A Notable Achievement

One of the most unusual accomplishments of the St. Olaf Choir is written in the reviews received wherever they have sung. These reviews are a glowing tribute to the Director,

1913
J. HAARKLOU
Oslo, Norway
“The St. Olaf Lutheran Choir came, sang and conquered . . . . Let it be said at once that in all Norway there is no mixed chorus that can in any way compete with this choir from Minnesota.”
1924
HERMAN DEVRIES
Chicago American
“One has only to enumerate the qualities that make a perfect choral body and name them the St. Olaf Choristers.”
1925
MISS BIERMANN
San Diego Union
“Never has there been a chorus heard in this city like the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir.”
1925
EDWIN STRINGHAM
Denver Times 
“Denver is richer for the coming of this choir.”
1927
LAWRENCE MASON
Toronto, Canada,
Globe
“It may as well be said at once that this concert afforded the most original, most intelligent, most artistic and most beautiful choral work of this type ever heard by the present
writer. It was simple perfection commanding tears of ecstasy at will in the utterly enthralled hearer.”
1930
ASSAR OLSON ASSAR
Director of Music,
Lund, Sweden
“There is no question but that in the matter of technique of singing, discipline and tonal beauty, this choir is the best that can be found on either side of the Atlantic.”
1944
The Christian Century
“When the St. Olaf Choir had finished its last lovely note, it would have taken only a move of the hand to brush the Veil of temporality aside and admit that huge scarcely breathing audience into the presence of the choir eternal. . . . On this Sunday evening the harmonies of heaven broke through in a transcendent revelation of beauty.”
1948 — Washington, D.C.,
Times-Herald
“St. Olaf Lutheran Choir, oldest and most distinguished of this country’s specialists in unaccompanied choral art, came to
Constitution Hall last night to set new standards in their department of the art, even for themselves. . . That means that the season’s greatest choral art has been presented; for there is no group, large or small, amateur or professional, in the East or the Midwest, that can equal these young choristers from Northfield,
Minnesota. “

 

Seldom does one hear such perfect purity of choral tone, such faultless technique and such thorough mastery of details of rendition.

— Deutsche Tageszeitung, Berlin, August 19, 1930.

* * *

That was a great surprise! One can not imagine anything more beautiful in the realm of choral singing. The voices are carefully selected and wonderfully trained. The various parts grow together into a unity as sensitive to the slightest impulses of the director as a perfectly controlled instrument.

— CARL KREBS, Der Tag, Berlin, August 19, 1930.

* * *

Although it had been rumored that the St. Olaf Choir surpassed all expectations at its first concerts in Southern Germany, we nevertheless, awaited its appearance here in Leipzig with some skepticism. It had been announced that this choir had transplanted the traditions of the St. Thomas Choir to the United States as the director, Dr. F. Melius Christiansen, received his musical education in Leipzig, and was a pupil of Cantor Gustav Schreck. Usually such transplantations do not progress much beyond the stage of awkward imitations. So much the more, therefore, did the offerings of this choir surprise us. It has at its disposal voices such as one seldom hears. Its training is wonderful and discipline remarkable and this makes it possible for the director to call forth tonalities from the most delicate pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo. Their concert was for me a profound and never-to-be-forgotten experience.

— Sp. in The Leipziger Zeitung, August 19, 1930.

* * *

A famous choral society, the St. Olaf Choir from Northfield, Minnesota, has embarked on an artist tour of Europe. Composed of singers with a Norse and German lineage, it has carried on the artistic traditions of its old world origin and has crossed the ocean to take part, by invitation, in the jubilee celebration at Trondhjem. In Germany it has already appeared in Augsburg on the occasion of the Augustana Celebration and has now given us, at its concert in the cathedral, a proof of its artistic high level, which is as surprising as it is pleasing to the lover of great art.

This chorus of sixty voices has gained an amazing purity of voice production and mobility of technique. Such clarity in full chorus, such perfection in the mechanics of singing, such fine elaboration of detail in interpretation are very rarely heard anywhere.

The program, which began with an elaborate Bach Motette and which combined compositions of ponderous polyphony with others in simple folk song style, gave rich opportunities to display the intelligence and taste of the chorus. The credit for the high development of the choir belongs to the director, F. Melius Christiansen, who leads his singers with restraint and dignity. There is a tendency toward vigorous rhythmic emphasis in his directing, but the final impression rests more on the highly developed sense of tone color and tone warmth. Only in occasional passages does the virtuoso effect predominate, an occurrence which, however, in no wise diminishes the artistic value of the performance.

— PROF. DR. HERMAN SPRINGER, in Deutsche Tageszeitung, Berlin.

* * *

The difficulties of these, the most beautiful of the motets of Bach, were overcome with ease. The splendor of the selected voices was here clearly manifest, as was also the marvelous training and discipline of the choir. We call special attention to the consummate ease with which the Soprano sections measured up to all requirements and to the marvelous fullness, richness and depth of the basses.

— Eisenach Zeitung, Aug. 15, 1930.

* * *

I confess, that I have never before heard any chorus from the New World with such a beautifully developed and exquisite vocal technique and tonal art as this chorus. The voices are handled as the instruments of a first class string orchestra. The trainer and director, F. Melius Christiansen, must be an exceedingly clever person. He does not only control his forces as a highly trained musician, but is also evidently a voice physiologist, who gains from his ensemble the final possibilities of technical achievement. The sustained and soaring harmonies; the accurate attack, the full bodied unison involuntarily recall orchestral effects. Astonishing also is the unusually developed art of breath control; upon which the whole artistic delivery is built up.

— HANS PASCHE in Single, Berlin, August 20, 1930.

* * *

The visit of this famous American choir, whose origin and organization in many ways forms a parallel to our Thomaner Choir, was looked forward to with high expectations. The Director of the choir, Dr. Melius Christiansen, was at one time a pupil of the Leipzig Conservatory and the personal scholar of the late Thomas Cantor Gustav Schreck. These years of study in Leipzig and the artistic impression gathered at that time were the original impulses which led to the founding in the New World of a choir on the pattern of the Thomaner Choir. The personnel of the choir (32 women, 28 men) and its inner organization show several resemblances between the two choirs.

The program presented by our American guests filled us with high admiration and gave evidence of an artistic training and a choral discipline, which evoked the highest possible results from a wealth of splendid voice material. An intoxicating flood of sound in forte, astonishing graduations in crescendos and diminuendos, far away effects reminding of an echo organ, amazing rhythmical and dynamic flexibility, instrumental tone, color effects which approach the limits of the possibilities of the human voice — all these are achievements of this choir, which ranks with the best we have ever heard in vocal art. This marvelous choral instrument is played with a dazzling virtuosity.

The director, F. Melius Christiansen, is a choir leader and disciplinarian of the first rank, who plays on his choral instrument as a master on the organ; his singers follow him without any accompaniment or written music and with the greatest possible accuracy and assurance. This was a most illuminating and inspiring concert, which did not only testify to a choral training of the highest order; but also proved that a cappella singing is steadily winning a prominent place in the musical activities of the New World.

— DR. WILHELM JUNG, of the Leipzig Conservatory, written for Kirchenchor, No. 9, 1930.

* * *

The choir which consists of 32 women and 28 men is fully worthy of the great reputation which is claimed for it. Its offerings are marvelous. Its choral discipline can not be excelled. Seldom does one hear such exact and pure intonation. The dynamics of the choir and its polyphonic clarity have reached the point of virtuosity. What they do seems almost incomprehensible.

— C. W. in Süddeutsche Zeitung, Aug. 12, 1930.

* * *

From there on the program steadily takes on new beauties. The Hymn by Francesco Durante with the finest possible gradation in forte and piano, “The Liszt Benedictus,” so like parts of Parzifal, with most unusual tonal contrasts between the open voweled solo parts and the darker colored tutti; the majestic choral of Hassler, the half popular, half virtuoso song of greeting by the director himself; the charming religious folk song from Finland, the “Wake Awake” motet by Nikolai with its baroque outburst of triumphal joy — through all of these we gain an impression of a cappella singing of such purity and beauty, as we have possibly never heard before. All the voices are of the highest purity and smoothness, the sustained chords have a primitive magic, the pianos die away like a breath, the fortes burst on one in glowing splendor. There are organ-like effects, which even surpass the possibilities of that instrument, and even the notoriously bad acoustics of the Cathedral are unable to dim the brilliance of the performance.

This time, at least, has found a Berlin audience prepared for something unusual, for the great building was filled to its extreme capacity by a breathless throng of listeners.

— Berliner Tageblatt, Aug. 19, 1930.

* * *

“Like organ tone and peal of bells” — this quotation comes to mind when one listens to the first tones of this chorus. One might approach even closer to a characterization of the effects produced by these singers in calling them a “choral orchestra.” In so far as it is possible to bring these two forms of musical art into contact and comparison with each other, it has been accomplished in this instance. The long-drawn pianissimo harmonies, held with marvelous breath control, gave something of the effect of muted horns and trumpets; the rich tone of violas, cellos and contrabasses were wonderfully imitated. In contrast there stood out the amazing and effortless flexibility and mobility of the voices, which would not at all be surpassed by the normal superiority of the instrumental counterpart.

The splendor of the full chorus did not obliterate the beauty of the individual voices. Almost without any effort one could hear, by virtue of the skillful balancing of the parts, how each held its own, and how the various voices carried their parts without blurring the web of the composition as a whole.

Is this the highest possible development of mechanical virtuosity, which has been carried to the borderlands of the possible by the most intense and unsparing training? Yes! But this is a virtuosity, which in great effects as well as in small detail serves the artistic interpretation, without ever becoming an aim in itself or seeking theatrical effects.
What lies behind such an amazing performance? A high stage of musical genius, painstaking drill and practice; a deep seriousness of purpose on the part of leader and director. In this choir it is evident that every member has had the most careful musical schooling. This appears not only in the ease and surety of voice management but even more in the absolute reliability of the chief musical organ; that of the educated ear. Not the least pleasure in listening comes from the fact that each singer has such a fine sense of pitch that attacks and transitions are absolutely pure and accurate.

These characteristics of the choir are in the final analysis dependent on the personality of the director. The results attained point to a quite unusual musical endowment and a tonal genius in Dr. F. M. Christiansen, whose thorough preparation under the late Gustav Schreck at the Leipzig Conservatory has given this native genius its highly perfected form. The whole personality of this talented director is most sympathetic and attractive. The restraint and dignity of his manner of directing, which scorns any theatrical effects, but which can inspire his singer to the highest achievements with the simplest means, gives evidence of the immense power of this gifted artist. The two soloists of the choir (soprano and tenor) were also artists of distinction.

The visit of these American guests was undoubtedly an uncommon experience for our city. Our satisfaction was at least shown in the very large attendance at the concert.

— WALTER KRIEGER, Naumburg, Germany.

* * *

We in Berlin are undoubtedly accustomed to a very high standard in regard to choral singing, but the impression made by this choir, which could as well be called German as American, exceeded all expectations. The first surprise was the glorious vocal resources of the group, in which soft and soaring Sopranos contrasted with fundamentally deep Basses and dark colored Altos joined with warm and glowing Tenors. Joined to this there was revealed an artistic schooling such as is to be found only in choral societies of the very highest type. The union of these excellencies of material and technique is the rare and striking quality which makes the St. Olaf Choir an outstanding organization. One must revert to the unforgettable performances of the Sistine Singers from Rome before finding an adequate parallel to the performance in the Dom.

The program gave evidence of the wide interests and the uncommon skill of this chorus. It brought a Motette for double chorus by Bach “Sing unto the Lord,” which was given with astonishing virtuosity, although the purity of the harmonies was somewhat clouded by the poor acoustical qualities of the Dom, which is poorly suited to florid passage work. The very spirit of classical church music was evoked in works by Durante, Hassler and Nikolai, but there was also a dash of the modem in an exquisite “Angels’ Song” by Glinka and a Norwegian festal hymn from the pen of the director, F. Melius Christiansen. This excellent musician, who has made his choir an instrument of organ-like power and beauty, deserves to be hailed as a chorus director of supreme ability and as an artist who has the keenest understanding of the possibilities of church music.

The Dom, filled by an hushed and entranced audience, was on this occasion the scene of an unusual and unforgettable musical experience.

— SCHIEPE in Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Berlin, August 19, 1930.

* * *

The concert given in the cathedral here proved that all the laudatory comments which we had read about this choir had not been too enthusiastic. Absolute faithfulness to the work in hand which nowhere loses itself in ingenious, artificial interpretations, goes hand in hand with highest exactness, rhythmic precision, and wonderfully harmonious purity of tone. Instrumental effects are produced which remind one of the tones of an organ.

— Berliner Börsen Zeitung, Aug. 20, 1930.

* * *

Critics have expressed themselves in terms of highest praise for the performances of this choir; nor have they said too much. One will seldom hear such perfection of musical tone and technique. . . The choir retains its purity in the most difficult renderings. Breath control, phrasing, dynamics, all are equally marvelous. In short, here is a cappella choir singing to perfection.

— Schwabicher Merkur, Stuttgart, Aug. 13, 1930.

* * *

The absolute certainty and purity with which the entire chorus begins without having been given the pitch and then, as one man, strikes the right note, is most marvelous and can be explained only by the presence of an extraordinarily finely developed sense of hearing and by incessant rehearsing and practicing together. The same is true also of their perfect harmony, exact rhythm, balance of tone and dynamics, all of which make it possible to produce instrumental effects, like those of a giant organ upon which the director plays with virtuoso mastery.

— E.F., Eisenach Tagepost, Aug. 16, 1930.

My Years at St. Olaf

Chapters:

Foreword
Early Family History
My Years at St. Olaf’s School
Interim Days at the University of Minnesota
Teaching and Administrative Assignments at St. Olaf College
New Interest in Music at St. Olaf
The 1906 Band Tour to Norway
Band Trips — 1907 on…
The Founding of the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir Tours of 1912 and 1913
The First Choir Tour to Metropolitan Centers in America
The 1930 European Tour
Some Interesting Experiences
Other College Interests
The Choir Workshop
Dr. F. Melius Christiansen, A Brief Biography
A Notable Achievement