradition at St. Olaf. — Ella Hjertaas Roe