Dr. F. Melius Christiansen A Brief Biography

Birth and Early Years

Frederick Melius Christiansen was born April 1, 1871, in a little settlement called Berger, a few miles from the town of Eidsvold, the cradle of Norway’s independence. He was baptized in the Lutheran Church in Eidsvold, the church in which the St. Olaf Choir years later sang one of its tour concerts under his direction. His parental grandfather, a smith and mechanic by trade, had built a home in the Berger settlement on a hill which came to be known as Smedhaugen (Smithhill). It was in this house that F. Melius was born. His father, Anders Christiansen, had married Oleana Jonsen, whose home was in the nearby settlement of Braaten, and Anders had made his home at Smedhaugen. He and his brothers were mechanics and were employed at various times in the factories of nearby towns.

In 1876 Anders moved with his family to Sarpsborg where he was employed as mechanic in the construction of a huge bridge. A year later he moved to Agnes, a small town situated on the Larvik Fjord, and still later across the fjord to the larger city of Larvik. Both the Jonsen and Christiansen families were interested in music, especially instrumental music and the boy F. Melius already in his third year was given a three-key clarinet which he soon learned to play. In all of the localities mentioned members of the family played in the local orchestras and bands, some of which the father directed. As a boy six years of age F. Melius marched as a member of his father’s band in the 17th of May parade in Agnes. He had great respect for his father and throughout his entire life was very grateful to him for the encouragement and help he had received from him to study music and learn to play first the clarinet, then the violin, and later the pipe organ.

One day here in Northfield, after he had retired from active work at St. Olaf College, Dr. Christiansen invited a group of twelve former St. Olaf Band members to dinner in the Stuart Hotel. When the group had been seated round the festive board, he gave a short talk in which he said, “Today, had he lived, my father would have been one hundred years old. I revere his memory and feel urged to give expression to my feelings of profound respect and gratitude for what he has meant to me, not only during the early years of my boyhood in Norway, but throughout my whole life. That is why I have asked you men to be with me on this occasion.”

It has been my privilege to meet Anders on each of the three tours to Norway. He was a grand old man, dignified and stately in appearance, whom I am very happy to have met. After our last meeting I received from him a round solid glass paper weight inside of which is a small bouquet of beautiful colored flowers. He had made this in the glass works for me and, needless to say, I prize this gift very, very highly.

Boyhood in Larvik

Melius was eight years old when his father moved from Agnes to Larvik. The next nine years in this beautiful coast city were very important formative years for the boy. He attended public school, getting very good grades in his studies, he was confirmed in the Lutheran Church, and he came in contact with a number of very able musicians who took special interest in him and started him on his life’s career.

One of these, Professor Oscar Hansen, was his instructor in piano and another, Professor Olsen, gave him his first violin lessons. Professor Hansen was the conductor of a fine orchestra in the city and the youthful F. Melius soon became a member and at times was called upon to play solo numbers at public appearances of the organization. Professor Hansen also gave the boy lessons in organ playing and in the course of time he became so proficient that when Mr. Hansen was obliged to be absent from the city for a while, the boy took his place in the large local Lutheran church and very ably played the music for the services. Although he made splendid progress in both piano and organ, he favored the violin and on this instrument became an artist of exceptional ability.

During these years in Larvik the young boy worked hard to help pay for his piano, organ, and violin lessons by copying music for Mr. Hansen and by giving piano and violin lessons to beginners. He was not very well satisfied with the arrangements he was able to make and came to the conclusion it would be difficult to make a satisfactory living there, since there already were such able music instructors in the city who could take care of all prospective needs. An uncle and a brother had gone to America some years before this, the former to Oakland, California, and the latter to Washburn, Wisconsin. More and more he considered the advisability of himself going to the new world too, where he thought more opportunities were available and good jobs more easily obtainable. In the spring of 1888, when he was seventeen years of age, he had fully made up his mind to seek a new life in America. It was not until fall, however, that he was ready to leave his native land.

A New Life in America

On his boat trip to America many strange incidents occurred, some of which caused him no little grief. The same was true of the long train ride from New York to Oakland, for he was unable to speak English and had difficulty in answering questions and in making his wishes known.

When he came to his uncle’s house, he very soon began looking for work. Surely there must be an opening for an organist in a city of so many churches. After days of walking from one church to another without success, he gave up and tried to find employment of some other kind. For a while he did office work for a Norwegian periodical but that kind of work was not at all to his liking. His money was just about gone when he received a letter from his brother Karl, containing sixty dollars and an invitation to come to Washburn. He gladly accepted this invitation and with his trunk and violin was soon on his way to the Middle West. His brother Karl was a mechanic by trade but continued his interest in music by serving as director of the local band.

The two year’s stay in Washburn was of value to F. Melius in more ways than one. With the help of his older brother he secured some profitable employment and during the school year made great progress learning to speak and write English. He also began to advertise in some of the Norwegian papers for a position as band director or instructor in piano and violin and received a number of favorable replies. One of these came from Marinette, Wisconsin, and led to his move to that city where he became the director of the city band, director of the church choir, and instructor in piano and violin.

In the summer of 1892 a male quartet from Augsburg College and Seminary in Minneapolis gave a concert in the church in Marinette. One of the men spoke briefly and made a plea for young men to enroll as students at Augsburg. F. Melius was favorably impressed and entered college in Minneapolis in September when he was twenty-one years old.

Minneapolis, 1892-1897

During his first year in Minneapolis he finished the prescribed freshman courses at Augsburg, directed a male chorus there and taught classes in choral singing. Then he entered the Northwestern Conservatory of Music where for two years he studied theory and counterpoint, graduating with highest honors. At various times he also directed a number of choruses in the city, one of which was “Nordlyset,” — and served as organist in several Lutheran churches. He also had quite a number of students to whom he gave private violin instruction. He was kept busy though his work was varied and scattered; he probably saved some money, however, for in July 1897 he returned to Marinette to marry a girl whom he had met there when he directed the church choir, Miss Edith Lindem. After the wedding, with his young wife he left America for a two years’ stay at the Conservatory in Leipzig, Germany.

The Years in Leipzig, Germany

Dr. Christiansen often told his friends that the years in Leipzig were two happy and consequential years. His brother Karl from Washburn had come with them from America and he too enrolled as a student in the conservatory. The three were fortunate in finding a pleasant and suitable apartment not far from the places where they probably would spend much of their time — the Royal Conservatory, the Gewandhaus where the important concerts were given, and the St. Thomas Church where in his day Johann Sebastian Bach had been choir director. F. Melius enrolled in a number of theory classes at the conservatory and studied violin with Hans Sitt, who was regarded in Germany as a violin virtuoso. Sitt is said to have remarked that he considered this young man from Minnesota one of his ablest students.

Perhaps the most important contact he made in Leipzig was with the director of the St. Thomas Church Choir, Gustav Schreck, who was his teacher at the conservatory in composition, counterpoint, and choir conducting. F. Melius also attended very regularly the rehearsals of the St. Thomas Choir and never missed one of their public concerts. There is no doubt that the association with Schreck and his choir was a real inspiration to him and had much to do with his success as choir director and composer in America.

Early in 1899 after receiving his diploma from the conservatory, he decided to return to America. The family now had increased, as a boy had been born in Leipzig. When they reached the Middle West, Mrs. Christiansen and baby Elmer went to Marinette, Wisconsin, to live for a while with her parents while F. Melius came to Minneapolis to seek employment and establish a suitable home.

In Minneapolis — 1899 to 1903

The employment he secured was of a varied nature. He joined the faculty of Northwestern Conservatory as teacher of violin, was organist in one of the Lutheran churches, and served as director of Kjerulf Male Chorus, a fine organization that gave a number of splendid concerts in the city. At times he was also called upon to conduct large choruses, one of which was a benefit concert in the Swedish Tabernacle. In its review of this concert, December 9, 1899, the Tribune had this to say regarding the chorus and its director: “The renditions by the chorus were something remarkable when it is known that Mr. Christiansen had welded the fragments from half a dozen singing societies into the harmonious whole which appeared that evening. There were no fragments then. It was an organization that stood on its merits.”

It should also be mentioned that he was quite often called upon to appear as violin soloist in concerts of different kinds. He worked hard and was willing to accept appointments provided there was some remuneration for himself as he was concerned about his earning enough to provide properly for his family.

It was the summer of 1903 that Mr. Christiansen decided to accept the call to come to St. Olaf College in Northfield as head of the music department. That story has been recorded in a previous chapter.

The Family

Seven children were born to Dr. and Mrs. Christiansen, three of whom died very young. Elmer was born in Leipzig, Germany, and lived to be only four years old when he died quite suddenly of spinal meningitis. Carl, born in Northfield, was severely injured in an automobile accident on his tenth birthday and lived only one day afterwards. Mrs. Christiansen was also severely burned in that accident and was hospitalized a long time.

Dr. Christiansen was not with Mrs. Christiansen when the accident occurred. He found it very hard to be reconciled to these tragic events. I was at that time on vacation in Northern Minnesota. President Boe wrote me asking me to come at once back to Northfield to be with Dr. Christiansen as much as possible as he needed the sympathy and encouragement of friends. I complied with this request and was with him much of the time for many days, both in Northfield and at the hospital in Minneapolis.

A girl, Tullah, born in Northfield, died in Northfield at the age of five years. Mrs. Christiansen passed away in May, 1949 Those living are Jacob, coach at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota; Olaf, who succeeded his father as director of the St. Olaf Choir and head of the music department at St. Olaf College; Paul, head of the music department at Concordia College and director of the Concordia choir; and Elsa, who married Kurt Wycisk, manager of the Concordia Choir.

Dr. Christiansen himself enjoyed good health until late in life and very seldom was absent from choir rehearsals or classes because of colds or other ailments. When he was well over seventy-five years old, it became evident that his health was no longer very good and he complained about a trouble that bothered him. One day he spoke to me more fully about this ailment and I suggested that he consult a good doctor at once. Early the next morning he called me by phone and asked me to take him to the clinic in Rochester, Minnesota as he had had a bad night. This I did and at his request remained with him during his examinations by the physicians. He later underwent an operation from which, I am glad to say, he made a splendid recovery.

In 1952, however, he suffered a stroke and for some years was in poor health, part of the time bedridden. Late in May 1955 he passed away, just before the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir under the direction of his son Olaf was to leave on a concert tour of European countries. The choir had already left Northfield to give the first concert of the tour in a nearby city, but returned to be present at the funeral service in the chapel of St. Olaf College on June 3. The choir sang “Asleep in Jesus” and Dr. Christiansen’s own immortal arrangement of “Beautiful Savior.”

Dr. Christiansen had been made Commander of the Order of St. Olaf by the King of Norway in 1928. Four institutions had conferred on him the honorary Doctor of Music degree: the University of Minnesota, Capital University, Oberlin, and Muhlenberg.

Some Personal Characteristics

Dr. Christiansen had few interests besides music. He was nevertheless a busy man whose accomplishments were unusually great. He did not play golf nor did he seem to be interested in other forms of physical exercise. During the day he was busy teaching classes at St. Olaf College in theory, counterpoint, and choir conducting; and if you paid him a visit at his home in the evening you would most likely find him at the piano with pencil in hand, either studying a new number for the choir or working on a new composition of his own.

During the summer vacations of his later years he conducted the “Christiansen Choral School” in several sections of the country; and although he had a fine summer home on Sister Bay in Wisconsin he was able to be there for rest and relaxation only a part of the vacation period.

As a choir conductor or teacher he was very strict and demanded from all his students hard work, punctuality and strict attention to the work in hand. He had an uncanny way of discovering the student who had not made sufficient preparation for rehearsal or class recitation and as a rule a few rather unpleasant moments then followed. This does not mean that he was a hard master. On the contrary, his students loved him and made every effort to do the work as he wished it done.
A description of Dr. Christiansen while conducting a rehearsal has been given by a visiting music critic as follows:

“A strikingly calm, cool exterior might easily mislead the careless observer into a belief that the celebrated Minnesota Kapellmeister is a musician of the purely scientific, intellectual variety.
“But a view of his face while he conducts a rehearsal, a glimpse of his eyes as he discusses some great composer, the tone of his voice as he expounds the great principles underlying his work, these tell the story of an ever-burning spiritual flame which now and again reaches white heat.”

No wonder the choir members held him in such high regard!

He conducted concerts with vigor, yet with a minimum of flourish. He was always dignified and composed and very modestly acknowledged applause. I know he often would have preferred no applause at all especially after the singing of such numbers as Bach’s Jesus, Priceless Treasure or his own arrangement of the hymn O Sacred Head Now Wounded. Hundreds of music critics in their reviews have not only commented on the “flawless” singing of the choir and the endless amount of work the director must have done to make it possible for his singers to reach such “perfection,” but they also invariably praised in highest terms his refined and forceful conducting which added so much to the presentation of the concert.

After every concert there always were crowds of people who wished to shake his hand, ask questions, and engage him in conversation. Not infrequently he slipped away unobserved through some rear door and hurried to his hotel and to bed.

In his general conversation with people Dr. Christiansen was often inclined to be argumentative. He seemed to enjoy taking “the other side.” I remember several occasions when he engaged in argumentative conversation and perhaps gave the impression that the statements he made were really his belief. He once asked a pastor of the Missouri Synod in whose home we were to stay for the night just what the doctrine of his synod was on a certain matter. Dr. Christiansen of course gave other views, although I suspect the synod pastor never did realize he was doing so just for the sake of argument. Sometimes he engaged members of the choir in conversation while we were having a long train ride. He would ask a boy what he intended to do after he finished college. The boy would tell him he planned to take up law, or medicine, or theology. Dr. Christiansen would then question the advisability of his doing so. His purpose, I believe, always was the same: to make a person give valid reasons for a statement or belief or decision.

No doubt there are many who found Dr. Christiansen to be a poor correspondent. Many letters remained unanswered for months or were never answered at all. He would put the mail in his desk drawer and forget about it until the drawer became so full it had to be attended to. Then he would sort out the letters and those that related to the choir or prospective concerts, he would turn over to me. Many of these were as much as four months old and I would often have quite a time of it giving a satisfactory reply. Letters which he did write were usually very interesting and characteristic. This was also true of his public talks; for he was frequently called upon to speak at various functions. He was very original in what he wrote or said, and whenever he spoke in public he usually tried to put across some worthwhile thought or idea with emphasis and accentuation.

His originality was also frequently noted in characteristic statements he would make during choir rehearsals or while examining students for admission to membership in the choir. Hundreds would try for admission but only a few would be accepted. To those who had to be told they had not succeeded, he usually had an original way of doing it.

A gentleman who tried out for the choir when he was a student at St. Olaf years ago, recently gave this version of the experience he had: Dr. Christiansen asked him if he was anxious to get into the choir. Of course he said, “Yes.” Did he really have great respect and admiration for the choir? Again his answer was, “Yes, certainly.” Then, Dr. Christiansen said, “Will you please apply for membership in the band.” This was a polite way of telling him he could not join the choir. Similar experiences are told by many former students and choir members as one meets them in various parts of the country.

Through his work as composer, too, he has exerted a profound influence on church and school choirs. Many of his compositions and arrangements are sung by choirs everywhere: Beautiful Savior; Praise to the Lord, Wake, Awake; Hosanna; Lost in the Night; Lullaby on Christmas Eve are just a few of the best known.

He began composing as a boy in Larvik, but by far the greatest number of arrangements and compositions date from his best years at St. Olaf College, 1912 to 1940. These include six or seven volumes of Song Service, a number of volumes of Easy Lyric Songs and the well-known St. Olaf Choir Series, all of which have been published by Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis. Some of his latest compositions have been published by the Neil Kjos Music Co. of Chicago. A cantata, Wondrous Things the Lord Hath Done, words by President J. N. Kildahl, was written by Dr. Christiansen on the occasion of the church merger in 1917.

The influence this quiet and unassuming teacher, director, and composer has exerted principally in the field of sacred choral music is indeed far-reaching and can not be overestimated. Hundreds of young men and women have been so inspired by him that after graduation they have accepted positions in schools and churches in various parts of the country where they now are themselves conducting choirs. Some are writing original choral compositions of high merit.

Not only through his former students, however, has his influence been spread abroad. Many a choir leader — not a former student — has found in Dr. Christiansen an able counselor and inspiring friend. Commendable choirs that point to the St. Olaf Choir as their model and inspiration may now be heard in all parts of the land. Without question, it was through this choir that his influence was most keenly felt.

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